Denver test could be rocky mountain high
Americans might well be colour confused by the Kiwis when they come to town
THE Denver test match between New Zealand and England will be a success if Americans buy tickets, assuming the Kiwis are the All Blacks.
The All Blacks are the best known ‘‘rugby’’ brand in America, where people, like some Melburnians, don’t know there are two codes.
It doesn’t matter that the most successful rugby league country in the world – Australia – is not represented in Denver because many living in middle America don’t know where Australia is.
Nearly 40 years ago, I made my first coaching visit to the US. In a Pittsburgh bar, an American asked me where I was from. When I told him Australia, he said, ‘‘Ain’t that the place where they made The Sound of Music?’’ He was thinking of Austria.
In Chicago, I was greeted at the airport by a representative of Sunbeam, the parent company of Victa who sponsored Wests, whom I coached.
The excited executive told me the Chicago rugby union was having its AGMthat evening and he had volunteered me as a guest speaker. When I arrived, the hotel ballroom was packed with rah rahs. Do I reveal I’m a leaguie or do I wing it?
As I was inwardly debating this, a gnarled old English frontrower, who was captain-coach of a local team, came forward, recognising me and sensing my dilemma, and told me to wing it.
‘‘They won’t know the difference,’’ he said.
And they still don’t, meaning the Denver test can piggyback off rugby union, not that the 15-a-side sport has made spectacular progress in a country with access to top athletes.
There is no equivalent in the US to the club-based community competitions in the four football codes we have throughout Australia. There is only a one in 1000 chance a high school American football player will make it to the NFL, meaning that unless he plays in college, he is destined to play tag football in the park from age 18.
Similarly, college graduates not selected in the NFL draft are finished on the gridiron field at age 22.
There are 400,000 rugby union players in the US but the American Eagles have won only three games from 25 at seven World Cups.
Rugby league tried to gain a footprint in the US in 1987 when a State of Origin match was played at Long Beach on the west coast.
The following year, former Wallaby John Lambie and I explored options to play the game in Californian universities and, finally, in 1996, NSWRL officials Paul Broughton and Peter Corcoran arranged for a match at San Luis Obispo University, California.
‘‘We ran a day-long knockout competition on the university oval to showcase rugby league,’’ Corcoran said. ‘‘It was a very successful day.’’
But, as Broughton says: ‘‘It was 1996 and in the middle of the Super League war and all ARL funds had to be used to sign players, so there was nothing left to further the American experiment.’’
The pair met another obstacle when Lambie, who had joined them, booked the trio into a motel.
The owner persisted in greeting them in the morning with, ‘‘Is the weather OK?’’, prompting Corcoran to ask Lambie what the continuing references to the weather meant?
Lambie explained that the motel would not accept ‘‘rugby’’ guests because an earlier team had trashed the place and so he had to book them in as a ‘‘ballooning team’’.
Corcoran quips that plenty of hot air has been expended since, yet there has been no further development of rugby league on the west coast. The American east coast is a different matter.
Peter Illfield, who played 11 seasons with the Maitland Pumpkin Pickers and later worked as an ARL development officer in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, moved to Philadelphia in 2006, played with the Fight rugby league club and later became chairman of the club, one of 14 that grew out of rugby union clubs.
He is now chairman of the US Association of Rugby League Inc, which gained membership of the European Federation and therefore affiliation with the international body running the Denver test. He proudly points out that 12 of the 23 players who represented the US at last year’s league World Cup were locally based players.
Broughton points out America’s NFL and Australia’s NRL evolved from rugby union but league has the greater similarity with the US game.
‘‘Picture a halfback kicking the ball to the in-goal and his winger taking it in the air for a try,’’ Broughton said. ‘‘Now picture the quarterback throwing the ball to a wide receiver for a touchdown. The difference? We use the foot and they use the arm.’’