As the national flags are raised to their podium positions a familiar anthem echoes around the stadium. But it is not the anthem of New Zealand, or Australia, France or the combined Great Britain team. Instead, the world is held in union by The Star Spangled Banner, that perennial Olympic favourite getting a fresh airing in a new sport.
Far-fetched? Perhaps not. Every Olympic Games reminds us that when the United States decides something’s worth doing, they tend to do it rather well, and the decision to include rugby sevens in the Olympic schedule has the potential to strip the shackles from a sport largely restricted to colleges and unleash it on the world stage.
Rugby union’s re-admission to the Olympic family has been the cause for much rejoicing in many parts of the world where Olympic recognition is a trigger for funding that can help the sport build profile and recognition. But nowhere is the impact likely to be more dramatic than in the United States, where the nation’s obsession with all things Olympic means that the national sevens team will be take a turbo-charged ride to national prominence, fuelled by United States Olympic Committee (USOC) funding and significant television exposure.
The Olympic opportunity is massive and it is one that Dan Lyle, former captain of both the national team, the US Eagles, and Bath in England’s Premiership, is determined not to squander. Today Lyle is Tournament Director of USA Sevens, a commercial organisation which works with governing body USA Rugby Union to promote tournaments, run the commercial programme and publish a US rugby magazine and website. It is, Lyle says, a far-from-usual model compared to certain US sports. He points to US Soccer, where a specialised commercial division, United Soccer Marketing, takes care of business leaving the governing body to focus on development and governance issues.
Lyle’s own story is fascinating and the focus and commitment to success that he has demonstrated throughout his playing career is now being applied to the sports business. Brought up in a military family, he spent some of his childhood in Europe, gaining a familiarity with the world outside America which, he says, may have contributed to his willingness to build a sporting career beyond its shores.
He was a formidable College Football player but it is reported he struggled to make it with a professional side. He was invited to pre-season try-outs by teams including the Washington Redskins and there was a league minimum offer from the Minnesota Vikings, but Lyle decided to go his own way. He had started playing rugby to keep in shape after College Football and found an affinity with a game which suited his size and powerful athleticism. Lyle found rugby union also represented a fast-track opportunity to represent his country and tour the world.
Lyle won his first US Eagles cap as a flanker against Ireland in 1994 and went on to captain the side for the first of many occasions in the Pacific Rim tournament against Japan a couple of years later. This was at a time when rugby union was slowly adapting to its new professional era and his performance in an international against Canada was noted by representatives of Bath, a leading English club that was looking for talented second rows.
Packing any remaining National Football League dreams into a kitbag, Lyle set off for England for trials and, eventually, a low-wage contract which was the start of an enduring relationship with the club.
“The thing I liked about playing rugby in England was that it was based on meritocracy,” he says. “There were tough times when I, in some people’s eyes, was never going to be as good as a native Englishman. However meritocracy wins out - meaning if you play the best consistently, you generally get the starting nod.
“You have to back up every game with another strong performance, each time out. I overcame some of these challenges by being consistent, not just on the field, but in my preparations to get on the field. In short, I was the first to show up, and the last to leave. I led the Bath club in tackles, but also in the number of schools I visited in the community.
“I recently told a couple of guys that are going to Europe to play that you must be the best player you can be. But as an old coach of mine once said, also win all the things you can win - win the press conference, win the recovery period, do all the little things well and the big things will come.”
Lyle played during a time of transition for Bath as the internationals whose careers had more or less peaked around the time of the 1991 and 1994 World Cups were succeeded by a new raft of talent which kept Bath at, or close to, the top of the sport, not only in England, but in Europe. He played in the side which lifted the hugely prestigious Heineken (European) Cup in 1998, beating Brive on French soil in Bordeaux. Eventually Lyle became the club’s skipper, somewhat inevitably earning the Captain America tag which suited his 6 feet 5 inches frame.
Reflecting on his playing career in an interview with US sports broadcasting giant ESPN, Lyle said: “Playing on the US team from 1993 to 2003 was an incredible honour; a decade in the game saw many highs, playing for your country can never be topped, full stop.
“There were several full seasons at Bath where I did not feel I could be stopped and I relished in the personal and team accomplishments. Being mentioned in the top world newspapers, rugby magazines and online articles as consistently the world’s best Number Eight - as an American that was motivational to me. But more importantly, it proved to me that as a country we could be successful in rugby, not in the distant future, not someday, but now. We have an abundance of natural resources in our athletes, and the factories to produce them in our American scholastic and collegiate schools.”
Date : 06/12/2010 Monday