U.S. professional rugby to lift off without Olympic stars

Rugby will go professional in the United States on Sunday with the blessing of the sport's local and global governing bodies.

Ohio take on Denver at Infinity Park to kick off the inaugural Professional Rugby Organisation (PRO Rugby) league, with San Francisco at Sacramento later the same day. San Diego make up the quintet of teams vying for the first title but have to wait until April 23 for their opening match, which is against Sacramento.

Professional rugby has had its struggles in the U.S., most recently with the National Rugby Football League. The NRFL was founded in 2014 and had lined up a large number of former NFL athletes for its teams, but it never got off the ground becasue league executives failed to apply for sanctioning from USA or World Rugby.

PRO Rugby has been endorsed by the sport's national and international governing bodies, even if it is not directly licensed by either, and the teams will be comprised of players who have competed at the sport's highest levels.

"The beginning and end of this process was a sanction from World and USA Rugby," said chief executive Doug Schoninger. "Without sanction, starting a league would be undoable. Nigel [Melville, CEO of USA Rugby] and I met, and we shared a common vision.

"We basically spoke the same language on how this thing could grow, and should grow. Then we negotiated a sanction agreement, and went from there."

"If we only attract current rugby fans, we aren't going to be successful" Denver coach Kieran Browner

The rough sketches of the league were first illustrated by Schoninger to Melville last summer and, with the format secured, the task was to fill the five teams with a balance of established foreign internationals, USA Eagles players, Sevens stars and promising talent.

However, fans expecting to see American Olympic Sevens players such as Carlin Isles and Perry Baker will have to wait another year. With "growing the American game" one of the league's major goals, there was an agreement between the stakeholders that the league would not "interfere with [the chances of U.S.] Olympic gold," according to Schoninger.

The timing wasn't right to bring on the Sevens specialists this season, but there's reason to hope some of the players will join PRO Rugby in 2017. Having capped Eagles from the 15-man form of the game on each of the five teams' rosters and other well-known players like ex-All Blacks Jamie Mackintosh and Mils Muliana has been a solid start.

Mackintosh will join internationals JP Eloff and Shaun Davies in Ohio, and Muliana has Eagles' winger Kingsley McGowan as a new teammate in San Francisco. Denver look particularly strong with U.S. players Chris Baumann and Ben Landry joining seven others with Test experience from the 15-man format.

Prop Olive Kilifi and flanker John Quill have bolstered the Sacramento roster and, not to be outdone, San Diego's backline is sure to cause opponents difficulty with USA scrum-half Mikey Te'o and wing Tim Stanfill featuring.

The fusion of domestic and international talent has shown early signs of working, too. Schoninger visited Sacramento training sessions just days after veteran Italian centre Mirco Bergamasco landed in the States and, despite concerns over a language barrier, "the other players were giving him command as the most experienced, best-trained player," he said.

"We don't want too many foreign players, but we want enough that their traditional coaching and training will wear off on some of our guys that haven't been exposed to that, up until now."

With rugby's status as the fastest-growing team sport in America, as well as a sport playing a key role in the Olympics, it is an encouraging environment in which to try to develop a U.S. professional league.

The question is: can a five-team league that has predominantly been advertised using social media really last?

The country's small but passionate rugby culture should provide a fan base for the league, but attracting others will be key. Denver general manager Kieran Browner acknowledged: "If we only attract current rugby fans, we aren't going to be successful."

The challenge for the league is to increase the awareness of, and interest in, rugby among the rest of the American sports scene -- and it starts on Sunday.