What do two gyms full of kids on the Upper West Side, a WWE superstar, several elite coaches from a powerful global sport, a child’s book author, a former New York Jet all have in common? Rugby. Well at least for one day last week, and hopefully for some days to come, as the group banded together to promote the sport and an upcoming historic match between two Aviva Premiership clubs at Red Bull Arena on March 12.
The clinic, which combined WWE Superstar Sheamus, Nic Rouse of the London Irish club, Wayne Morris, a former former Pontypool captain and coach in the Premiership, USA Eagles star and author of the kids book “R is For Rugby” Mike Petri and former New York Jet linebacker Greg Buttle, worked with several club coaches from the New York area to show the finer sides of the game, and the value of the growing sport, to over 100 kids from diverse backgrounds at the Columbia Secondary School in advance of the London Irish-Saracens matchup in a few weeks, the first time two Premiership clubs will meet in a regular season match in the United States. The match is the latest example of the growth of the game in the US, a nation which rugby officials believe is ripe to be captive by the sport like the rest of the world is.
“To see where the sport is now, with Rugby Sevens going to the Rio Olympics (both the U.S. men’s and women’s teams have qualified) is something I would have never really dreamed of a few years ago,” said Petri, who is the varsity coach at Xavier High School in Manhattan and was a member of the USA Eagles World Cup squad last fall. “The best part about it is that there are so many young people from all walks of life who are interested in the game at an early age. We can see their interest and the game growing and that’s really key for us if we want to take the next step.”
That next step in the New York area at least will come when the two elite clubs meet in a few weeks. Saracens is a Premiership powerhouse boasting two rising American stars, including U.S. team captain Zack Test, while London Irish is one of the legendary clubs in the sport. The clinic last week was one of several upcoming events designed to hype the matchup and build awareness for the game, and the interest was not lost on Buttle, who knows a thing or two about hard hitting sports from his days with Gang Green. “You could see the desire of all these kids here today that they love rugby, and for someone who grew up in and around American football it’s quite impressive,” he said. “We have always seen and hear about the massive impact rugby has in places like New Zealand and Australia and the UK, but to have it grow here, and to have elite clubs coming here like the NFL is doing for football in London, is very interesting and will be something to watch.”
Also watching and enjoying was Seamus, the Irish WWE superstar who came to lend his name and image for support. “I grew up playing rugby, it has always been a passion of mine, and to see it now starting to take hold here in the States like it has in the UK says a lot about how team sports are changing in North America,” he said. “It’s a great sport, whether it is fifteens or sevens, and I think the potential for young people to play here like they do in the rest of the world is limitless.”
The match is being organized by TLA Worldwide, a global marketing agency which also announced last week that the All Blacks will be returning to the U.S. to play in Soldier Field next November against the Irish National Team. Could the growth of rugby on this level drive kids away from football? “I don’t see it now,” Buttle said. “There is room for both and the roots of the two are similar, it’s nice to see kids active and about and I think this benefits everyone.”
Click here for all the details on the trip, and the upcoming match at Red Bull Arena.