USA will host Rugby World Cup in 2031 – or it’s back to the drawing board

The All Blacks’ visit to Washington DC in October only strengthened American hopes of staging a Rugby World Cup and the US will be announced as host for 2031 next May, USA Rugby chief executive Ross Young said – unless World Rugby decides to go “back to the drawing board” entirely.

Young spoke to the Guardian following World Rugby’s announcement of England as preferred candidate to host the women’s event in 2025, the same status for Australia for the men in 2027 and “exclusive targeted dialogue” with the US regarding 2031 and a women’s event potentially two years earlier.

World Rugby chief executive “Alan Gilpin has been quite clear here”, Young said. “Everyone else has been quite clear that we are in an exclusive period now. So we’ll either be awarded the World Cup in ’31 in May, or they’ll go back to the drawing board. They’re not going to announce anyone else.”

The change in World Rugby policy towards partnering with unions to stage World Cups fits with US plans, Young said, because “we’ve said from the start of the process, we wouldn’t be able to get financial cash guarantees from government as previous host countries have.

“The huge attraction of a World Cup coming here is rugby really starting to unlock, or using this 10-year pathway to unlock, the biggest media market in the world. Or unlock the potential for that media market.

“… We talk a lot about major events in terms of the legacy, of what that does for the sport after the event. What we’ve talked about with World Rugby is working in partnership around development funding: how do we pull forward that legacy funding to happen before the event, which ultimately will make it more successful for everyone, financially and operationally.

“If we sit and wait for real development dollars to come out of the tournament post-31, we will have lost a huge opportunity. Whereas if we can raise the profile, raise the value of the game, and the Eagles brand and World Rugby’s brand, before the tournament, it’s going to make for a better result for everyone.”

Unfortunately, the All Blacks game at FedEx Field delivered a worrying result on the pitch. The men’s Eagles scored their first tries against New Zealand but were annihilated, 104-14.

Young said the game did more good than bad.

“Nobody likes getting beaten by the All Blacks but when we went into that game, you know the general intention was it was a bit more of a developmental All Black side. Unfortunately, because of Covid restrictions they were all stuck in Queensland [prior to the game] and so we got Richie Mo’unga coming back, we got Damian McKenzie coming back. They kicked the ball twice … when have we last seen an international game where one team only kicked twice?

“To me it showed lots of positives about a big rugby brand. Obviously the World Cup is a huge brand too.”

Young pointed to the game pulling in more than 40,000 fans despite Covid travel restrictions, which were then in place internationally. He also lamented the lost chance to pull in traveling fans for a game against Ireland in Las Vegas which was cancelled, and pushed back at suggestions USA Rugby lost out financially from hosting New Zealand.

“Under normal circumstances, we would have got pretty much the same as the All Blacks out of that game, but it was all relying on on how many people came through the door. It wasn’t the case of us just putting the game on for a paltry fee.”

Young also saluted close work with Washingtonians including Old Glory DC, of Major League Rugby, and city officials.

“The thing that is painful but we have to admit,” he said, “is the fact that we haven’t got the depth on the field. We can’t be missing 20 players [as against the All Blacks], which means we have to concentrate more on pathways, we have to have more options of players available.

“There’s a long way to go for us to be competitive and we need more meaningful games more often in windows where we have access to all of our international players because games outside of the window, if that’s all we’ve got between now and the next couple of World Cups, it’s not going to work.”

The US men are not the only ones to suffer. In November, a women’s team without key players shipped 89 points to England.

Asked if better fixtures will be possible, Young pointed to Japan. In the four years before a successful World Cup in 2019, he said, the Brave Blossoms played 12 games against top-tier opponents. The Eagles played two (and won one, against Scotland in 2018). If a US World Cup is confirmed, Young said, we can expect to see more of the US at strength against stronger teams.

How strong US rugby can be is an evergreen question. Young spoke approvingly of MLR, whose board meeting he and Gilpin attended before the All Blacks game, but suggested the number of overseas players in the 13 teams – the Dallas Jackals enter next year – may not be ideal.

“A lot of it comes back to pathways,” Young said, pointing to collegiate and club games struggling for cohesion and clarity.

One anomaly even within the highly anomalous US club scene is the American Raptors, the new name for an effort to develop crossover athletes run out of Glendale, Colorado by interests once part of MLR, now feeding players to it. Young applauded the Raptors’ performance on the field, including a trip to South America, and off it.

But he said: “What we have to ensure with all these things is that we remain joined up and they don’t almost get a life of their own. That they don’t end up being disparate, because we want to be joined-up and we want to have continuity. We don’t want to keep pulling in different directions.”