Last night Saracens defeated London Irish 26-16 in a half full Red Bull Arena in New Jersey. The match was a bid to grow rugby in the United States, but is it really worth the effort?
The Americas is the ground where rugby can really grow still and the Premiership sides tried their best. But in a Six Nations weekend, they would have struggled to fill their own grounds, let alone a stadium on the other side of the pond, where they are certainly not as rugby mad as in parts of Europe.
Biarritz Olympique Pays Basque is known to have played quite a few top matches in the other part of the Basque Country, in San Sebastián. But that was practical as it was the nearest large stadium, and rugby is big in that part of Spain. In the Basque Country, Navarre and Catalonia it is just as popular as in the French regions just across the border. They were confident of filling the stadium.
But this effort by the Premiership seems complete folly. The Premiership is not the highest competition in the world. Though certainly not without its appeal, it is not the most exciting competition in the world, with the most exciting teams and New Jersey is not exactly the heartland of rugby in North America, or even the United States of America. For that you would probably have to look at San Francisco. There are a few big clubs in New York, and of course there are expats aplenty, but it would have been hard to sell out at the best of days.
And of course let us not forget that most rugby lovers there will know too that both Sarries and the Exiles would have missed some of their best players due to the Six Nations.
Had it been a European Champions Cup match, a sell out would have been much more likely. A Super Rugby fixture or a test match would certainly have sold out.
Poor timing aside, across Europe there are places which would have happily hosted the fixture and sold out. National unions and clubs would have happily done it because their own competitions are drawing to a close or have not yet started. There is little to no European Cup of Nations rugby being played.
Meanwhile rugby in the USA and Canada also has the Americas Rugby Championship and this year will see the start of a cross-USA professional competition, as well as a similar plan in Canada. Of course in due course these might combine to form one competition.
With all the efforts being put into the game in the USA and Canada, with special focus on Sevens, due to the Olympics, it is hard to see how the Premiership can contribute to that at all. What the Premiership did here was nothing more than to stroke their own vanity. It was a codpiece for the Premiership.
If they want their market to grow, they should first look to increasing the appeal of the competition at home, and then maybe look to play some games, as part of the pre-season or as part of the regular season, in Europe.
They should time it better and they should make it a showpiece of what the Premiership can actually be. With less time spent travelling and a better fixture, that might be possible. But to try and show the Americans how it is done, when there is so much else on offer is a folly of epic proportions.
Paul Peerdeman, Pundit Arena