Phil Greening has offered a reality check on the USA as a market where major rugby-playing nations could draw on a new wealth of revenues.
Despite Premiership and All Blacks matches taking place in the land where Tom Brady and LeBron James have reigned supreme in recent years, rugby’s place on the USA’s sporting spectrum remains hazy.
As Premiership clubs slash wages by more than 25 per cent and the RFU warn of losses exceeding £100m, Greening believes the potential for the USA to become a rugby power is a pipe dream so long as it remains absent in the country’s schools and scarcely played in the college system.
For the past seven years ex-England hooker Greening has worked as a performance coach for USA Rugby, and with old Wasps teammate Mike Friday to get the Men’s Sevens team within reach of a maiden World Sevens Series title last year – only to be thwarted by Fiji.
So can the Land of Opportunity offer the shortcut for rugby to recover and prosper after a tumultuous year?
“It is a bit of the fantasy. People from the outside don’t realise that there pretty much isn’t any rugby in America,” Greening told The Rugby Paper.
“Unless you are on the ground you don’t see it, there is little wider interest as it is not in high schools and is only in a very small number of colleges. I think Rugby Union is 18th on the list of sports for participation in the US – quidditch is higher than us.
“Yes, it is a huge market with huge potential but it has to start with the kids. They have to play at school and then go on to college and then a team. The players here usually get to college and then transition from their original sport to rugby and so they come to it very late.”
Greening holds renewed hopes of returning to USA Rugby’s employ ahead of next year’s Olympics, after the union filed for bankruptcy in March.
The frailty of USA Rugby finances have been reinforced by a group of private benefactors known as the Golden Eagles, key to the presence of a USA team on the Sevens circuit which had the remainder of its 2020 season scrapped by World Rugby last week with New Zealand crowned champions.
“If it wasn’t for the Golden Eagles this programme would have been finished three or four years ago,” Greening said. “They have picked up a lot of the work… everything. If it wasn’t for a guy called Jon Bobbett, who heads it up, the USA Sevens would not have been around the last few years. They underpin everything.
“It just goes to show how rugby can grab people. These guys grew up with a little bit of rugby but not a lot, yet have fallen in love with the game.
“With us getting some success they are getting some return on their investment and it is a huge project for them, a very expensive one.”
“We are in bankruptcy but hopefully we can be cleared from that at the end of August. Currently, all contracts are gone in theory. Me, Mike and everyone are still working on things but we do not have contracts as of March. Hopefully we can all come through it and get back together.
“There are millions in college sports but for rugby if it wasn’t for philanthropists and the US Olympic committee the programme wouldn’t run.”
Greening, 44, was forced to retire with a toe injury at the age of 30 after winning four major honours with Wasps and 24 caps for England.
His ties with Wasps have given him opportunities. He was drawn into Sevens, originally with England, in 2007 by former scrum-half Friday and ex-Wasps assistant coach John Mitchell has been a mentor to this day.
“Mitch, Gats (Warren Gatland, former Wasps head coach) and Craig White (former Wasps head of performance) have been the biggest influences on me,” said Greening.
“I was Mitch’s coaching coordinator when he was in charge of the USA and I ran the defence, and now he’s with England doing the defence for them. He’s been there for a lot of my career.
“Mitch helped me get linked with the Hurricanes head coach John Plumtree so I could review what they are doing. That sort of thing keeps you on top of the latest developments within rugby performance.”
Despite his globetrotting commitments with the USA Sevens programme, Greening’s appetite for elite performance led to the creation of a state-of-the-art gym, Athlete Factory, in Chester where a number of England teams have trained and where he hopes Warren Gatland will visit before the Lions jet off to South Africa next summer.
On his own experience as a Lion on the 2001 tour to Australia, Greening is one of a number of players who have had their tours ended by injury before the first Test like prop Euan Murray (ankle) in 2009 and Stuart Hogg (cheek injury) in 2017.
“Just being part of that team was amazing, they were a special bunch of men and an honour to be part of that tour,” he added.
“That experience shaped me a bit in giving me the skills to deal with disappointment. I don’t think of myself as someone who missed out, I was part of that tour. The injury is just rugby.
“Every young kid just needs to know to make the most of their playing career. I thought I was bulletproof and then you are in a situation where you don’t have a choice.”
Phil Greening is one of the key figures involved in the Athlete Factory, the state-of-the-art facility offering advanced personal training to first-time gym-goers and elite sportspeople.
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