PRO Rugby: Our Top League

       

By Jason Graves

     Japan’s victory over South Africa in the 2015 World Cup (RWC) was assured back in 2003. While their victory shocked the rugby world it should not have come as too much of a surprise; the Springboks were not the first Tier 1 nation to fall to the Brave Blossoms who have also recently defeated Wales (2013) and Italy (2014). Rugby fans have been hearing for years about the Sleeping Giant, a moniker mostly thrust upon the U.S., but the fact of the matter is this; Japan was the slumbering kaiju and Godzilla has awoken. They have their Top League to thank for that. Will PRO help the U.S. become the King Kong the rugby world has long anticipated? I believe it will. In this article I’ll take a look at Japan’s development since the launch of Top League, compare it to the ongoing development in the U.S. with PRO, and breakdown the top candidates among the current Tier 1 nations I believe most likely to be beaten by the Eagles. Do I think it’s inevitable? Yes, as I believe most do as well, but I believe it’s coming sooner than many would predict.

     First a little clarification; this article will focus on the U.S. squad. I know Canada, you’re developing a professional system and are likely to be joining PRO next year but you’re currently not involved and have fallen steps behind the Eagles. Besides, you’ve recently defeated several Tier 1 nations (Argentina in 2005 to name one) and while the Eagles have a whopping 2 victories over France those date back to the 1920 and 1924 Olympics and they just don’t count anymore. On to the analysis.

     As I stated earlier the development of Top League (the premier professional competition in Japan) back in 2003 made Japan’s defeat of a Tier 1 nation inevitable. Sorry South Africa, you just happen to be the biggest bully on the block and as a result got all the media attention, fired your head coach, and are now attempting to move away from the old South African smash-mouth style of rugby. Before you, however, came Wales and Italy. Yes, both Italy and Wales have seen better days but the 23 – 8 slaying of the Welsh Dragons in 2013 shocked me more than their defeat of the Springboks. Since then, however, I maintain high expectations for Japan and they have not disappointed me. In the past 4 years they have defeated three Tier 1 nations and their Seven’s program is on the rise, culminating in a Bronze Medal loss to the Blizboks in the Olympics. Ok, am I going to continue to ramble on about how impressed I am with the Japanese Rugby Union? Maybe but I will get to my eventual point of how all this success relates to the Eagles future? Just tolerate my ramblings for a moment please…they have a purpose.

     Ok, so back on track; Top League. Started back in 2003 with 12 teams, a bit more ambitious then PRO but with a nation the size of the U.S. eastern coastline it was a bit easier to do so. The 12 teams gave Japan a wider opportunity for players to compete at a professional level. While the Pacific (PRP) and American (ARP) premierships offer similar structure only PRO gives the players an opportunity to focus solely on rugby as Top League did in Japan. Early success by the Brave Blossoms with victories over Russia and Canada and a close loss to Italy proved the concept was working. Top League expanded to 14 teams in 2006.

     The rise of Japanese rugby (JRFU) continued. In 2007 the Brave Blossoms rose to 13th in the world and in 2011 won their first ever Pacific Nations Cup after defeating Tonga and Fiji. With opportunities for USA Rugby to play in the Americas Rugby Championship (ARC) and the new Americas Pacific Challenge (APC) I believe we will begin to see vast improvements in the quality of play as a result player’s participation in PRO. PRO will also deepen the developmental pool as players like Ohio’s Spike Davis are discovered and developed. Our nation is larger than the whole of Europe; PRO will make it easier to discover hidden talent.

     Top League continued to pay dividends for the JRFU as they began knocking off Tier 1 nations, beginning with afore mentioned Wales squad, the Brave Blossom’s playing to a 1 – 1 draw (Japan winning the aggregate score 41 – 30) during the test series back in 2013. Of the 35 players on Japan’s roster 28 played in Top League while only 3 came from Super Rugby and 4 from Universities and those 4 players from University are currently all playing in Top League. Of the players that beat South Africa all are currently or have played in Top League before moving on to Super Rugby or Aviva Premiership. PRO will give our players the exposure to high level rugby and prepare them for Test competitions.

     So, who will be the first Tier 1 to fall to the United States and when? I do know this; it is inevitable and sooner than you might think.

