PHILADELPHIA, PA – A fact that is exciting in its truth but boring in its repetition: Rugby is the fastest growing team sport in America. It is my experience, though, that many, if not most, in the rugby-playing community are slow to become part of the rugby-fan community. We love playing the game, but that love of playing has not consistently translated into a love of watching the sport.
Part of this is that it has been hard to be a rugby fan in America. But it is getting easier. You can, of course, go out to club matches in your area as a local fan. But those matches aren’t set up with fans in mind. If there isn’t a roster or a score board or a place to pee, it isn’t necessarily the place to take the family to get them hooked on watching the sport.
We need to be ready for professional rugby in North America. All of us. That means that those in the rugby-playing community need to be prepared to become members of the rugby fan community. In order to be fully ready for the launch of PRO Rugby in April, here is a my advice for Americans transitioning into the fan community. This advice is really, “This is what I do, and I think you should do it, too.”
There is too much rugby to care about everything. Way too much. There are two big decisions to make early on: 7s or 15s and Northern Hemisphere or Southern Hemisphere. For now, I am going to focus on 15s and the Northern Hempishere since that’s what I’ve payed more attention to in the last few years. (About 7s, though, there isn’t much to say. Pick your costume and root for USA.)
For those Americans who know little about European club rugby, this is a great weekend to start learning! There are 2 games Thursday (though both at the same time), 1 game Friday, 6 games Saturday, and 3 games Sunday – all available on ESPN3. These games are from the European Champions Cup and the Challenge Cup.
The Champions Cup is the top club teams in Europe based on last season’s finishing places. It is the top 6 from the Aviva Premiership in England, the top 7 from the French Top 14, and the top 7 from the Guiness Pro 12. The Challenge Cup is, crudely, everyone else. The Champions Cup knock out stages are the best, most exciting rugby Europe has to offer.
Even with the previous sentence being irrefutable fact, the 6 Nations remains mandatory viewing. Watching the 6 Nations with no preparation lessens the experience. So much of what makes an international tournament really compelling is knowing something about what has gone on in the lead up to the match.
Narrow your Northern Hemisphere focus to an individual club in one of the top leagues. In England, that is the 12 team Aviva Premiership; in France it is the Top 14; the Guiness Pro 12 has teams from Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and Italy. Before you select the league that will get most of your attention, think about your experience in watching the 6 Nations. If you want to cheer for Ireland, say, you will want to follow one of the Irish sides in the Guiness Pro 12. You will know more about the players selected, and those not selected you think should have been, and that makes the international matches much more interesting.
When is a good time to acknowledge that no one with a soul who was born outside of England can root for England? How about now.
I could watch that a thousand times. There is no real logic to my aversion to the England rugby team. I like lots of English things, like Shakespeare and Midsommer Murders and Wordsworth and Sherlock. Perhaps someone from a nation more recently attached to the British Empire can help articulate in the comments why there is such a strong feeling of wanting anyone to win but the English.
Once you’ve decided on an approach to the 6 Nations and a league, it is time to select a club. There are all sorts of ways to make this decision – location, particular player, song or ritual – but don’t ignore the Big Boy v Under Dog relationship. Not all clubs fit neatly into the category of Big Boy or Under Dog, but it is good to be aware of where you are on the spectrum.
The league that gets most of my attention is the Aviva Premiership. I spent a semester in Bath in college while Dan Lyle was playing there, so I had two reasons (proximity and an American) to become a Bath supporter. Additionally, Bath is a gorgeous big town/little city with the “stadium” at the center of it all. They also recently built new training facilities that look like Downton Abbey, and they’ve almost certainly broken the salary cap rules. A bit posh, perhaps, and maybe a little ethically challenged. But they are my team now, so I am sticking with them.
Here is what is relevant to me about the European clubs and competitions.
Aviva Premiership Clubs
This is an outsider’s perspective, and I look forward to being told off in the comments section by people who’ve been life-long fans of English club rugby.
Bath – The team you should support. Even if I try to remove my bias, Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph are two of the most exciting players to watch in England. Add in Kyle Eastmond and Semesa Rokoduguni and they are a pretty gripping side.
Exeter Chiefs – Despite the fact that they have had several pretty successful seasons, this is a side that still pulls off the underdog vibe. Some fans wear headdresses and do the Tomahawk Chop. They’ve several young players that should be international stars in the next few years and one, Henry Slade, who should already be an international star. Stupid England.
Gloucester – The Cherry and Whites play in front of The Shed which has the reputation as being home to a knowledgable, loyal, and vocal group of fans. The Shed: that’s cool in a blue collar sort of way. And if you support Gloucester you get to cheer for Greig Laidlaw, the man with the least-prentious pre-kick routine out there. If there is one thing rugby fans need to do, it is encourage an end to pretentious pre-kick routines.
Harlequins – “C’mon you Quins!” seems a fun thing to shout. If you want to support a team that will kick to the corner more often than they should, this is a side for you. They tend to play up-tempo rugby. And they seemed a nice bunch when they came to Philly this summer. As a bonus, they are wearing jerseys this year with bar codes on them. If you scan them, they give you the salary of each player.
Leicester Tigers – I am not sure if my impression is accurate, but they seem totally uptight and pretentious. With Blaine Scully no longer there, there is no reason to root for Leicester. As far as I can tell, Martin Castrogiovanni’s rant and subsequent t-shirts is the most interesting thing about Leicester, and it isn’t a reason to root for them.
