Rhinos’ American adventures point the way to a brighter future

It’s fair to say that the United States occupies more focus now for rugby league people than it has done for many years.

As well as the imminent arrival of Jarryd Hayne at an NFL team, Russell Crowe has been talking about taking fixtures to the USA.

The national team, who impressed at the World Cup in 2013, are in the process of being rebranded from the Tomahawks to something new, possibly the Mustangs.

Fans in America can also watch rugby league on some Fox channels on television, and there are one or two small hotbeds of the game developing in places like Jacksonville, Atlanta and Boston.

But it is the Leeds Rhinos who have been steadily developing grassroots links with the American game, and they enjoyed another preseason trip to Jacksonville ahead of the 2015 Super League campaign.

They played a USA Pioneers team while there, and although the encounter was one-sided, with the Rhinos winning 76-0, much was learned by the American players from the experience.

The Pioneers are a team made up of players from the USARL’s domestic competition, and there is clearly plenty of potential on the other side of the Atlantic, if it can be nurtured properly.

One Leeds player who thinks that there are many reasons for optimism when it comes to rugby league in the USA is Rob Burrow.

The former England international had a great time in Florida, and thinks that the States could play an important role in the game’s future.

“It was absolutely brilliant,” he told Love Rugby League, when asked about the trip.

“We’ve been to Jacksonville four times now throughout my career, and it’s just brilliant.

“I love America anyway. The facilities over there are first class. We managed to play a game out there, which is always beneficial.

“It was amateurs against professionals, so you’re expecting to get the result. But it’s part and parcel of building awareness of rugby league over there, and promoting the game.

“Certainly in the Jacksonville area, rugby league has a strong fanbase, and if we can do our bit to grow the sport over there, then so be it, along with the training camp, which is fabulous for us.”

The Rhinos also trained alongside two local youngsters Terrance Williams and Joe Eichner, who impressed Burrow with their attitude and aptitude to learn about the game.

Williams plays for Atlanta Rhinos, while Eichner turns out for the Jacksonville Axemen. Both are currently students, and have also played rugby union.

Burrow also believes that there are plenty of great athletes in the US who could adapt to rugby league. He also feels that to have Americans playing in Super League or the NRL could lead to massive opportunities for wider development.

“We had two lads, Terrance and Joe, one from Atlanta. One drove six hours to get there, and the other one was local, they were great lads,” he added.

“It’s good to see that rugby league lads over there are very similar people, and they were welcomed in with the Leeds lads, who are pretty sociable anyway.

“It was good, and I’m sure it was really beneficial for them.

“They’re certainly athletes, you could look at both of the guys and you’d think that they’re going to be a good rugby player.

“The only thing that they haven’t got on their side is the repetitions growing up.

“We’ve had been playing since we were seven. It’s like us a throwing an American football about, we’d look quite wooden doing it as opposed to being more natural.

“But there’s definitely some great athletes, and with some quality coaching, I’d love to see some Americans playing over here, because if the game took off over there, then we’d have the world in our hands.”

Let’s hope that we see more work done on developing the sport in the USA, as well as Canada and Jamaica, where sterling work has been carried out in recent years.

The emergence of a third power block in league, in North America, to complement Europe and Australia/Pacific can only be a good thing.

The experience of soccer has shown that an improving USA national team and its participation in big, international events can help shoehorn ‘new’ sports into the American consciousness.

Rugby league has an opportunity to do something similar. It should take it.

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