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Judgmentally, if there is one overworked cliché that undermines the understanding past, present, and future of rugby in the USA it is that the sport is a "sleeping giant." When anyone wants to narrate the state of rugby in America, invariably the term is trotted out like a stale bowl of mac and cheese at the start of a written article or the beginning of a broadcast interview. It is also the favorite term from foreign sports media.
Let's parse these two words to point out once and for all the illogic of this false combination.
Sleeping - Not sleeping. Not dormant. Not sleep walking. Not moribund. Rather, alive. Vibrant. Expanding. Active. Dynamic. Everywhere. Return to spring of 1961 to count teams; Eastern RFU totaled 17, a few clubs in St. Louis, a few colleges in California and the Olympic Club of San Francisco. Maybe 30 total back then. Today, in 2017 over 3,000 women and men's colleges and clubs, also including co-ed high school teams. Last August, both men and women's sevens sides competed in the Olympics where the USA was one of but ten nations to achieve the double participation. Last year, the first professional rugby league. An ever-growing Las Vegas Sevens event and Penn Mutual Insurance College Rugby Championship Sevens (CRC). Seasonal club and college competition playoffs for sevens and fifteens. The Varsity Cup. Academies. Camps. Youth organizations for flag and touch rugby abound. Annual invitation tournaments like the popular Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Wayne State, Saranac Lake, and the golden oldie, the New York Sevens dating back to 1959. More than sixty thousand attended the All Blacks vs. Ireland match in Chicago. Fastest growing team sport in the country. Many tours abroad. Does this seem like a sport on an everlasting snooze?
Giant - Yes, the USA is a large landmass coast to coast. From San Diego to Boston is 3,100 miles. Here's an exercise: take San Diego and place it over Lisbon, Portugal. How far north east will the same 3,100 miles to Boston take you on a European map? Guess the nearest European city where you land. (Answer below)
The USA is country with a population of three hundred and twenty million but historically and currently a smallish rugby participation. Sports marketing research indicates about 750,000 to one million people in the USA "interested" in rugby. The annual playing numbers total over one hundred thousand. And it competes with other, more traditional and familiar sports; gridiron football, basketball, baseball, tennis, golf, lacrosse, volleyball, soccer, track and field, wrestling, surfing, moto sports, cycling, etc. All of these are more established than rugby. Even rodeo.
The "giant" nomenclature seemed, at first, a clever way to describe the "untapped" potential of American rugby. Today, it's seems to have taken on a negative assessment to posit what's wrong with rugby in the USA as defined solely by the results of the Men's Eagles Test matches and their losing outcomes in quadrennial Rugby World Cups. Here's a stat; in the eight RWCs since the first tournament in 1987, tallying all the pool matches played, lesser teams achieved upsets on only four occasions: Western Samoa in 1991, Samoa in 1999, Tonga in 2011, and Japan in 2015.
So, its time to dispense with this irritating "sleeping giant" analogy without any reason to find a substitute. Rugby in the USA is what it is, and most are content with that fact. But also, there is a newly found confdience in the country's rugby future under the aegis of Dan Payne, recently appointed head of the USA Rugby organization.
Maybe the "sleeping giant" term can be handed over to Russia with a population of 190 million, and a spread of six thousand plus miles from St. Petersburg in the west to Vladivostok in the east. And while contemplating Russia, stop off at Novgorod, east of Moscow because this is the Boston equivalent, 3,100 miles from Lisbon.