     So the first question, who will it be? Which Tier 1 nation will be the first to fall to the U.S.? For those who may not know; the current Tier 1 nations are New Zealand, Australia, England, South Africa, Scotland, Ireland, France, Wales, Argentina, and Italy. Now, could we defeat the All Blacks? Theoretically, yes but that’s not going to happen anytime soon. While New Zealand’s Sevens program is in decline (at least short term) the 15’s squad is on the rise; yes, the best team in the world is getting better despite the loss of legends Richie McCaw and Dan Carter. So, no…it won’t be the All Blacks.  

     I’ll lump South Africa, Australia, Ireland, Wales and England into the same category of “we have more of a chance” than beating the All Blacks but the Eagles are still quite a ways off in terms of rugby years. All four squads have their struggles but it took 12 years of development in Top League before Japan beat the Springboks and I’m thinking it will be about the same for the Eagles. Could we catch a South African team currently in transition on a bad day? Sure, but we’re not scheduled to play them anytime soon. Bad timing for us as they will get better. As for the others; England is surging under Eddie Jones, Ireland can look like the All Blacks at times, and Australia still has loads of experience and skill that we simply can’t match…yet. As for Wales, the Dragons are at a bit of a crossroads in terms of their development. They boast some of the best players in the world with Liam Williams (FB), Gareth Davies (SH), and their captain Sam Warburton (BF) but while they finished second in the most recent Six Nations tournament they failed to impress and questions still remain if they’re on the decline. Can the Eagles beat any of these squads? Not today but soon.

     So that leaves the lower four of Argentina, France, Scotland, and Italy. Let’s take a look at some recent history.

     We tied Argentina in the last Americas Rugby Championship but they weren’t playing with a full squad. When the full squad of Las Pumas are together they can be electrifying but are also prone to mistakes. As Eagles gain experience overseas and in PRO it won’t be long before they are skilled enough to take advantage of those mistakes.  

     France. What can I say about Le XV de France? They are much like Argentina in the fact that France can be equally spectacular as maddening. The Eagles could beat them today if Le Bleus showed up as they often do…less than interested. There is trouble brewing in France as the massive influx of foreign superstars on to Top 14 (the French national competition) rosters has diluted the French playing pool. This is another indicator of the importance of a national competition and how PRO will help the Eagles so long as U.S. eligible players remain the predominate participants. The French Rugby Union are even taking steps to ensure more homegrown talent play in the Top 14. As a result of this downward trend in French players and decreased experience opportunities it is possible France could be the Eagles first victim.

     The Eagles almost beat Italy back in June. The close 24-20 loss sent a signal to the bottom five Tier 1 nations, the Eagles are improving. Italy is suffering from the same struggles as France as players are losing out on top level experience. Both Italian teams in the Pro 12 struggle regularly and their national team’s performance in recent international matches, particularly the Six Nations, have been abysmal. The debate has begun as to whether they should be relegated from the Six Nations in favor of surging Georgia. Italy may be suffering from the fact that their national competition, the National Championship of Excellence, is semi-professional, much like our own ARP and PRP. This is an example of how the absence of a fully professional organization such as PRO and Top League can hurt a nation’s talent pool.

     During the last World Cup the Eagles actually led Scotland in the first half 13 – 6 only to see the Scotsmen dominate in the second half as mistakes and fitness broke down the Eagles. With experience the skill will continue to improve and with increased playing time and Coach John Mitchell’s focus on fitness the Eagles will be a different squad when they next face Scotland.

    Ok, so you want to know who and when, right? Ok, here’s the problem with making exact predictions; the Eagles schedule only goes out to February 2017 and none of the Tier One nations are on it. Yes, the U.S. plays Argentina in the ARC but I’d be stunned if they send a full Test squad. So let me offer you this prediction; before the next World Cup is concluded the Eagles will have beaten a full Test squad of either Argentina, Italy, Scotland, or France. If we can get them on our home turf I predict a victory within 2 years.  

    Will we qualify for the 2019 World Cup? Yes. Will we make it to the RWC quarterfinals? No, but we won’t finish 0 – 4 and Tier One nations won’t look to the U.S. simply as a pay day, the Eagles will be a formidable opponent and PRO will have a huge part in their rise.  

     The USA is currently 17th on the World Rankings; by RWC 2019 I predict they will rise to 13th and actually pass Italy. Much like Top League prepared Japan to grow into a giant slayer PRO will continue to uncover unknown talent, provide opportunities for player development, give professional athletes a chance to focus on their craft, and provide a high level of competition to prepare players for the stress of Test matches.

     Thanks to Top League Godzilla has risen in the East; PRO will help turn the U.S. into King Kong. 

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