Next year looks like the end of the road for the Churchill Cup, and the tournament probably has already staged its last match in North America.
It's 'doubtful' the competition will continue after the 2011 World Cup, according to USARFU officials familiar with Churchill Alliance planning. Additionally, next year's competition will be staged in England, as it was in the 2007 World Cup year.
Created in 2002 by the United States, Canada, and England to develop North America's market for international rugby, the 8-year-old partnership has tried various formats and venues without turning operating profits. England has shouldered the losses from inception, but anticipating a revised International Rugby Board tours schedule after 2011, is now looking to wind down its commitment.
For USARFU, the expected outcome carries significant competitive and commercial implications. Along with the North American 4, the Churchill was a centerpiece of the union's 2006 strategic plan and remains important to its 2009 blueprint for the Eagles.
For the better part of the past 15 years, senior national teamers have played in as many as seven games in late May, June, and July. From 2012, however, USARFU officials expects its June international calendar will comprise two or three games featuring Canada, Europe's 'Tier 1' countries such as Italy, Ireland, and Scotland (stipulated by the IRB master tour schedule), and perhaps some of the 'Tier 2' Pacific nations.
With over half of the fall 2010 Eagle squad based overseas and competing professionally from August to May, and another large group on the World Sevens Series, it may be that a robust summer schedule is less important. USARFU also intends to mount tours to Europe each November, with mainly Tier 2 European opponents.
What of domestic, non-7s players? USARFU's strategic plan calls for developing 'a business plan for an elite men’s professional competition to be played prior to the June/November international player release windows'.
Boulder may also look to schedule matches against professional European teams during their August preseason, as it did against Ireland's Munster and France's Clermont Auvergne in 2007-08. The NA4, since restyled as the Americas Rugby Championship, depends entirely on the IRB and was last month played in Argentina, which is preparing join the Southern hemisphere's Tri Nations. The 'cross border' competition does not look a long-term option.
On the commercial side, for the first time since the Can-Am Series began in 1977, Canada and the United States did not meet in 2010. It appears there's commitment to resuming the rivalry on a yearly basis. Nailing down European opponents is a more fraught proposition, however, as the master schedule is an elusive document and the Europeans owe away matches in June to the Southern hemisphere countries who visit them in November.
European tests are typically marketable in America, more so than biennial matches against Canada or, for that matter, the various 'A' sides which populated the Churchill. But the broader problem is a reliable schedule sufficiently robust to attract a strategic television partner -- the key to USARFU's generating steady revenue from its international program.
Following 7s' inclusion in the Olympics, it also appears to be the case that 15s is less commercially attractive than the abbreviated game, which has made significant broadcasting inroads over the past year.
Holding the 2011 Churchill in England is a faultless decision. England's team management wants to personally evaluate the 'A' side (known as the Saxons), and the event projects greater appeal to the English public -- particularly one that might not travel to New Zealand -- than it does to North Americans.
At the South Africa 7s in George, the USA slumped to a 1-4 record and Shield semifinal loss to Zimbabwe. After 2 tournaments, the 7s Eagles are 9th.