State­side rugby is far bet­ter than in my day

Falcons and Sara­cens will help sport’s rapid progress in the US with their Philadel­phia game

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby Union - AUSTIN HEALEY

New­cas­tle Falcons and Sara­cens have crossed the pond this week to take their Aviva Pre­mier­ship fix­ture to Philadel­phia, which is a move that I sup­port. Rugby is a rapidly ex­pand­ing sport in the United States, par­tic­u­larly in the Ivy League. The big uni­ver­si­ties such as Har­vard and Columbia are re­ally tak­ing to it, while the US team are do­ing rel­a­tively well in the HSBC Sev­ens World Se­ries.

NBC Sports has now picked up the tele­vi­sion rights to the Aviva Pre­mier­ship, with for­mer Eng­land prop Alex Cor­bisiero head­ing its cov­er­age and lead­ing the charge.

Truth­fully, the sport in the US has come a long way. I first played there with Or­rell in 1995 and we won all our games with ease, apart from one against the Amer­i­can cham­pi­ons, OMBAC (Old Mis­sion Beach Ath­letic Club) in Los An­ge­les.

The one thing the US does not lack for is sport­ing fa­cil­i­ties and we played in an in­cred­i­ble sta­dium. It was like the Colos­seum. How­ever, when we ar­rived about an hour and a half be­fore kick-off, there were no mark­ings on the pitch and no posts. They were very lais­sez­faire about it and as­sured us the pitch would be set up.

In the end, they marked out the lines, put up the posts, and the cor­ner flag was about six inches from a con­crete wall. That was my in­tro­duc­tion to rugby over there and it was a great ex­pe­ri­ence. They love the sport and em­brace the so­cial side of it.

Now it is more pro­fes­sional, with at­tempts to start a pro­fes­sional league, first with PRO Rugby and now with Ma­jor League Rugby. I hope it grows, and tak­ing the Pre­mier­ship there should be en­ter­tain­ing, par­tic­u­larly with the way Sara­cens and New­cas­tle are play­ing.

Ex­pec­ta­tions are high for a good crowd to­mor­row, which is tough to achieve with­out that many lo­cal sup­port­ers, al­though peo­ple there will watch it, given that it is live sport on a Satur­day in Amer­ica. There was a rea­son­able crowd last year in New Jer­sey and I hope the same ap­plies in Philadel­phia.

Quite how long it will take for rugby to truly break through is hard to say, but it is worth the ef­fort to take Pre­mier­ship matches over there in the short term just to im­prove view­ing fig­ures and even­tu­ally build mo­men­tum, so more peo­ple want to play.

A suc­cess­ful pro­fes­sional league in the US could also lead to Pre­mier­ship play­ers fin­ish­ing off their ca­reers there, as they can do now in France or Ja­pan, and there would be no lan­guage bar­rier. We have seen a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion with Ma­jor League Soc­cer, where they are now get­ting big crowds.

Sara­cens em­brace the oc­ca­sion when they head across the At­lantic, but New­cas­tle are the “home” side and will ap­proach it with the same free­dom as if they were at Kingston Park, which means we could see them throw the ball around a fair bit.

Three of Sara­cens’ Bri­tish and Ir­ish Li­ons play­ers came off the bench at Bath last Satur­day as Mark Mc­call sen­si­bly eased them back into ac­tion.

Peo­ple of­ten men­tion the dreaded Li­ons “hang­over” but it de­pends how the tour went for you in terms of min­utes on the pitch. And with some­one like Owen Far­rell, I do not think it mat­ters. He is just a rugby-play­ing ma­chine.

Turn­ing to New­cas­tle, the Falcons have had their best start of the sea­son for some time by win­ning against Worces­ter and Sale. I think it could be a very good year for them.

The in­ter­est­ing de­vel­op­ment at New­cas­tle has been mak­ing Dave Walder the new head coach. Dean Richards, the di­rec­tor of rugby, and as­sis­tant coach John Wells are thick as thieves and it is very dif­fi­cult to break into their cir­cle of trust, even if you are win­ning tro­phies for them. They are still sus­pi­cious of you.

The fact that Walder has taken over shows they are ready to move on and make ad­vances. Richards and Wells have given New­cas­tle a sta­ble style of play, which has kept them up in the Pre­mier­ship with­out them be­ing the most en­ter­tain­ing side or bring­ing in the crowds.

Now they have recog­nised that they have a bet­ter squad and can start to broaden their hori­zons. Walder’s ap­point­ment proves that he must be a very good coach. Those two do not suf­fer fools gladly.

You would ex­pect New­cas­tle to go on a de­cent run now, es­pe­cially if they knock off Sara­cens, which ad­mit­tedly is a big ask.

Do that and peo­ple might start say­ing they are a top-four side this sea­son.

One game does not de­fine your cam­paign, but it can cer­tainly help in map­ping out where you think you are headed.

Austin Healey is a proud am­bas­sador of Jeep Grand Chero­kee

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