There is no doubt that rugby league in the United States has hit some bumps in the road in recent times whether it be governance issues, breakaway groups or general dissatisfaction with the way things are, but despite all of that, the national governing body is confident that it has been able to pave the way for the game to grow in the future.
In many ways 2023 has been a breakout year with the expansion of the domestic competition, the women’s national team finally getting some much-sought-after game time and initial discussions on establishing a national wheelchair competition.
As a result, United States Association of Rugby League (USARL) Inc. interim chair Drew Slover is very upbeat about the state of the game in the US. Rugby League Planet spoke with him exclusively to drill down into the reasoning for his optimism.
RLP: Was there any particular highlight for you in 2023?
Slover: The highlight was that we were able to get the Pacific Coast Rugby League (PCRL) and USARL South together to play a truly national competition. To me, that was a pretty big crowning achievement because it’s never been done. To have a competition that reached from coast to coast I think everybody should be proud of it. We’re at the beginning stages of something pretty big here.
RLP: Do you see expanding to California and Utah as being good for USARL’s future?
Slover: Yes, I do. I think there are a lot of extremely talented players out there. When you open up that kind of region, the possibilities are endless. The development of youth in Utah is a wonderful step in the right direction, and it’s something that we really haven’t had to any real degree. The Pacific Coast is an untapped opportunity to deepen recruitment and really develop some players who could represent the USA and show what the American athlete looks like.
RLP: In that case, how disappointing was the breakaway by RLU (ex-USARL North Conference)?
Slover: It’s not ideal, but people are going to do their own thing. Obviously, we’d love to have them involved. There’s a lot of great teams up there and a lot of great talent. You know, they’ve been playing rugby league longer than anybody, I think, from a regional standpoint. If they want to come back, we want to have them involved if we can.
RLP: Do you think that might happen at some point?
Slover: The challenge is always going to be the travel, and if we can work that out and get everybody on the same page and try to work together then I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t. This country is just so big that it makes it tough and if we could get some support from a sponsor or an airline it would connect us better than we have been in the past.
RLP: What’s your take on the women’s national team playing in the Americas North Championships?
Slover: It was great! I think it was an awesome experience. The women’s game is just on the verge of blowing up. We just have to get some more teams and more exposure. I think it was an unbelievable opportunity for the women who played for the Hawks. Miranda (Barnard) specifically did a great job managing that team and Ady (Cooney) and Ben (Calverley) are doing great jobs in regards to coaching and player identification. I think the more women we can get involved the better the team is ultimately going to be.
RLP: Do you think women’s rugby league now has a platform in the US?
Slover: Women’s involvement in the game ultimately makes everything better. The more people we have playing and the more opportunities that we have to show someone that is either not playing or sees an opportunity that maybe they wouldn’t have in another sport that we can provide for them, gives us a leg up in the growth of the game.
RLP: What is your take on the IRL’s restructuring of qualification for the Rugby League World Cup?
Slover: It’s not ideal but I think I can see where they’re coming from. It requires more domestic focus so it might ultimately be a good thing. It’s unfortunate on a number of levels, but everyone has been looking forward to the opportunity for #RLWC2025 qualification. Players specifically look forward to playing at that level and being robbed of that opportunity is unfortunate.
RLP: In future, to qualify the US will have to be a full member of the IRL so where are you right now?
Slover: We’re working on it. It’s a chicken and the egg thing to me. You’ve got to develop and to develop you need money and unlike many other countries, we’re not in the situation where we get funding from our country. We have to do it all on our own, and everybody who’s involved is a volunteer so it’s a slow process. I think it will grow, but it will probably take longer than we want. With some guidance from the IRL I think we have a really good shot. The plan is to have more men’s teams more women’s teams and the wheelchair is looking to put together a competition so that they’ll have a domestic season. And if we can get the youth going, I don’t see why we wouldn’t be able to get full membership. You’ve got to start somewhere, and right now we’re at the beginning of all that.