While most of the attention was rightfully focused on domestic championships over the weekend, over in England, two American secured victories that will ses them play against one another for a title. Andrew Suniula and his Cornish Pirates team defeated Bristol on aggregate while Shawn Pittman and his London Welsh did the same to Bedford. This means that both players and teams will square off against one another over two legs for the RFU Championships. The Pirates will host the first leg on May 23rd and the Exiles will host the second leg on May 30th at Oxford’s Kassam Stadium, a venue they hope to use if promoted.
Two Americans squaring off against one another for any kind of trophy would be significant, but how these two players have used this experience adds even more to the importance of the match. While the RFU Championship is not the toughest league in the world, it is high-quality and for two American to not only get time on their teams, but to play a significant role in their success, is quite an accomplishment.
Pittman joined London Welsh in the summer of 2010 and has been a big part of London Welsh’s success during that time. In addition to this year’s semi-final, the Exiles made it to the same point last year as well. Pittman has amassed almost 50 appearances for the team and has shown himself to be a leader. Injuries and the World Cup have slowed him down this year, but he has found ways to contribute. Suniula meanwhile joined the Cornish Pirates in the summer of 2011 just prior to the World Cup. After injuries and playing for the national team saw Suniula off to a slow start, he has become an integral part of the Pirates side, bringing a bruising body to the center position.
Spending time abroad has made both better players. Pittman’s improvement during his first year with London Welsh was one of the big reasons why he had such a successful World Cup. For Suniula, it’s no secret that the Eagles have needed consistency and smart decisions from the center position, and while gaining experience overseas, he should show more patience and poise for the Eagles this summer. Hopefully, more Eagles get a similar opportunity to play abroad as Pittman and Suniula have. Visa restrictions limit the number of foreign players English clubs can have, but with players like Pittman, Suniula, and Mike MacDonald leading the way, more players could get a look.
Besides the significance of Pittman and Suniula using their time abroad to improve themselves, this is a title match and there has to be a winner. So should American fans be cheering for one player of another? Usually no, but in this case yes. The criteria for entry into the Aviva Premiership is rather stringent. Not only do clubs have to have a certain number of supporters and appropriate financial backing, but they must also have a primacy agreement with a stadium. The only team in the RFU Championship semi-finals that was known to have fully met those requirements was Bristol, who were beaten by the Pirates. Additionally, neither Bedford nor the Pirates put themselves forward for promotion, but London Welsh did. The Exiles have stated that they have the financial backing and the supporters and have looked to secure a stadium in Oxford. The only thing left for them to do is to win the two-legged series and promotion.
So should American fans be cheering for Pittman over Suniula? Absolutely, only because it means that one more American could be playing in the Premiership next year. We want our players playing at the highest level possible and if they aren’t being signed to Premiership teams, they can win their way through promotion. How will top flight teams feel about Americans if winning teams in the RFU Championship have Americans who play a significant role on the team? Most likely they will begin to think harder about signing the next Pittman or Suniula. So while a victory for either team would be good, here’s hoping Pittman’s team gets the win.
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