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It’s been a useful tournament, to be sure. When it arrived in 2003, USA Rugby was seeing the writing on the wall on other international competitions. The Pacific Rim Championship had died, rather pathetically. The Super Powers Cup was not looking promising and was done two years later. And Tier 1 nations were starting to balk at tours to North America.
So in that light, it all made perfect sense. England would put in a second team, with the USA and Canada always involved, and then a string of Tier 1 second teams and other Tier 2 nations could participate, as well. For nine years, the Churchill Cup did its job, providing competition for the USA and Canada, usually on their home turf, when they didn’t have much else available.
There were drawbacks, though. First of all, the Churchill Cup ended up benefitting England more than the United States. Because of the frequent turnover in coaches, the Churchill Cup was almost never treated like a tournament the Eagles could, or should, win. Instead it was a place to see lots of players or test out combinations for the World Cup.
The results reflect that approach. The USA ended the Churchill Cup 5-20, Canada 9-15, and England 23-2.
In addition, while the tournament was the only international competition, by and large, for the USA and Canada, it was an add-on for England. The USA and Canada had to get as much international competition for their players in the Churchill as possible – develop or compete, or both. For England the Churchill Cup was a developmental tournament only, and it worked brilliantly for them. The stream of players who got their first taste of international rugby at the Churchill Cup and went on to play for the full England side is now a river.
And finally, rankings. The International Rugby Board measures the success of nations, and makes decisions regarding these nations, in part based on where their men’s national team ranks internationally. Those rankings are fairly simple: win full internationals and you move up, don’t win full internationals and you move down. Playing Ireland A or the New Zealand Maori does you no good in the rankings, because those games aren’t full internationals.
For the USA, their main competition each year involved a competition where they rarely played more than one full international. Playing in the Churchill Cup ultimately hurt the USA because of that.
Now, what replaces the Churchill? What I’d really like to see is a return to the old Pacific Rim Championship, which gave the Eagles five or six competitive matches every year. But that won’t happen, so it’s no use whining about it.
What is happening is that North America is back on an IRB-mandated tour schedule. Each June a Tier 1 nation will tour the region. Likely is they will play two matches, one against Canada, one against the United States. I’d like to see more, or at least a return to the old midweek A-side game (something England is returning to, thus removing one of the needs for the Churchill Cup).
Then each fall there’s the Americas Rugby Championship. I’d like to see this be a full-on developmental tool. The top 40-50 US-based players competing with two teams (Falcons and Hawks anyone?). And then there’s a Tier 2 tour every November, probably with another, non-test, game thrown in there.
That’s the future for the USA, and on the face it looks fine. Except it’s not. The IRB, which outlawed the old Pacific Rim because Hong Kong wasn’t a real country, and then let the USA center their schedule around non-test matches, should support something better. The USA and Canada deserve to be in a competition like the 6 Nations, the European Championship, the Pacific Nations Cup, and the Tri Nations. If anyone has half a brain for promoting the game in the USA, where, by the way, a major network seems interested in putting the games on TV, then somebody needs to get behind a true competition for this region.
What I’d like to see:
A Pan-American Championship.
USA, Canada, Chile, Uruguay and then one team each from the Caribbean and South America. Everyone plays everyone else once. Team with best record wins the title.
ARC. This would be a developmental competition only, with the USA putting in one or two teams of younger hopefuls.
The USA Rugby Super League should not try to squeeze their competition in and around anything else, but play from mid-March through mid-June. That would be plenty of time for, say, a nine-game season and decent playoffs. The RSL and USA Rugby would come to an agreement about player availability for the national team.
The Tier 1 inbound tours could remain, as would the November outbound tours.
Barring any new competition like a Pan-American Championships, the USA at least needs a legitimate series with Canada to augment what appears to be coming down the pike. Playing for a trophy every year is an important part of the international game.
So goodbye Churchill Cup. You had your moments. And while I had my issues with you, I am not sure whether what replaces you will be right for the USA. Already we’ve seen the IRB throw large amounts of money a competitions that don’t help American rugby and don’t make sense.
Maybe this time will be different.