Den­ver test could be rocky moun­tain high

Amer­i­cans might well be colour con­fused by the Ki­wis when they come to town

Sunday News - - LEAGUE -

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.’’

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