Are the IRFU moving into an untapped American market?

Newstalk.com speaks to former Leinster player and Dartmouth Rugby head coach Gavin Hickie about colleges rugby in the US and the perception of the sport Stateside

US Rugby, Maori All Blacks

Image: Kamil Krzaczynski AP/Press Association Images

This week, the IRFU announced that it would be forming a partnership with US college Notre Dame, an agreement which they hope will further expand the reach of the sport across the Atlantic Ocean.

"We look forward to playing a full part in helping develop the strength of Notre Dame rugby and the culture of the sport at the University," said IRFU President Stephen Hilditch. "We are convinced that will, in turn, help drive the popularity of the sport throughout and beyond the collegiate system in a nation which continues to demonstrate its interest in rugby."

Under the agreement, the two bodies will share facilities and expertise which will further aid player development, coaching, sports medicine and psychology.

But just how prevalent has rugby become in the States and have the Irish become one of the first to move into a relatively untapped market?

"We have to know our place within the American psyche in terms of sport," Gavin Hickie, head coach of Dartmouth College Rugby, tells Newstalk.com. "Americans don’t see a whole lot further than American football, baseball, basketball and one or two other sports.

"We have to accept that and we have to know our place and take what we can get at the moment. But to sell out Soldier Field twice - USA v New Zealand two years ago and Ireland v New Zealand a couple of weeks ago - and in a football town, where the Cubs have just won the World Series I don’t think rugby is overshadowed."

Hickie, who made 43 appearances for Leinster between 2001 and 2005, is now a highly respected rugby coach and analyst in the United States and reckons that the partnership will only benefit the growth of the sport.

"I’ve been here eight years now and in my time it’s got a very different complexion. There's still a long, long way to go but slowly but surely rugby is creeping into the minds of the general public.

"The Olympics this year would have helped considerably, albeit a sevens version of the game. But I mean walking around Chicago was one of the most amazing weekends I think a rugby fan has ever had.

"Obviously the Chicago Cubs ended their 108 year wait for the World Series came to an end so the celebrations were palpable all around the city. There was a parade on Friday so the atmosphere in the city was great already.

"Then the general public saw all these people walking around in green jerseys and black jerseys, they took a genuine interest into what was going on. By the end of the weekend I’m pretty sure everyone in Chicago knew that there was one of the best international rugby games going in the city."

The city watched on as the Irish rugby team recorded perhaps their most famous victory of all time over New Zealand and captured the interest of the local media.

Hickie explains that the growing draw toward the sport is the dexterity of the players to play in a number of different positions.

"In most American sports, you’ve got a specific skill per position. You’ve got American football, baseball, soccer is obviously different as well and that’s growing massively here as well.

"The draw I think is that you can play something like American football, a contact game, and you can do everything. Run, kick, pass, tackle and it’s also very quick.

"But we still have a long, long way to go. It’s only now that we’re starting to see more and more high school rugby programmes starting up everywhere. This in turn will lead to more college rugby players will have played five or six years of rugby. That’s slowly changing but I think that’s going to be the biggest difference.

"It’s great that rugby can attract people from different disciplines… But we still lack the skills. We still need guys playing from a younger age."

South African CJ Stander has benefitted from the residency rules and has become a huge part of the modern Irish squad under Joe Schmidt. Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

The connections could be lucrative for the IRFU when you take into account the possibility of players being eligible to continue their rugby education in Ireland through the newly forged pathway. Furthermore, residency rules available in World Rugby at the moment mean that playing in a country for three years can make a player eligible to play internationally for that country.

Ireland could reap the benefits and bring players over to play on these shores after continued investment in college programmes abroad.

"The reason we’re playing we’re playing at the level we are at the moment is because - certainly against tier one teams - is because we lack the skills to execute under the pressure that tier one teams put us under."

The drive is there to become a more skilled nation in the sport, according to Hickie, but that finding an identity can be tricky without the correct guidance.

"I think there is aspirations to play flowing, skillful and quick rugby. We’re a million miles away from that at the moment. I guess there’s probably a little bit of two faces to American rugby. There’s obviously the North East corner which is heavily influenced by European rugby.

"Then there’s California which is a hotbed of rugby which is far more influenced by southern hemisphere Super Rugby.

"The national team need a long time to figure out their identity. What are the raw materials? What are the best tools? What can we do better than anybody else?

"We’re not there yet and I think that will come down a lot to who is coaching the team. I think there’s so much more room to grow that we probably don’t quite know our identity yet."

Could we see more players like Ireland's AJ MacGinty develop their skills in the US and then feed into Irish provinces like Connacht. Image: ©INPHO/James Crombie

An Irish influence could help to develop a brand of rugby more suited to those with aspirations of playing in Europe or now the more accessible Pro12. But, considering the population and future resources available to US colleges, could we see the emergence of a unique style of the game?

"I think as the game continues to grow here, as the numbers continue to come in, as the coaching gets better, as we get more access to players, I don’t see that there is any reason that we can continue to develop our own style. That way we develop how to play what suits us best.

"I think the game worldwide is probably going to evolve that way. Players are getting fitter and faster and stronger. England are a very good example of stepping it up to the next level recently, as well as Ireland.

"There's no substitute for skills. Until we can boast 23 or a pool of 50 top international players who execute basic rugby skills under extreme pressure [we will see that style].

"I’m not being negative because I do think that day is coming. I think that US rugby, if all goes to plan, will in time be a worldwide force."

While the IRFU appear to be one of the first governing bodies to forging connections like this, they may not be the first to develop connections in the US.

In 2014, Arizona State entered into a partnership with the Brumbies of Super Rugby. Meanwhile, English Premiership side Harlequins entered into a strategic partnership with USA rugby in August of last year.

"USA Rugby is developing rapidly, with well-founded ambitions to compete for the highest honours on the rugby world stage in the coming years," chief executive of Harlequins David Ellis said at the time.

"The bedrock of this ambition is strong community programmes, from youth to college to club, as well as the development of a strong professional game to capture and nurture the fabulous athletes that are prevalent across America."

These sentiments echo that of the IRFU president and the foundations have now been laid to comb the United States for emerging talent across the pond.