By Mike Petri
There are many different arguments out there about the best way to develop the USA Men’s National Team so that it is more competitive on a regular basis with elite caliber teams. Many would claim that getting players into an overseas environment is the best way to accomplish this. Although I agree that being in a professional atmosphere is the best case scenario, I would argue that more attention needs to be focused on the growth of competitive domestic rugby. (That being said, having an American coach at the helm of the Eagles is a huge, positive step in the right direction).
The majority of our American players that have played overseas have been blessed to be in possession of a European or Polynesian passport. All of the USA players are aware of this fact and those that are somehow eligible to obtain one of the “gold ticket” passports scramble to do so in hopes that it might open at least a few doors and remove the stigma of being not only American but a foreigner, too.
As a player that went to Europe without such a luxury and relied solely on an American passport, I can assure you that being a foreign player in a professional league is not always ideal. Most, if not all, overseas rugby unions offer incentives for teams to play domestically eligible players in their professional competitions on a regular basis. This usually comes in the form of a significant financial benefit. As rugby has not yet reached the lucrative financial ranks in terms of revenue generation, clubs work hard to ensure that they meet these union qualifications and quotas to receive the money.
In the English Rugby Premiership, teams are financially rewarded at the end of the season with an £80,000 ($125,409 USD) bonus for fielding an average of 14 English Qualified Players (EQP) per match day 23 throughout the season. Here is an interesting article about one of the clubs I was with in England, Sale Sharks, and their apparent last minute efforts to conform to this policy just to receive the bonus.
So Americans overseas playing on an American passport are constantly up against a tough challenge just to make game day selections simply due to the fact that from a club’s perspective they can possibly be a financial liability.
Now let’s also take a look at the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU). In December 2011, they implemented a new rule going forward to reduce the number of foreign players in their professional ranks in order to develop more Irish talent. In essence, the regulation stipulates that if Ulster, Leinster, or Munster signs a foreign player in a specific position, then the other clubs would not be able to sign a foreign player at the same spot. As an example, Ulster has Ruan Pienaar signed as a scrumhalf. Therefore, none of the other provinces can sign an overseas number nine. This ensures that the other spots are reserved for specifically for Irish players. Clearly, they are making an effort to develop their own talent and keep their best players playing at home. This isn’t exactly the friendliest of circumstances for Americans trying to break into the Irish professional ranks but certainly offers many more Irish players ample opportunities.
Furthermore, to add to the pressures faced by true American players overseas, the competitions also sometimes explicitly limit the number of foreign players allowed in a match day lineup. In England, where their intentions to promote domestic talent have been clear, the Premiership limit is two on the field per team at any one time. With the new European Union work laws all EU passport holders do not count against this two player quota. Similarly, as of recently, South Africans and Polynesian players do not affect this number either. However, my understanding is that this is soon to change with more focusing being put on giving EQP opportunities.
In America, at the top domestic level in the US Rugby Super League, teams are allowed as many as five foreign players. This sometimes helps promote the competitive nature of the teams but also arguably limits our ability to develop our own talent. There is no doubt that import players can be very important and add value to any team. Yet for a nation struggling to catch up to the rest of the world I believe that more of an initiative needs to be taken to develop our own American talent. Although we are not capable of offering a financial benefit, perhaps a bonus point system could be introduced to reward teams that consistently field American-eligible talent.
The other side of the argument as to how best develop our talent goes back to overseas rugby. As mentioned previously, there were a significant number of players that did not count against the foreign rule quota (although I am still looking into the structure heading into next season). These included players from the Pacific Island nations as well as those from South Africa, which were exceptions due to the underdeveloped nature of their domestic economies. I understand the idea that professional rugby offers many of these athletes a real career opportunity that they might not have otherwise had, but unfortunately that is usually not the case. Many of these players have real opportunities locally to play Super Rugby or in the Currie Cup (SA) and earn a living playing rugby. Furthermore, many of the Polynesian players are eligible to play in competitions like the ITM Cup in New Zealand. From an American’s standpoint, although we enjoy a better economy than the previously mentioned nations, we do not share the same professional rugby opportunities within our own borders and are arguably third world in this category. Therefore, I would argue that if the iRB truly wants to make an impact and grow American rugby then overseas clubs must not be made to feel penalized or as though they are taking a major risk by signing American players. Of course, this kind of regulation would face significant opposition from nations that want to develop and offer opportunities to their own talent, not Americans.
Furthermore, in order for an American player to obtain the highly skilled sportsperson visa to qualify a player for a work permit to play for the overseas club, that player must be capped at the senior test level for his country. This means that for the honor of representing the USA a player now has his doors opened to qualify for a visa but those same doors usually are immediately slammed shut as he no is also no longer qualified to play for any other country.
Along these lines, consider someone like Hanno Dirksen. I played with Hanno back in 2008 under USA Coach Scott Johnson. Hanno is now doing great in Wales with the Ospreys and signed a new two year contract. Although he has played at the USA junior levels he still has not been capped at the senior test level. If he were capped he would limit his options overseas because he would then become a foreign player, whereas now that there is still a possibility that he is on track to be eligible to play for Wales through long term residency.
Domestically, the NA4 was a failed attempt to grow the sport here. Similarly, the Americas Rugby Championship (ARC) may face the same fate as players going to that assembly only work on a small per diem basis. Any domestic Eagles have a hard enough time as it is finding time away from their careers and families for a regular tour or test series let alone a developmental tournament in the autumn. The alternative then is to select college players, which unfortunately is equally as difficult as the ARC falls right in the middle of the fall academic semester. Unfortunately, professors aren’t always supportive or interested in non-Varsity extracurricular activities requiring students to miss nearly a month of class, regardless of the competitive level. Hopefully I am proven wrong and the ARC produces some quality test-caliber players for America.
I should make it clear that I am fully supportive of rugby nations wanting to develop their own talent domestically. It makes perfect sense that unions want their best, home grown players to remain within their borders. They are more easily accessible for national team duties and their status raises awareness of the domestic game and brings fans to the stadium that want to support the local superstar.
Look at it this way – here in New York, we wouldn’t have wanted a young Derek Jeter (who is originally from New Jersey) leaving the Yankees back in 1992 to go to Japan or any other professional baseball league (if there happened to be one like the MLB).
Although this is perhaps not the best analogy, it aims nonetheless to help make a point that it is imperative that we, as a developing rugby nation, focus our efforts within our borders to make rugby competitive and develop a system that motivates our young athletes to stay in America and gives them a legitimate reason to want to do so.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. There will hopefully be more information and lots of ideas that follow. I, personally, don’t have the answer but will explore different possibilities and ideas for the best way to better our national team and promote the growth of domestic talent. This will help the USA finally awake from its slumber and rise to be the rugby power it undoubtedly has the potential to be. It will give young, aspiring rugby players something promising and substantial to look forward to in their careers. We certainly can’t rely on overseas professional leagues to be the basis of our future development. We need to take the responsibility upon ourselves to push for domestic growth. Of course, this will take patience and persistence.
In the meantime though of course, it would be nice if the iRB intervened with the unions and lifted some of the obstacles of getting American passport-holding players into the overseas professional ranks. Maybe the unions could even reach some mutually beneficial terms so that USA players don’t count against the foreign quota. It’s a short-sighted plan that would at least help get us over the hump. I’m not a gambling man, but I don’t think I would bet my life savings on that happening any time soon.
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