Saturday Interview: Melville returns to sporting cathedral

Nigel Melville,  USA Rugby's Chief Executive.
Nigel Melville, USA Rugby's Chief Executive.
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When he was not to be found in the schoolyard or on the rugby fields of West Yorkshire, the young Nigel Melville could often be located on the terraces at Elland Road.

“I’m a big Leeds United fan. I stood on the Kop when I was a schoolboy,” recalls the former England scrum-half.

“They’re very happy memories for me because Leeds were a great team back then.

“I remember watching them win the Fairs Cup one year (1971), stood on the Kop for a night game (final) against Juventus.

“So going back to Elland Road on Sunday is a bit of a throwback for me.”

Melville will return to his childhood stamping ground tomorrow with a different team pre-occupying his thoughts.

The United States Rugby World Cup side are the men whose interests Melville now closely follows in his role as the chief executive of USA Rugby.

His remit is developing the sport ‘across the pond’ from grass roots all the way through Sevens and into the senior national XV-man squad, for whom the pinnacle is participation in the Rugby World Cup that enters its second weekend today.

Tomorrow, the USA play their second Pool B game against Scotland at Elland Road.

It will be a proud occasion for Melville, returning to the stadium that brought him so many childhood memories.

But as he takes his seat among the dignitaries on the East Stand tomorrow, he will allow himself the briefest of misty-eyed glances left to the Kop he used to frequent, before re-training his sights on the pitch and the task at hand. Namely, the continued development of rugby union in America through the performance on the pitch of its standard-bearers on the world stage.

A super-power in global affairs, the USA is very much a minnow on planet rugby.

Categorised as a tier-two nation in the sport, they arrive at the World Cup every four years merely hoping to survive and do themselves proud.

“You aim to do better than you did last time and that your programmes are going forward,” was Melville’s summation of the ambitions of the US Eagles in England this month.

“We had one win at the last World Cup against Russia. We’re looking for more than one win at this World Cup.”

That ambition may be difficult to fulfil, following their opening defeat to Samoa last Sunday in Brighton.

Fortunately for a team comprising predominantly amateurs with a smattering of professionals who earn their crust in Europe, they find themselves in the most open pool of the tournament.

Japan’s seismic victory over South Africa and subsequent fall to earth against Scotland just three days ago, has blown the pool wide open, leading Melville to, perhaps optimistically, point out: “If we beat Scotland we’re back in the race.

“I’m just glad we’re not playing South Africa next (Samoa have that dubious honour at Villa Park today), because they’ll be smarting.

“Everybody in our group fancies their chances against Scotland. Not everybody, until last Saturday, fancied their chances against South Africa, but now they perhaps do. Japan were a great example of what you need to do, you need to be accurate and work very, very hard.

“We’ll just keep playing our way, we’re enjoying the experience and just hope our players benefit from it.”

Japan’s victory and the reaction it garnered, is exactly the kind of shot in the arm USA hope to gain from their participation in a World Cup.

“We were delighted for Japan”, said Melville. “The tier-two teams ranked from 10-20 all want each other to do well against the top nations, because if it’s not this World Cup then we want it to be the next where people start saying ‘anybody can win these games’. We have a responsibility to try and shut that gap and make it more competitive and I think we’re doing that.”

That has been Melville’s ultimate goal from the moment he left England in 2007 to venture into rugby’s unknown.

His path to a new life in Boulder, Colorado, may have been a circuitous one – Aireborough Grammar School pupil, Wakefield, Otley, Wasps and England scrum-half, Gloucester coach and even a year in football – but his destination is certain.

“The next five years, with this World Cup and another in 2019, plus two Olympic Sevens tournaments, are going to be critical for us to keep building,” said Melville, who spent a year coaching coaches at Reading Football Club before taking the job with USA Rugby.

“The problem we had when I got here in 2007 was there had been no significant growth in the youth game.

“So what we did was plant the seeds for the future, and we’re slowly starting to see the development of that, but we’re not there yet.

“It’s not easy competing in the US market place, but we are the fastest growing team sport in America, and that’s great progress.

“We’ve managed it by introducing kids’ programmes in 2008 that have produced about two millions kids playing a non-contact version of rugby.

“Our highest growth area is high school rugby which is a big deal for us going forward because it enables you to have players staying with you for longer and they’re younger, so that gives you a continual flow of players who can then feed into the national teams.

“We don’t have college scholarships like they do for soccer. We will eventually, and we do have them at some levels.

“We have 900 college programmes, that’s a lot of colleges, and they’re all over the States. It’s nothing to do with elitism. It’s nothing to do with white collar. It is just a sport that people play now.

“Rugby union is not an ex-pat sport any more, it’s moving towards the mainstream and there’s more and more people getting involved.”

The next few years could indeed prove the most pivotal for the future of union on the other side of the Atlantic.

They are already making waves in the world of sevens, winning the London leg of the world series in May and then qualifying both the men’s and women’s teams for the inaugural Olympic tournament next August.

Of a more immediate concern for Melville and USA Rugby is the fortunes of their 15-man squad tomorrow at a sporting cathedral that used to be his place of worship. “We are hoping it’s a very competitive game and that we give it our all because that’s the nature of the team,” said Melville, ahead of his return to Elland Road. “They’re a very proud team and they take a lot of pride in playing for the Eagles.”

Oli Rosillo.

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