USA Rugby's Melville wants to start pro league

May 18, 2007 - 8:57 PM By Ross Heppenstall Special to PA SportsTicker

USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville is planning to launch a professional league in the United States to help attract former college gridiron players to the sport.

Melville, the former England captain, was appointed in October with a remit to develop the game across the Atlantic.

The USA Rugby board estimates there are 15,000 college gridiron players who will never make it to the NFL and would consider rugby if it provided a living wage. With the right coaching and direction, the running backs, linebackers and wide receivers of college football could be ideally suited to rugby.

Melville believes tapping into that talent source could awaken the sleeping giant and propel the United States into the world's top 12.

"Rugby can make a big impact in America because it's already quite a popular game," he said. "The only issue is that it's not professional, which it needs to be if we're going to close the gap on other countries and break into the top 12.

"Until you close the gap on other countries people aren't going to look at it. The other sports on offer, particularly gridiron and basketball, take a lot of athletes out of circulation - but they'd definitely play rugby if there was money there."

Melville said the idea of a professional rugby league would give college football stars an option between the all-or-nothing proposition of the NFL or a job in the private sector.

"It's not in their psyche to come out of college and play amateur sports; they just don't do that," he said. "They get a job and a lot of them give up sport. We're trying to get these guys into the game and the easiest way is by being professional.

"We're looking at setting up a professional competition which will cross that divide between club and international rugby. It would be nice if we could get something set up next year."

In the short term, Melville is helping to prepare the United States for its World Cup campaign in France later this year. Largely comprised of American-based amateur players, it will come up against defending champions England and southern hemisphere giants South Africa.

Melville believes Friday's Barclays Churchill Cup clash with the England Saxons will provide the U.S. with ideal preparation for the World Cup. The six-team tournament pits the Americans, Canada and guest side New Zealand Maori against the second string from established rugby nations England, Ireland and Scotland.

At Edgeley Park in Stockport, the U.S. will face an England Saxons side featuring two capped internationals and a host of highly rated youngsters.

"Playing against England, and the likes of Shane Geraghty, is going to be a huge ask for our boys but we'll be able to see what the gap is between ourselves and them," Melville said. "It's about getting used to playing at their pace and trying to bridge that gap.

"Above all, it's an outstanding opportunity to play against some very good players and see what international rugby is all about ahead of the World Cup."

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