London Irish – Play in London? No. Lots of Irish players? No. And they play in Madjeski Stadium which always seems empty. They are coming to America, but they are a team without a strong personality and there is a good chance they will end up relegated at the end of the season. The fact that they are hosting a match in the US is the best thing they have going, and we don’t even know if that will be good.
Newcastle Falcons – They play on turf in a place that always seems to look miserable. But the club is home to Americans Eric Fry and Todd Clever. Fry improved dramatically as a scrummager after one season there, so kudos to the club’s coaches for that. Plus, Sinoti Sinoti plays there and his name is fun. This is definitely an underdog side.
Northampton Saints – Definitely in the Big Boy category, this is a good team. They sing the refrain from the New Orleans song, “When the Saints Come Marching In.” That’s a fun thing to sing. They’ve had some big names in their squad, like George North, and that doesn’t seem unlikely to change.
Sale Sharks – If you can root for Danny Cipriani, a player who has had trouble with off-field decision making and on-field dancing, you should root for the Sharks. I can’t, so I don’t.
Saracens – There are several Americans in Sarries’ set up, including Chris Wyles. I can’t fully embrace Saracens because some fans wear fezzes. I can’t be the big guy in a little hat. I guess I could lose some weight and just be a guy in a fez, but…nah. Saracens have a bit of a corporate feel. They will win doing whatever is logical and rational at the moment.
Wasps – Wasps had to change their home ground in the middle of the season last year because they were broke. They are playing some good rugby right now. Maybe it is because of Lawrence Dallaglio and James Haskell, but this is a side that I associate with anger. If you want to be an angry fan, even in victory, this might be your team.
Worcester Warriors – Warriors won promotion at the end of last season (at the expense of London Welsh). They have been vastly more competitive than were London Welsh but are still serious underdogs. They have a nice logo, and their home crowds this year have been better than Newcastle’s and London Irish’s. They also have Donnacha O’Callaghan whose shorts ripped during a match years ago, but he didn’t want to miss the lineout. Giggle.
French Top 14
There is no salary cap in the Top 14, so there are some sides that are ridiculously star-studded. If you think that French club rugby exists to develop players for the national side, that is frustrating. If what you are looking for is interesting rugby, it tends to be a wonderful thing. I don’t know a lot about the different clubs, but I root for Toulon if I am watching a French match.
Why root for those soulless mercenaries? Um, have you seen the roster? It is the kind of thing you might expect in a fantasy sports league but not in real life. Have you seen where they play? They play across the street from the ocean. Have you seen the “Pilou, pilou”? Here it is.
Calling down the warriors from the mountainside. That’s good stuff. Plus, Samu Manoa is there now.
Other sides to consider? There is a natural, sympathetic reason to pull for Stade Francais, even with Scott Lavalla’s retirement. Racing Metro just brought in Dan Carter, so they have that going for them. Toulouse and Clermont and two other traditionally successful clubs with good recent form.
Guiness Pro 12
In Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, the teams in the Pro12 are all pretty clearly structured to work like feeder teams to the national team. That might seem logical, but it changes how the clubs operate. Clubs who are simply trying to win operate differently than clubs trying to help the national side win.
Ireland is organized by provinces. Munster and Leinster are two of the most successful clubs in Europe. Connacht and Ulster have much more of a “little guy” identity. Ulster play in Belfast; Connacht in Galway; Munster in Limerick; Leinster in Dublin. Because Bath and Toulon are big money teams, I am supporting Connacht now in the Pro 12. They are off to a good start this season, coach Pat Lam seems to be doing good things, and Eagle Aj MacGinty is there – injured at the moment. The only real downside I’ve found in trying to keep up with Connacht is that their website is atrocious. Want to read all the way to the bottom of the latest piece of news? Too bad!
Wales have Cardiff Blues, Ospreys, Scarlets, and Newport Gwent Dragons. There are all sorts of politics involved in all unions, but the Welsh still seem to be trying to come to terms with how to organize professional rugby in the nation. Llanelli is a great thing to say, so that is a reason to support the Scarlets. The Cardiff Blues have Blaine Scully and Cam Dolan in the squad right now, though Scully is struggling to find his best form and Dolan is struggling to get game time.
Scotland only have two sides to choose from: Edinburgh and current champs Glasgow. And Italy have two sides, but I can’t think of much reason to root for an Italian side.
A potential plus to following the Pro 12 is that there is no relegation to worry about. Unless there is a political uprising in Wales, the team you choose to support today will still be there in 10 years. I don’t like promotion/relegation, so if Bath are ever relegated…Nah! They won’t be. They’ll just figure out a way to pay everyone off so they don’t actually get relegated.
Watching the Matches
- 2 matches per round of the Guiness Pro 12 are broadcast on beIn Sport.
- 3 matches per round of the Aviva Premiership are broadcast on beIn Sport. All 6 matches from every round are put up on the Premiership website. You can’t watch them live, but you can watch every match if you want to.
- 2 matches per round of the French Pro 14 are streamed on ESPN3 and then available for 30 days after.
- All of the Champions Cup matches and some Challenge Cup matches are streamed on ESPN3.
There are ways, of course, to find “alternative” streams online. Almost all of us have ESPN as part of a cable package, so ESPN3 is there for the legal viewing. And every English club game is also online legally in the states, if not live. beIn Sport is available from lots of television providers. Downside to beIn? They don’t show the matches live on tv; they show them live online. My experience interacting with the website has been quite poor – miles away from ESPN3. I’ve just about given up trying to watch Aviva Premiership and PRO12 matches live.
Looking over this, it is both a lot and not nearly enough. This is a good weekend to get started!
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