Melville faces full-time fight for professionalism in US

England's opponents hail from a land of opportunity where rugby needs to make giant strides, writes Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

In the land of the free, rugby players do what they do for nothing. As Nigel Melville, the former England scrum-half and Premiership coach who moved to the United States in January to take up a dual role as chief executive and president of rugby operations, graphically reminded his audience this week: "Union is still an amateur game in America, so when the top players in England go to the gym, the top players here go to work."

This cannot be allowed to continue, and Melville knows it. His concern has little to do with today's game against the reigning world champions in Lens, even though the US conceded the not inconsiderable total of 106 points the last time they squared up to a full-strength England side. He is more exercised by the prospect of imminent moves to restrict global gatherings to 16 teams, rather than the current 20. "It could happen as soon as the 2011 tournament in New Zealand, so we have to make strides towards professionalism and make them quickly," he said. "We can't be hanging around, because a four-nation cut will make qualification very tight indeed."

It is widely assumed, not least in the offices and committee rooms of the International Rugby Board, that the North American market is crying out to be cracked; indeed, the bean counters talk of little else, which goes at least some of the way to explaining why the sport's governing body ignored the plight of the Pacific islands, Argentina and Italy for as long as they did. Melville, who knows his way around the business world as well as the sporting one, agrees that the potential for growth is considerable. He does not, however, see it as plain sailing.

"I hear a lot from people who assume America is full of failed gridiron players who would take to rugby like ducks to water, and of major businessmen dying to throw money at the sport, if we could only get a grip of our organisation," he said. "It's not quite true. There are investment opportunities but, by and large, people with a lot of money don't part with it easily. They want to see the future before they invest. As for the players, it is difficult to channel them into the game. There are a lot of wonderful athletes in the States, but those who take sport seriously at college are after one thing: a professional contract. If they don't get that contract, they tend to drop out of sport completely.

"This is why the move to professionalism is at the top of my agenda. We have an 18-team league operating at the moment, but there are only five teams I would describe as strong. When they play each other, a pretty good game of rugby breaks out. Unfortunately, they don't play each other very often. I'm putting together a serious business plan aimed at increasing the degree of financial support to a level where a small professional competition might be put in place. That will be an important first step to establishing American rugby as an attractive sporting option."

Not even the most patriotic American expects England to be seriously tested this evening. The US shipped 50 points to both the Saxons, the red rose second XV, and Canada during this year's Churchill Cup competition, then lost their full-back and captain, Francois Viljoen, to injury during a World Cup training camp in Iowa. Expectations are not so much low as subterranean.

"We do have expectations, though," said Peter Thorburn, their coach, who surfaced in Colorado after completing a highly entertaining, if rather fraught, tour of Premiership duty with Bristol. "They are based on a realistic understanding of where we are in terms of our development. I believe we've come a long way in our physical conditioning, and there has been a huge improvement in our set-piece work. The issue surrounds how we react to pressure. I know quite a lot about these players now, but very few of them, if any, have been tested in front of a 35,000 crowd. We have some growing up to do. How much growing up will become apparent in the course of this match."

The US will field a handful of Europe-based full-timers, from the Leeds prop Mike MacDonald to the Newport-Gwent Dragons centre Paul Emerick, via the odd wing who earns his corn in France. But, by and large, this is men against boys stuff, even if some of the Americans are very big boys indeed.