Last night I watched the final game of the USA PRO Rugby competition, the league decider between Denver Stampede and Ohio Aviators. Ohio went on to win the match 32 – 25 but not by enough to dislodge league leaders Dever who held on to top spot and claimed the first professional USA Rugby league title.
There was some Ulster interest in that Denver are captained by Ulster favourite Pedrie Wannenburg, but the main reason for watching was to see what sort of level the professional game in America is at given the recent talk of expansion into the USA by our very own PRO12.
You can watch the match yourself below, if you have a couple of spare hours, but it was largely disappointing, racked with mistakes and, I stand to be corrected, only one play went beyond four or five phases, that being Ohio’s final score.
I would have put it at a similar standard to an Ulster A game. Maybe a bit more physical, but there was a dramatic drop off in skills once the ball went past the hands of the five or six marquee players on each team.
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It did have an exciting finish with Ohio scoring two late tries in an attempt to deny Denver a losing bonus but Pedrie’s boys had already done the hard work through the twelve match season and they picked up the two points (a try bonus and a losing bonus) that saw them scoop the title.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect was the sparse crowd. Columbus, Ohio, and Denver, Colorado, have a combined population of 1.5 million and the two states are approaching 17 million between them but there were only a couple of thousand, at most, at this game on what appeared to be a pleasant Sunday afternoon.
Having said that the above video does have around 6.5K views though there were only about 800 other souls watching live. It looks like there is a long, long way to go before the American public are fully engaged in this sport but it is currently at a level very similar to the development sides in the PRO12. A more accurate assessment would be somewhere between the “scratch” development sides and the full time English Championship sides.
As I’d said earlier in our first look at American expansion some form of seasonal competition between the Celtic team’s development sides and these USA sides would bring the most competitive games and if scheduled correctly it could be at organised at comparatively low cost. From the comments from USA Rugby’s CEO Dan Payne and the owners of PRO Rugby during the game they appear keen enough to make something work, though whether the American owners would concur with it being pitched at a lower standard is debatable!
Either way there is still a huge challenge ahead to get the American public engaged. There couldn’t have been a better scripted finale than this match in Ohio, with both teams in with a chance of winning the first ever professional league. With so much at stake and with 15 weekends of build up to this event the small crowd has to be a disappointment, but it’s a start.