As rugby ponders its future in Africa, the game is catching on in the city that never sleeps and doesn’t know an All Black from a Springbok.
In April, the new and rich PRO Rugby league was launched in New York. It has four South African players among its five teams.
Pedrie Wannenburg, a former Springboks and Blue Bulls loose forward, captains Denver and plays alongside compatriots Armandt Peens, Martin Knoetze and Niku Kruger. The four helped Denver to lead the league with six games unbeaten. Former Nelson Mandela University scrumhalf Charlie Purdon is a star player for San Diego.
Another three South Africans are among the coaching staff for the teams. South Africans make up the majority of the 15 foreign players and coaches contracted to PRO Rugby. Wannenburg, who is the most senior of the players, and one who was capped 20 times by the Springboks, earns $70,000 a year at Denver. The lowest paid player in the league gets $20,000.
PRO Rugby is the brainchild of New York investor Doug Schoninger, who owns Stadium Capital Financing Group. He is counting on the influence of foreign players to grow the sport, which is little known in the United States.
“We needed the help of foreign players, they really play a great service. We have the All Black fullback Mils Muliaina and Springbok loose forward Pedrie Wannenburg as captains. They serve such a great mentorship purpose in their teams. We have this Italian guy, Mirco Bergamasco, he is a mentor and captain for Sacramento. Their culture of rugby is better than ours and they are giving that to our players,” he said.
Schoninger, like many Americans, knew little about rugby, in 2014, when he failed to buy a minor league baseball team. Through an Australian friend, Schoninger was diverted to another investor who had struggle to bring rugby to the United States for nine years. Schoninger didn’t agree with the terms of the potential partner, who wanted to compete with the National Football League (NFL).
Instead Schoninger started alone and small; PRO Rugby was approved by USA Rugby in April 2015.
Schoninger says rugby may be small, compared to baseball and basketball, but has great potential.
“Most people don’t even know what rugby is – they know the name – there could be only two million people who know rugby in America. That’s what gets potential sponsors excited. It’s a new white sheet of paper in America. It’s not rugby in England or South Africa or Australia. Our rules are slightly different; our presentation is different. Arguably, there’s no other sport with this kind of opportunity in America, that’s well known, that has the World Cup every four years, that’s not here. That’s what I saw when I was talking to my Australian friend.”
USA Rugby, the sport’s national body, said the sport was the fastest growing team sport in the United States between 2008 and 2013. The game has increased it draw for spectators. In 2014, the All Blacks and USA Eagles played in Chicago before 61,500 in a packed Soldier Field stadium.
Schoninger said the league has not received any major sponsors, nor contracted broadcasting deals, but he was prepared to run alone for three seasons. He was hopeful that investors will soon come on board as the sport’s popularity grows.
The plan is to increase the five foreign players’ quota, per team, to seven in 2017. It means a another handful of South Africans, like 26-year-old Purdon, will line up for hard currency and softer tackles in the city that could be waking up to rugby.