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Premiership Rugby heads for new territory in aim to break America

Rolling out the big guns: Maro Itoje is primed to play on American soil for the first time Rugby World

Newcastle will host Saracens in Philadelphia this evening as Premiership rugby aims to gain more marketshare in the USA


By Graham Jenkins

“Some days I feel like I am still playing!” jokes USA Rugby chief executive Dan Payne as he reflects on what has been a testing tenure.

The former Eagles international has certainly weathered some significant hits since taking charge last year including the bankruptcy of kit supplier BLK and the apparent fracturing of the relationship with PRO Rugby and the subsequent derailing of the fledgling professional league.

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But Payne remains positive as the union embarks on arguably the most important 12 months in its 42-year history, a pivotal period that kicks off with Premiership Rugby’s latest venture into the USA and ends with the eagerly-anticipated staging of the Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament in San Francisco.

So what does USA Rugby get from the Newcastle Falcons’ clash with Saracens in Philadelphia (Saturday, BT Sport 3, 9pm)?

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“It brings elite rugby to the United States and it’s a win-win situation I think,” said Payne. “Premiership Rugby gets the opportunity to showcase their league and look into a market that they are obviously intrigued by while a game of that standard also leaves a large footprint in terms of intellectual property and not just on the rugby side but on the rugby business side with the executives who will be coming too, it’s just immense.

“We need to partner with third party entities as we try to grow the game as we don’t have the resources within our union to execute everything we need to and take on the associated risk of bringing in these opportunities. As we say here in the States, if we don’t ht the ball out of the park and make good contact, we don’t have the margins for error.

“So to have that calibre of player, coaching, administrators come to our country is great, the intellectual property that they leave and sprinkle around the week that they spend here is invaluable and that is where we benefit.”

 Premiership Rugby are not the only ones interested in breaking new ground with the PRO14 intent on continuing their expansion plan with a US-based side and Payne is flattered by the attention.

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When you have 300m people in your country, you can probably insert an interest from any worldwide market or product, if it isn’t in the States how could it benefit from being in the States?

“I think as time passes and our markets continue to grow, there will continue to be opportunities that will fuel growth and awareness of the game.

“It is flattering, every league is in a business, they are looking to see what they can do and how best they can expand their horizons and we are respectful and appreciative of that.”

That attention is set to intensify next year when the leading protagonists of the shortened version of the game descend on San Francisco for the Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament.

Payne is well aware that it is a great promotional tool that can fuel the development of the entire game in the US.

“It is massive,” he said. “We’ve got almost 60,000 tickets sold for the three-day event and my goal is next July, at the end of the World Cup, the performances will be what they will be, but to be able to say we put 100,000 people through the turnstiles at the World Cup Sevens over a three-day event in the United States will be a nice quote, if you can use the 100,000 fans milestone as a lead in it pulls a lot of weight.”

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“I think San Francisco is also such an amazing market for us, both internationally and domestically. You are 15 minutes from the Pacific Ocean, you are 90 minutes from Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, the best wine country in the United States, you are two hours from Lake Tahoe, two hours from Pebble Beach, the world famous golf course, then you also have the Golden Gate Bridge and everything else that San Francisco offers.

“To be able to attach that to rugby is something that we are going to put a lot of resources behind and use to drive the game forward here.”

It makes sense that a successful staging of the tournament would lead to a bid to host the Rugby World Cup but Payne is not letting his excitement get the better of him.

“We don’t want to get out in front of ourselves, we have to be able to walk before can run, before we can even think about doing anything at the next level,” he insisted.

First time round: Saracens played London Irish in 2015 in New Jersey Rugby World

“You are right, you want to be able to show that you can put on a successful World Cup and carry out all the logistics and different aspects to it. We want to prove it to ourselves as much as we want to prove it to World Rugby, we want to learn from it.

“We need to back that up with successful events throughout our country, consistently, and to do that, a lot of things we don’t have in the US people wouldn’t think of – it’s hard to even find camera operators who understand the game and are able to keep the ball in the frame.”

A more significant step in the development of the game Stateside would be a strong and commercially viable domestic league.

Last year PRO Rugby appeared to have cracked it but they have yet to return for a second season amid reports of a complete breakdown of their partnership with USA Rugby.

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Next year, Major League Rugby hopes to fill the void although Payne would not be drawn on that specific issue.

“I think you have to have a strong domestic competition to grow, it is imperative,” he said. “We need strong competitions at the top level to prepare all of our players and to continue to turn fans onto the game.

“Everybody understands at every level, as you look to a higher level of expertise in any sport, there is an allure and appreciation of that level of athleticism and competence. It is crucial that we continue to drive the elite side of rugby in America with the highest quality of domestic competition we can.

“We have 3200 miles from east to west coast and 2000 miles from north to south, it’s a very large country and a lot of people in different markets that can benefit in a lot of different ways.

“I often say to people, it is rugby in America, there are no buses! To go from one competition to another it is a plane ride usually and that gets quite costly so we have to look at ways to have competitions that may benefit from close proximity to one another as well.”

Battlers: USA in action at the 2015 World Cup. They stand at No 17 in the World Rankings Rugby World

Such a domestic development would take them a step closer to greater control of their leading players who currently ply their trade around the world but Payne insists one does not just follow the other.

“Our domestic competition is a good bit away from being able to offer the salaries that some of the top pros in Europe are making so it would be hard to bring them home in the short term.

“We understand that a lot of our players will get opportunities to play abroad and sometimes they are consistently on the rosters of those teams but sometimes they are there for cover during the international windows.

“So we have to strike a delicate balance, understanding that it is their livelihood and not pull them away during the international window. We have to pick and choose, work with the players and the teams out of respect as we want our players to have those opportunities.”

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Despite those restrictions and the impact on Eagles selection, Payne refuses to point the finger at World Rugby.

“We would not be able to compete or do 75% of things we do, at least on the men’s side of things, without World Rugby’s support.

“I think World Rugby does what is can do throughout the world, they have an obligation to grow the game and support countries but it is also up to those countries to continue to invest and grow and push things through in their own landscape and that takes time.

“I am thankful for all the support we get from World Rugby to grow the game here because without it we would not be able to make the ground and the progress that we have made.”

Strong arm: Dan Payne is tackled by Schalk Burger during the 2015 World Cup Rugby World

Payne is also proud of his own progress is determined to continue his development alongside that of American rugby in general.

Since I finished playing I have had a great set of new challenges and chapters in my life, I think that when your body is done trying to compete physically you still have that internal drive to wake up and achieve and continue to challenge yourself and get better, grow and learn.

“The last 10, 11, 12 years since I stopped playing, I have had some amazing opportunities to learn and grow and that is all I can ask for especially this last 14 months.”

Watch Newcastle Falcons v Saracens live from Philadelphia on Saturday 16th September on BT Sport 3 from 9pm. For more info go to bt.com/sport

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