Rugby News & Views From an American Perspective
by Ted Hardy
I am extraordinarily patient, provided I get my own way in the end – Margaret Thatcher
These very words hold true as rugby fans in the United States and beyond have followed the progress of Grand Prix Rugby for what has seemed like ages. Actually, it has been quite some time. This competition has been nearly ten years in the making and has had multiple aborted launch dates in that time span. These delays often led to unrest amongst rugby fans who wondered if the project would ever come to fruition.
The good news is that it is inching ever so closer with roughly 224 days left before the tournament goes live. The next phase of Grand Prix Rugby’s competiton kicked off yesterday with the launch of their Official competition website and tickets to the event going on sale. This is another checkoff moment, for the upstart event, to go along with announcements in the Spring regarding their deal with the NFL Network for TV coverage of the event and signing The Home Depot Center as the venue for their $1,000,000 championship.
While Grand Prix’s concrete plans beyond this event remain unknown, there is hope that this event will eventually spawn a more robust competition that will fit into the Summer window after completion of the IRB World Series season.
Set to be played July 12-14, 2013 at The Home Depot Center in Los Angeles, the Grand Prix Championship could give the USA not one, but two very high profile international rugby 7’s events. With the growing success of the USA Sevens leg of the IRB World Series, there is reason to remain positive about the prospects of the Grand Prix Rugby Championship. As we’ve seen with the growth of the USA Sevens… great things happen once you start putting people in the stands.
Details on the pools, team rosters, and other such things are still a ways off. In the meantime, let us take a look at some of the things we do know about the competition and speculate on what some of it may mean for the competition.
The winning team takes home $1,000,000. The most lucrative cash prize of any tournament in the world. Not sure if there are any prizes for 2nd or 3rd place and beyond. From what I’ve heard… there isn’t. This is winner takes all. This is sure to draw the attention of all unions. Most sevens programs don’t receive the same funding of their 15’s counterparts. Even programs like South Africa, England, and New Zealand could use this type of money. Someone like Kenya, who realistically has a shot, could do wonders with a million extra dollars in their coffer.
The interesting side note to the participating unions will be what types of teams they send. The tournament is well enough away from the IRB season to give some top players rest and still allow them to compete. With a million dollars at stake, it would be hard to imagine any nation not sending a team capable of winning.
The tournament format is going to be 24 teams, likely in six pools of four teams. This is the same format that is used in Hong Kong. Personally, I am a huge fan of the 24 team format. Hong Kong is one of the best tournaments on the World Series for many reasons and the expanded format is a refreshing change from the 16 team standard. The field currently includes commitments from four American teams (more on that to follow), Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada (grrr), England, Fiji, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, Tonga, Wales.
This list may or may not be the final list of teams. I’ve seen another list without Germany or Italy, so I guess we’ll see. At first glance, the tournament has all of the favorites save for Samoa which is an interesting exclusion. Again, the list may not be finalized and Samoa may be working out the details.
The expanded field also allows organizers to take flyers on lesser known teams for developmental and marketing purposes. The inclusion of Brazil, Germany and India in the tournament field is sure to draw some eyes. Brazil is an obvious choice given they are hosting the 2016 Olympics and will almost assuredly have a team in the rugby competition. India is a very interesting selection, but with an enourmous population this could be a stab at tapping into a new market. Along those same lines, it is surprising not to see China in the field.
While pool play should be fairly standard, the knockout rounds will likely take a turn from what people have come to expect on the IRB circuit. With the focus solely on winning the $1,000,000 don’t expect to see Shield, Bowl, and Plate competitions break off from the pack. What you’re likely to see is the top 8-10 teams from pool play drawn into a single knockout bracket… winner takes all. It is possible that the knockout stage could be expanded to 16 teams, but that would mean seven games (over three days) for the teams that reach the final. Ouch! Using 16 teams would certainly add to the drama, so don’t be surprised to see it.
Something else to consider is that these teams are being considered independent franchises and will not be held to the same player restrictions as they are on the IRB World Series. The unions or owners entering the teams can run them how they deem fit. This could make for some interesting scenarios if some of the unions decide to treat their entries as such and not bind them to national team restrictions.
With that in mind, let us get back to the four American teams. Yes, four American teams in the competition. We already know of the New York franchise rights that were sold in the Spring to a NY business woman. There hasn’t been any further word about other franchises, but at this point in the game there are likely three other cities picked out to serve as home to teams (at least in name for merchandising purposes).
Now, you may be asking yourself… four teams? Our national team is currently on the bubble as a core team on the IRB series and we’re going to field four teams? And have a chance at winning? Crazy talk.
Here is where mighty Samoa comes into play. You don’t really think players from Samoa (or Fijiaans living in America) are going to miss out on this do you? If Samoa is not fielding a team in the competition, someone is going to call upon their many fine players.
Throw in Samoan national team players, some Fijiaans, and maybe a few other worldly veteran sevens players (cough… Ben Gollings… cough), fill it out with the very best American players, and you have four teams that will be on the radar of every team in the field. We have talented players, but often miss a piece or two to really make the team gel.
Keep in mind, that this is purely speculation based on what little is known about the competition. It is interesting to think about though. After this long, it appears as if the clock is ticking and soon speculation and debate will turn into reality.