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
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 www.jeep.co.uk