After Monday’s announcement that the home of the Philidelphia Eagles, the Lincoln Financial Field (LFF), will host the National Rugby Football League’s (NRFL) Independence Cup, the attention is on the fledgling operation is now laser focused on if these untested players can go toe to toe with one of English Rugby’s top club’s, as well as the attendance for this unusual event.
On August 8th, the Leicester Tigers of the Aviva Premiership will lock horns with NRFL Rough Riders. The Independence Cup has had two prior attempts to get its momentum going, with many in the rugby community never expected the clash to take place. With the game now officially set to take place, the chatter hasn’t gone away, becoming magnified by the other multitude of questions and possibilities this game presents.
This could be the only chance the NRFL gets to impress investors and potential team owners on this grand a stage. All the potential suitors to facilitate a more permanent space for rugby in the US market are expected to attend and a flop, whether on the part of punters or players at this crucial point could hobble any chances of the competition gaining a foothold in the market prior to the planned launch for the inaugural NRFL season.
“This is it man,” said NRFL Founder George “Mac” Robertson. “This is why it is so important to demonstrate to our investors that we have the right business structure and that this is a market worth developing. We are taking a lot of risk, but I believe that Americans will love elite rugby.”
With these factors at play, it is easy to see why the NRFL’s apparent lack of strategy regarding the signing of crossover athletes is the weak link in their plans.
Despite questions about how quickly these crossovers can convert their talents into the game of rugby, the NRFL’s announced 60-man roster has more pure rugby talent than expected, and isn’t 100% crossover talent. With 60 players on the roster, nearly 50% have previous competitive rugby experience and number of the players on the roster have also partaken in rugby training environments since last January, including UK based programmes such as Tiger Rugby in Leicester.
Competing against amateur teams in America and competing against a professional side in a country practised in the sport for generation are two completely different beasts however. Professional rugby teams are streets ahead of even the most elite of America amateur clubs. Whether even this hand picked, dedicated squad is even ready to play against the Tigers, never mind put up a decent fight is a hard truth that the NRFL will have to address.
To alleviate these pressing concerns and put the team on the right path, the NRFL are palnning to bring their 60-man roster to Minnesota for a one-week intensive rugby training camp where players will be evaluated further. This large roster will then be whittled down to the best of the best by the Rough Riders coaching staff, which has yet to be named. Whoever is picked will then travel to New Zealand for another month of total immersion in the world of pro rugby, including some warm up matches.
The group will then be brought back to the United States and joined by fifteen other international players and from that group the Independence Cup roster will be finalised. It is likely the roster will be heavily influenced by these players, especially in the key skill positions like scrum half. The NRFL leadership has been proactive in answering questions regarding the use of overseas players, citing that all popular American sports have players from outside the US that are widely accepted and revered by American fan bases.
How this team will fares is just one of many talking points ahead of the game, along with how well the match will be attended. Lincoln Financial Field holds 69,000, and can look imposingly empty with anything less than 30,000 in the stands and reaching that lofty figure would make the match the second-highest attended match in the history of American rugby. No small task, I assure you.
“We expect a decent response to ticket sales, helped by our partners the Philadelphia Eagles,” said Robertson. “We don’t have to pack the stadium to come away satisfied…we’d be more than happy with 30,000.”
Philadelphia is a prime location for an event like this, sitting in relative proximity to other large East Coast cities like New York, Boston, Washington D.C., and Baltimore. It is a World Cup year however, so the Tigers will not be at full capacity, with their full roster unavailable to choose from, and there will not be a single Eagle playing for the Rough Riders. The Summer is also peppered with other big ticket rugby events taking place in the USA, but mostly on the West Coast, so this could be an opportunity to poach the East Coasters that won’t be able to make it to any of the bigger rugby events in the rest of the year.
“The more the merrier,” says Robertson in response to the busy schedule. “It is not going to be a problem for us.”
Nonetheless, the 80 minutes of competition against the Tigers may be the less daunting of the two challenges facing the NRFL at the Independence Cup. Whether they win or not plays into a wider issue about the future of American rugyby. The hopes of the people who started the NRFL, the hopes of the players wanting to break into the professional rugby scene and the hopes of fans across the country and globe who want to see pro rugby in the United States rest on the fallout of this match
“We’re rolling the dice,” finished Robertson.
Tickets for the Independence Cup can be purchased by either visiting www.ticketmaster.com, or by calling 1-800-745-3000.