The USA Tomahawks have been the fairytale story of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, but can they spread the game back home? Credit: SWpix.com Copyright: SWpix.com
Nine-time world champions Australia might be the United States' toughest test thus far in the World Cup, but an even bigger challenge awaits back home.
The Tomahawks have been the fairytale success story of the 2013 World Cup, defying pre-tournament expectations that had the tournament debutants flying back home with their tales between their legs in time for the winter holidays.
Instead, USA have shocked the world, upsetting fourth-ranked nation France in a warm-up game before climbing over the NRL-flavoured Cook Islands and Super League-experienced Wales in their first two games. They lost their third and final group game against Scotland last week.
But while making a quarter-final against Australia has already been a history-making triumph, halfback Craig Priestly hopes their achievements will extend well beyond a simple rise up the RLIF rankings.
Three years ago, seven teams participating in the AMNRL created a rival league, the USARL, citing a lack of input in major decision-making. The factions have been at war ever since, right up until the naming of their inaugural World Cup squad which, to the outrage of those at the USARL, didn't include any players from the new competition.
"Obviously there's two leagues back home and we're trying to get it back into one so we'll be going into talks about the competition when we get back and hopefully we can sort something out," Priestly told NRL.com.
"That's one of the things we want out of this World Cup. I'm really hoping the US have really seen what we've done and what we're capable of. Hopefully that can bring bigger success to the American domestic comp."
And Priestly, who both founded and still plays for AMNRL club Southampton Dragons, believes his teammates have already turned heads back home, beginning with a passing mention in the New York Times.
"The captain Joseph Paulo scored two tries and the United States won its Rugby League World Cup debut, beating the Cook Islands, 32-20, in Bristol, England," it said on page B19 of the print edition on October 31.
It was a small step for the Tomahawks, but a giant leap for international rugby league.
"There are heaps of people taking notice. Both competitions are really getting behind us, which is great," Priestly continues.
"I've had a bit of feedback from mates who are teachers and all their kids have been watching our games, drawing posters and going out into the playground pretending they're Joseph Paulo.
"Some said they wanted to be like Craig Priestly. It's cool to see because no-one knows what rugby league is in America. That's why we've got to build on what we've done here."
Young Tomahawks talents such as Hawaiian-based Les Soloai and New Jersey-born Craig Garvey are already being scouted as potential NRL players.
So a strong showing against World Cup favourites Australia will not only give their players more of an opportunity to actually fulfil their rugby league ambitions as a player, but further enhance USA's credibility as a rugby league market.
"When I came over to the Hamptons to start a team three years ago, I never would've expected to be playing in a quarter-final against Australia," Priestly says.
"You dream as a little kid to be playing for your country in any sport. You watch the World Cups and you want to be there.
"And for us to be written off all tournament – people were saying we were going to get beat by 100 in every game, and then to do what we did and make the quarters against the Aussies, it's unbelievable.
"Guys like Michael Garvey, went over to play FOGS Cup [in Queensland] and was great over there. I think he'll have a real crack at the NRL and at the end of the World Cup, there'll be recruitment managers and NRL coaches who'll see what we've done [and] hopefully get a few other guys picked up as well."