Qualifying schedule offers North Americans chance to shine

One story which has attracted some interest over the last couple of weeks has been the appoinment of Brian McDermott as USA national coach.

The schedule of qualifiers for the Hawks, as they are now known, brings them up against Canada and Jamaica, two countries who are also making significant progress when it comes to rugby league.

Canada, of course, excelled in the Commonwealth Games 9s last year, and seem to have a domestic club culture in pace which is laying down strong foundations, to the benefit of the national side.

Jamaica has great playing resources on which to draw, and the sport there is building its base in the schools and communities of the island.

A national passion for sport coupled with an intelligent development strategy appears to be bearing fruit.

“Jamaica, as a nation, has some of the best sportsmen on the planet and I’ve met the guys behind rugby league in Canada when they’ve been over in the UK and to say they are passionate is an understatement,” said McDermott.

“I’ve heard their plans and they are building something out there, which is terrific.”

The United States, though, is a country where rugby league could really use a viable presence, and McDermott’s appointment is an important to step towards achieving that.

The United States is a huge and very diverse country. It has the population and the media to sustain a whole heap of nice interests and sports, wiithout them having to ever really worry about breaking into the mainstream.

Unlike soccer, we are not a sport which is looking to compete with the domestic leviathans of baseball, basketball and gridiron football.

Instead, we can look to move in gently alongside them, and hopefully pick up a few curious spectators from the mainstream along the way.

One crucial aspect of establishing any kind of foothold, though, is to have a national side which is competitive and makes the best use of available resources.

At this stage, McDermott sees USA rugby league as having two levels – domestic and international – which are slowly beginning to move together.

“It’s a great opportunity for me to get experience in an international environment but, as important, to hopefully be able to help build and establish something,” McDermott said.

“For now, I’m fully focused with Leeds and Sean Rutgerson is doing a lot of putting things in place. We’ve got a two-tier approach.

“We’ll go with domestic-based players in the World Cup Qualifiers in an attempt to help strengthen the game and so that the guys can take what they learn back to their clubs and see where they are.

“But, because there is an awareness of what getting to a World Cup can bring – and did last time they were in it – if we win through, questions of eligibility will arise.”

Those questions of eligibility are key to the future unity of American rugby league. The success of the World Cup side in 2013 superficially brought the sport into American in the spotlight.

The opportunity was never exploited, however, because the selection of a squad consisting entirely of overseas players, many of whom seemed to have pretty tenuous connections with the USA, caused a ruction from which the sport has only just recovered in America.

The domestic governing body is now, thankfully, unified under the banner of the USARL, and maintaining that unity is key.

McDermott is clever enough to realise that his selections for the national squad may have to be as much about politics as they are about quality.

He is also astute enough to make the right decisions for both his team and the sport in America.

Obviously, a stronger, more professional US league offers opportunities to players from nearby countries. Jamaican athletes have long left their island for American college sport, we might soon see some travelling to the US to become rugby league players.

North American sport also has a strong tradition of cross-border competition too, with Canadian teams playing in competitions the NHL and NBA.

With the work already being done domestically in Canada, having Canadian clubs playing in an expanded American competition is an idea which is surely acheivable.

And don’t forget Mexico. Thanks to the work of groups like the Latin Heat in Australia, a growing band of evangelists are spreading the word into Latin America, with Mexican clubs starting up in the last 12 months.

Suddenly, the future in the western hemisphere for the game looks positive and alive with possibility.

Too often in the past opportunities have been utterly squandered due to in-fighting and feuds. McDermott’s appointment shows that the right decisions are now being made in North America.

Long may it continue.

2017 WORLD CUP QUALIFIERS – AMERICAS REGION

Match 1

USA v Jamaica
4 December 2015
7pm kick off
Hodges Field, Univ North Florida

Match 2

Canada v Jamaica
8 December 2015
7pm kick off
Spec Martin Stadium, DeLand

Match 3

USA v Canada
12 December 2015
3pm kick off
Hodges Field, UNF

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