Why is the US Not in the Rugby World Cup? Rugby union enjoys immense popularity around the world as a spectator sport, with the quadrennial Rugby World Cup being its showpiece event. However, if you’re looking for the red, white and blue of the American flag among the 20 participating nations, you won’t find it. The United States has never qualified for the sport’s biggest stage, which begs the question.
A Brief History of Rugby in America
Rugby has struggled to gain a foothold in the vast American sports landscape. While various forms of folk football, which bear some resemblance to rugby, were played in America centuries ago, organized rugby did not begin being played in the States until the 1870s and 1880s. Early growth was slow, but the creation of governing bodies and competitions eventually followed.
The United States of America Rugby Football Union (USARFU) was founded in 1975. It was later renamed USA Rugby. USA Rugby, the sport’s national governing body, oversees four national teams—the Eagles (15s), Eagles 7s (for rugby sevens), Women’s Eagles and Women’s 7s Eagles.
Over the past 50 years, American rugby has seen participation numbers increase significantly. As of 2022 there were over 1.6 million rugby participants in the US. Youth, school, college and senior club competitions have expanded. The launch of Major League Rugby, featuring professional club teams, in 2018 has raised the sport’s profile.
The potential for growth remains substantial, considering America’s immense youth sports infrastructure and the country’s historical embrace of football. Compared to established rugby giants like New Zealand and South Africa however, the sport still occupies a peripheral place in American sports culture.
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Rugby World Cup Qualification System
To answer why the US hasn’t featured in a Rugby World Cup yet, one must understand how qualification for the tournament works.
World Rugby utilizes the World Rugby Rankings to determine which nations earn automatic qualification and seeding. The rankings are based on a points exchange system related to the results of sanctioned international matches.
The top 12 ranked teams five months prior to the start of the World Cup directly qualify. The remaining eight spots are determined through regional qualification tournaments.
USA Rugby would have to either place the Eagles in the top 12 teams in the World Rugby Rankings or win their regional qualifier to reach the World Cup.
For the 2023 Rugby World Cup being held in France, the US must compete in the Americas qualification tournament. The Americas region features North American and South American national teams vying for one direct World Cup place.
The highest ranked side in the region outside of the top 12 World Rugby rankings earns an automatic berth. The runner-up enters a cross-regional playoff.
Why the USA Hasn’t Qualified
In every Rugby World Cup cycle, the USA Eagles set their sights on qualifying. They have yet to succeed in that goal despite tremendous growth in American rugby infrastructure. Several factors explain why the United States keeps missing out:
1. Player Development Pathway Issues
To produce a World Cup-caliber national team, USA Rugby needs thriving professional and semi-professional domestic competitions to develop domestic talent. That was lacking for many years. It also needs top American players gaining experience by playing abroad.
While Major League Rugby and a crop of overseas pros have helped recently, the player development pathway has not yet matured to properly serve the national team.
Rugby experts frequently cite underdeveloped youth systems as a hindrance. If American kids aren’t exposed to quality coaching and competition early, it’s harder to produce world-class internationals later on.
2. Funding Constraints
As an amateur sport, rugby has struggled to raise the finances needed to effectively support the national teams as full-time programs. USA Rugby operates on tight budgets, especially compared to powerhouse rugby nations.
Limited funding has impacted coaching hires, training programs, youth development and player retention efforts. For example, many American players opt to play internationally to earn a better living.
As evidenced at recent World Cups though, an outsized budget alone can’t guarantee on-field success. Nonetheless, most rugby experts argue increased funding is necessary to give the Eagles a fighting chance at qualification.
3. Competitive Regional Field
The Americas regional qualification tournament features the perpetual challenge of facing higher ranked sides like Uruguay and Chile for the lone direct berth.
Those nations benefit from rugby being firmly entrenched in their sports cultures—especially in Uruguay—leading to better infrastructure and talent pools.
While Argentina’s top-10 world ranking gives them an automatic World Cup entry, Los Pumas’ success also inspires their continental neighbors to invest more in the sport. For the US, topping the region has proven a difficult task despite dominating direct matchups against rivals like Canada and Brazil.
4. Prioritization of Olympic Rugby
Every four years, USA Rugby shifts some attention and resources towards their sevens program in pursuit of Olympic glory—perhaps at the detriment of the XV-a-side Eagles.
Men’s rugby sevens officially joined the Olympics in 2016. The less complex game marked an easier route towards bringing American rugby success on the global stage.
The American sevens teams needed full-time training environments to be established to develop their medal hopes. Some speculate the shortened version has become USA Rugby’s higher performance priority over the traditional 15-a-side Eagles in recent years.
Outlook for Future World Cup Qualification
USA Rugby remains wholly focused on guiding the Eagles to the sport’s pinnacle event for the first time. The organizational blueprint for long-term success is in place. Now it requires execution.
Investing in Youth Rugby
Growing youth participation rates to over 3 million over the next decade would provide a deepening talent pool. New development pathways via better school and collegiate systems need molding to prepare young American hopefuls for international careers.
Expanding Pro Rugby Competition
Over the past decade, domestic pro rugby gained a foothold via the 12-team Major League Rugby competition (founded 2018) and the introduction of the San Diego legion in the European PRO14/URC competition starting in 2022.
Those serves as ideal platforms for Americans to gain high-level experience without leaving home. Further expansion of USA’s pro landscape would boost the national team’s strength and depth.
With greater commercial investment in American rugby, driven by broadcast rights and corporate sponsorships, increased funding could facilitate major gains.
A fully centralized and full-time Eagles training program is the vision. Better compensation would help secure top foreign coaches while also retaining elite domestic standouts. Financial growth of the sport appears promising.
Consistent Positive Results
The Eagles stringing together a series of upset wins over higher ranked sides would see them rapidly climb the World Rankings towards automatic qualification position.
Victories in cross-regional playoffs (as they narrowly missed out in doing against Uruguay in 2014) also remain a viable route. Given the progress on multiple fronts, American rugby leaders are confident the historic first World Cup qualification lies on the horizon if momentum keeps building.
FAQs on Why is the US Not in the Rugby World Cup?
Why has the USA never qualified for the Rugby World Cup?
The USA has yet to qualify largely due to underdeveloped player pathways, funding constraints, facing consistently stronger American rivals and some resources being diverted to prioritize Olympic rugby sevens success.
What do the USA rugby team need to do to qualify?
The Eagles must either place inside the top 12 World Rugby ranked sides by late 2023 to earn automatic qualification or win the Americas regional tournament occurring in 2022/2023.
How popular is rugby in America?
While still a peripheral sport overall in American culture, rugby participation has increased substantially to over 1.6 million total players as exposure and youth development expands. The launch of a professional league and Olympics inclusion has raised rugby’s profile.
Why doesn’t soccer-loving America embrace rugby too?
As a football/gridiron obsessed nation historically, America’s infrastructure is still playing catchup to develop rugby on the same scale. Rugby also faces challenges Americanizing rules/terms which soccer does not encounter. Room for exponential growth still remains despite steady gains.