What does professional Rugby Union look like in America?
Victor Drover

Like you I think that this is an exciting time for rugby in the states. Your analysis is solid. Having lived in New Zealand for two years recently I have a couple of observations.

First, all professional rugby players in New Zealand are paid to play in select side competitions. Professional rugby players in New Zealand are, I believe, contracted to the New Zealand Rugby Football Union. The top tier ITM Cup (Mitre 10 Cup in 2016), I believe, is fully professional with all players salaried. I am not certain but I also believe that the second tier Heartland Championships’ players are largely not on salary but are often compensated informally (like many US players) These competitions are franchised by the NZRFU with Mitre 10 involving roughly 27 “provincial” unions and the Heartland, 12.

Every union’s select side competes in one of these two tiers. Each of these structures are divided into two levels. Heartland selects upper and lower divisions based on won/loss record in a given year and Mitre 10 is divided into two levels with promotion relegation each year.

I believe that this structure is the direct result of the advent of professionalism. I hope that USARFU and PRO Rugby have looked carefully at this structure and will try to adapt the US structure along similar lines. I know that start-up is hard and instituting such a structure from the onset is impossible. But there should be a serious effort to organize all the adult players in the US into competitions of various tiers that fit hand-in-glove with PRO Rugby and USARFU select sides. You and others talk about rugby academies and feeder systems. NZRFU shows the way to do this.

Of course, New Zealand has the added benefit of being in Super Rugby. The five NZ franchises in Super Rugby are the penultimate beneficiaries of NZ’s structure with, of course, the All Blacks ultimately claiming the most benefit.

I mention all this because the two years I spent in NZ were marked by the realization by NZRFU that more attention needed to be paid to grassroots club-level rugby. Clubs that had been around for 125 years were folding, merging with others, or struggling mightily. More disturbingly, many of the smaller unions were bankrupt or badly in debt.

A light went on in the leadership of NZRFU and the results have been encouraging. Clubs still fold and merge in rural NZ as they have throughout the history of rugby. But the rate has declined and I believe there is a strengthening of many clubs and unions as NZRFU pays more attention to the grassroots. Far from killing club rugby in the US, USARFU and PRO Rugby can strengthen clubs and small unions by learning from NZ’s experience.

The second observation I have concerns what professionalism means to rugby administrators. The answer is not much. It will be a long time, if a time ever comes, when a considerable portion of administrators are professional, i.e., paid. In NZ, apart from the professional players, a few coaches, and refs, there are only a couple hundred paid professionals. Most of those work in NZRFU, or for a Super Rugby or Mitre 10 franchise. The overwhelming burden of putting club, select, and international rugby matches on falls to unpaid volunteers. No amount of professionalization will eliminate the need for these volunteers, who willingly give time and effort to make things work.

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