Making the Eagles and playing professional rugby is something that thousands of young people dream about across the country. However, only a very small percentage of those actually make the Eagles and an even smaller percentage play professionally. So how does it happen? Is there any surefire way to be an American and land a professional contract?
The short answer is no, but the long answer is maybe. The traditional pathway for aspiring rugby players has been to go to college, get on the Eagles, and then earn a contract overseas. That has been the pattern for all-time leading cap winner for the Eagles Mike MacDonald, captain Todd Clever, Mike Petri, Paul Emerick, and several others.
Another traditional pathway is to grow up overseas. Americans are an extremely diverse people with roots all over the world. Often that means that players on the Eagles have either been born in America and grown up overseas or were born overseas to American parents. These players grow up in traditional rugby countries playing in the academies of established clubs. For example, Eagles stalwart Chris Wyles grew up in England. Andrew Durutalo grew up in Fiji and Japan. The Suniula’s grew up in New Zealand and Australia, Luke Hume in England, Taku Ngwenya in Zimbabwe, and James Paterson in New Zealand. Because these players often are dual-citizens, they are able to get around visa restrictions.
But what about the rest? Some of the players on the Eagles summer roster didn’t play the game in college but took it up later and excelled in the club game. Some have played for the U.S.A. 7’s team. Recently, a couple of players—Samu Manoa and Seta Tuilevuka—have gone from playing club rugby and playing on the fringes of the Eagles squad to earning professional contracts overseas.
None of these pathways are guaranteed. However, if there was one pathway that seemed to be a guarantee to the Eagles and a professional contract, it’s playing overseas in a traditional rugby university. Two players on the Eagles summer roster, and one that has retired from rugby, have made the roster by leaving America to pursue and education overseas and to play rugby.
Scott LaValla is one of the brightest up and coming American players. After being a standout player in Olympia, Washington, LaValla turned down scholarship offers in America to play for Trinity College (Dublin) in Ireland. Any time you turn down a scholarship offer it is a risky move, but LaValla wanted to ensure that he had a chance to play rugby. For LaValla, the move turned out to be a great one. By the end of his four years he was a star player for Trinity and had even played matches with the Ulster Ravens (Ulster reserves) in the British and Irish Cup. After graduating, he signed a contract with French powerhouse Stade Francais and made the Eagles World Cup team.
Will Johnson played four years on the Harvard football team. When his time was up he went to Cambridge for graduate school. While at Cambridge he took up rugby and excelled, eventually earning a Blue in the annual Varsity match with Oxford. After graduation, he signed with London Irish. Even though Johnson wasn’t able to break into many matches with the first team, he did see significant action for London Welsh in the Championship. Injuries did take their toll, and he eventually left rugby for a career in business. Still, during his time at Cambridge and London Irish, he managed to play for the Eagles and play very well.
Derek Asbun received his first Eagles cap during this summer’s test series. Asbun, who was a standout and All-American at Cal, also decided to pursue graduate work overseas after graduation. He landed at Oxford where he has been a mainstay of their rugby team this year. He has captained the side and earned a Blue. During his time at Oxford, he has been able to hone his skills and versatility. His improvement showed this summer when he played very well for the Eagles. Today, Asbun is getting set to play for London Wasps in the J.P. Morgan 7’s tournament. If he plays well, it could eventually see him land a place on the team. Either way, he has turned heads in England and could be in line for a contract somewhere else.
So why does this pathway seem to lead to more success in getting on the Eagles and landing a professional contract than others? Simply, it’s about exposure. Professional teams around the world don’t really have scouts in America on the lookout for talent. Because of visa restrictions and other factors, it isn’t worth their time. Any player in America that they might want to take a look at will play for the Eagles. However, professional teams are always on the look out for players from place like Trinity, Oxford, and Cambridge. They have been traditional pipelines to the pros. So for Americans playing on those teams, they are going to be seen by scouts more regularly and can convince teams of their quality.
It’s hard getting overseas to play rugby. Not everyone can go to Cambridge or Oxford, not everyone can go to Trinity. There are family and education concerns to consider. But if you want to be exposed to more professional teams, there is little doubt that playing collegiately overseas can help you get there.
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