As the Rugby World Cup heads into its fourth week in New Zealand, members of the U.S. Eagles are focused on this weekend’s quarterfinal round rematch against Canada (11:30pm ET on Saturday, Peacock).
But for many players, this two-month block of time they’ve been able to devote to their team, their sport and its flagship event is the exception rather than the rule. Not only is there the obvious: the four-year gap between World Cups – a gap that stretched to five years this cycle due to the pandemic – but also the undeniable reality that playing professional rugby full-time is extremely difficult, both financially and logistically.
“It’s very difficult to have a full-time job and training the way that we would like to train,” said Gabby Cantorna, who is making her first World Cup appearance in New Zealand and plays for the Exeter Chiefs when she isn’t with the national team. “For those of us that have wanted to focus on rugby, there’s definitely been sacrifices along the way. Whether it was in a workplace or even in their personal lives, sacrifices have been made to be on this team.”
Cantorna notes that common bond over team and sport has inspired unity among the Americans, who amassed one win (against Japan) and two losses (against Italy and Canada) during pool play.
“For the most part, I would say people are very good at juggling those two things (work and rugby), and it’s a shame that we do have to juggle them,” she said. “…But that’s kind of just the reality of our situations, the reality of playing for our country at the moment, which we’re all incredibly proud to do and to be able to do. And it just requires [a lot from] us along the way.”
RUGBY WORLD CUP: How to watch, TV and streaming schedule, highlights and results
“I was teaching at school on Wednesday and then flying to a World Cup on Thursday,” 27-year-old U.S. full back Lotte Clapp recounted ahead of her World Cup debut. “It’s definitely a bit surreal, but it’s a very fortunate position and I’m going to take any opportunity I get.”
For 26-year-old scrum half Carly Waters, also playing in her first World Cup, her journey to New Zealand with the national team has come with extensive travel – including multiple relocations – and the price tag associated with nearly each logistical maneuver.
Waters was a three-time All-American at Penn State, where she was a member of three national championship teams (2015-17). But to pursue her goal of making the U.S. national team, she was told she needed to first play in USA Rugby’s Women’s Premier League (WPL), the top annual women’s rugby union competition in the United States. With just 10 teams to choose from, Waters initially chose the New York Rugby Club for its manageable proximity to her parents’ home outside Philadelphia, where she lived and worked.
“Twice a week, plus wherever games were at, I was driving up there for training or taking a flight somewhere,” said Waters, who estimates that first season cost her $7,000 in gas money, flights and gym fees alone. “Just with the size of America, we have really no choice but to take a flight to every game. So that is just a challenge to the league. It’s player-funded, so it’s an expense in and of itself.”
Along with several former Penn State teammates, Waters relocated to Colorado in 2019 and joined the Glendale Merlins (renamed in 2022 as the Colorado Gray Wolves). As one of the only teams in the WPL with city funding, Waters was able to save on costs for the season as well as add her first league championship to her resume. But when the pandemic shut down WPL play in 2020 and 2021, it prompted her biggest move yet: to England’s Premier 15s, the top tier of the English domestic league system run by the Rugby Football Union.
“The Premiership is the top women’s league in the world, and that is fully funded,” Waters explained. “While I’m there, I’m considered a professional athlete. I get a monthly stipend, they cover my flights, they cover my bags there, they provide housing, my car, if necessary. Most teams provide a meal during the day, before or after training.”
Of the 42 U.S. women named to the pre-World Cup player pool, 22 played in the Premier 15s last season, 18 played in the WPL and two are still in college. And while playing in England can allow players to focus full-time on rugby, they still often supplement their income via coaching roles or other remote work. U.S. forward Jenny Kronish plays for the Harlequins in England and also works remotely as the marketing manager for the New England Free Jacks, while back Cantorna works part-time as an assistant coach for the Exeter Chiefs.
The juggling act extends beyond the players to the coaching staff as well. But U.S. assistant coach Jamie Burke, who also serves as a coach for the Colorado Gray Wolves, notes that this has led to a wide network of contacts within the sport.
“The players, they’ll kind of compare notes and go, ‘All right, what does it look like where you are? What does it look like where we are? How do we match up? …And then on the administrative and coaching side, and our management teams talk to each other,” Burke explained.
“We’ve gotten together and had coffees and chatted and so we’re always chatting like, ‘What do your contracts look like for your coaches? [What] does your hiring process look like?’ Those types of things. …So, those conversations are happening. It’s just figuring out, what is the action that goes along with them?”
On Her Turf editor Alex Azzi contributed to this report.