Nigel Melville, CEO & President Rugby Operations, USA Rugby:
First, can you tell readers how you became the CEO for USARugby and what your main roles are for the organization?
I joined USA Rugby in 2007 as CEO and President of Rugby Operations. That pretty much covers oversight of all aspects of the game.
I am fortunate that I have an excellent staff and can now focus on the next steps for the organization. We started by developing strong youth and high school programs thru State Based Rugby Organizations, we are developing College Conferences now and looking to enhance the Club game. At the High Performance end of the game we have men’s and women’s elite age grade teams and improving National teams.
What are the “next steps” for USARugby – what are some of the organizations biggest goals over the next few years and what steps are you taking to realize them?
Rio 2016 is probably our biggest challenge now that Rugby has returned to the Olympic Games. We now have full time sevens players (Men and Women) training at the Olympic Training Center in San Diego, they are now attending more and more events as they develop their squads ahead of Olympic qualification. That’s a pretty big goal for us all!
The other goals revolve around increasing visibility for the game in the media and on TV, and of course developing a professional game for our athletes..
How has having been a former coach of Gloucester (England) and the captain of the England National team in the 80’s helped you in your role?
Obviously having been an international player and professional coach has helped me understand the challenges of becoming an elite player and what it will take to make our National Teams competitive.
Off the field, I spent a number of years with Nike and that experience is certainly helping us re-craft our brand and explore opportunities for us to continue to grow.
What have been the biggest challenges in getting people to adopt the sport early in the states, and how can they do so?
The challenge is to get people to understand that a sustainable future for the game will come from a strong youth game, that we have to build the game and there are no quick fixes..that has been tried and hasn’t worked – so plant the seeds (get a ball in the hands of kids), be patient, nurture (coach them) and eventually reap the harvest (strong international teams).
How has the Pittsburgh area adopted the sport of rugby so far and what big inroads can/will you make to continue to grow interest?
Yes, Rugby is all around you and in Pittsburgh you have an awesome rugby facility that we have used for some of our National College and High School events. The rugby community is passionate and they understand the need to build their programs – they are doing a great job!
How does rugby in the states differ from that of your experiences in England and other countries?
Rugby is a global game with over 115 Countries playing the game, so every country has its own challenges – usually related to the weather and availability of facilities, and both are issues here of course.
As with all rugby people, we are pretty resourceful and make it work! Our field is very similar to soccer fields, so this helps, we prefer grass to turf, but we can play on either. The biggest challenge is helping people to understand the game.
Yes, we are a contact sport and no we don’t wear helmets, but we develop good technique, use our arms to wrap in the tackle, keep our heads off the body and this helps us stay safe. In football the head has become a weapon and that’s dangerous…we don’t do that!
Tell readers about US Rugby – how has it changed over the years and what are your expectations for this season?
We have grown steadily, our game used to be a club based game outside college with often a poor reputation on college campuses, not too much high school rugby and no youth programs. That has changed and we are experiencing explosive growth in some key areas. We have some way to go, but we are building a solid base for the game.
One interesting development has been our new coach registration program that trains our coaches in all aspects of player safety and concussion recognition. We want to provide a safe environment for our athletes when they train and when they play.
We also introduced Rookie Rugby in 2008, a non contact game for boys and girls that has far-reaching opportunities for our Countries youth. Rookie Rugby puts a ball in the hands of a young player and they run – fast!! Great fun and great for kids fitness – the anti-obesity issues are a concern for us all – Rookie Rugby will play its part.
Tell readers a bit about the in-person experience as a fan? How does it differ from other sports?
Our recent international against Italy in June where over 17,200 fans joined us to watch the USA Eagles Men play Italy in the BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston. I think that gives you an idea about what the vent looks like – its played in MLS Soccer type stadiums, the fan experience includes everything the American Sports fan is looking for – tough athletes and plenty of contact, great food, entertainment and merchandise.
What you will also find are fans that support their teams but recognize and respect their opponents ‘on and off the field’, we are one big global family – one of the world’s ultimate team sports where team spirit, loyalty, commitment and mutual respect are as essential to the game as the ball itself!
I’m sure you’ve seen the issues with concussions in other sports. How is rugby dealing with the issue of concussions and the physical nature of the sport in general?
Yes of course all sports are concerned about concussions and we are certainly making our sport as safe as we possibly can. Our coaches all take on online concussion recognition course, understand that there is nothing ‘tough’ about keeping people in play if they show any concussion symptoms and we take these symptoms very seriously indeed.
The game of rugby globally has been trialing a new rule that allows a coach /referee to take a player out of the game for ten minutes to get a player assessed if there is any suspicion that they may not be OK. This trial is working well and I think it will be introduced across the game shortly.
What do you think would surprise readers who are newer to the sport of rugby most about the sport?
How some of the values that sport traditionally held are alive and well in rugby today despite so many changes to sport at every level. Probably the most important is mutual respect for everyone involved in the game. We still call our referees ‘sir’, we respect our opponents and spend time with them after the game, develop lasting friendships, support each other on and off the field, value team spirit and are committed to helping the next generation embrace and understand these important values. How refreshing.
Any last thoughts for readers?
If you get the chance to watch a game, do it..you will enjoy the whole experience!!