America is often called the Sleeping Giant of rugby due to the untapped potential of players and fans alike but it’s the European clubs who appear to be waking up to the quality of athletes that the college sports programmes here produces.
The USA Eagles side that took to the field against Uruguay to play for Rugby World Cup 2015 qualification included a number of players from top teams in Europe, among them were Chris Wyles of Saracens, Blaine Scully of Leicester, Scott LaValla of Stade Francais, and, Samu Manoa and Cam Dolan of Northampton.
The Americans earned their right to come to England in 2015, qualifying in their recent game with Uruguay
This is a marked contrast to previous campaigns where only one or two players had professional contracts. This increase in overseas-based representation in the squad is no accident.
Publically, the relative success of the USA Sevens team has given players a chance to shine on the global stage. Carlin Isles is just one who has benefited from such exposure although his attempt at a low key introduction to the XVs format was less successful than he might have hoped.
In the background, club coaches and scouts have been actively building relationships with their US college counterparts for a number of years to identify talent at an early stage. The growing number of clubs sending representatives to major events such as the CRCs (College Rugby Championships – annual 7s tournament) shows the interest there is in players from these shores.
On a recent tour to California, my belief in US rugby was reaffirmed. Watching high level schools and collegiate rugby, I witnessed the impressive physical attributes of these players, but more importantly, the technical awareness and overall skill levels of these players showed improvements due to their earlier introduction to the sport. This means that the skill levels are improving from an earlier age. Although, it will take time for these advances in the game to filter through, there is no doubt, we are heading in the right direction.
This process has served clubs and players well so far. But in an interesting development, those looking to find the next big name have been drawn to Minneapolis for what organisers called the inaugural rugby combine.
A ‘combine’ is a familiar term for those in US sports. It is a showcase that allows athletes to be compared across a range of standardised tests. Representatives from clubs such as Saracens, Harlequins, Munster, Grenoble, Ulster, Bayonne, La Rochelle, Ospreys, and Beziers gathered to see players complete physical tests such as the 40-yard dash, 60-yard shuttle, 100-yard sprints, and bench press. There was also a rugby skills sessions run by former USA and Ireland Coach Eddie O’Sullivan.
What makes this an interesting development is that not only did coaches see rugby players but also NFL athletes . I wrote an article on my LineoutCoach website which looked at the potential for crossover between the two sports and the benefits that could come from American Football and Rugby Two Way Traffic.
Rugby remains an amateur sport here, and there is much talk of how best to grow the game. Closer ties to American Football is a recurring theme and RugbyLaw, the company behind the Combine event, are actively trying to jump start a professional domestic league started by blending the best of the current domestic players with NFL athletes.
The quality of rugby that this ‘instant’ league could generate is an obvious concern and one that Rugby Law partner George Robertson was quick to dispel when interviewed for TheScore.ie about their NRFL [National Rugby Football League] plans.
He (Robertson) sees a “phenomenal opportunity” for a professional rugby union league in America, but insists that it must only be launched with a high base of playing quality. The MLS [Major League Soccer] has failed to capture the imagination of American sports fans, simply because the standard is so poor in comparison with other leagues in the world.
“If the starting point is one of high-quality, Robertson believes collision-loving American sports fans will “fall in love with 15s elite rugby union.”
It will be interesting to see the outcome of this event and if any clubs act on what they see. American Football players undoubtedly have the physical qualities to play the game but will they show the potential skills required to claim a place at a top team?
What is clear is that while US players continue to perform at elite level there will be clubs looking to benefit from their skills. Leicester Tigers’ Blaine Scully could be the first of many.
Richard Cockerill with Leicester Tigers' American Eagle, winger Blaine Scully
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