Unearthing the next American rugby star
April 4, 2014
The USA have qualified for the 2015 RWC but there are plans afoot to unearth the next star © Twitter
"It's like shale gas. It was always there, it just took a long time to work out how to get at it." Maybe fracking isn't the happiest analogy for the challenge of getting the athletic talent discarded by American football into rugby, but you know exactly what Mac Robertson, managing partner of Rugby Law, means.
This weekend sees Robertson's company organising the most ambitious attempt yet at tapping that talent - the National Rugby Football League combine in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Around 150 players will take part in the two-day event. It starts with National Football League-style strength and speed tests before continuing with exercises designed to spot rugby potential, all under the direction of former Irish national coach Eddie O'Sullivan.
Also in attendance will be representatives of eight European teams - Saracens, Munster, Ulster, Ospreys, Grenoble, La Rochelle, Bayonne and those archetypal fallen giants Beziers - hoping to spot players with serious potential.
"They divide roughly into three groups. One third have spent time on NFL rosters, another third played top level college football, almost all of them in Division One, and the rest are established rugby players," says Robertson.
A significant proportion play on special teams, traditionally the most versatile and physically committed players in American football squads, and there is strong representation from defensive and tight ends.
"These players are not rejects. Only a tiny proportion of college players get to play as professionals, and selection by the NFL is highly specialised and often quirky", says Robertson, "If you've played three or four years at somewhere like the University of Oklahoma you're an elite athlete."
It is that athleticism that means he has few doubts about their ability to adjust from the explosive stop-start specialism of football to the 80 minutes, play both ways demands of rugby: "If they've got to build up endurance, that's what they'll do. They won't find adjusting to 80 minutes a problem."
On top of that they remain highly motivated: "They've been dreaming of playing top level sport since they were eight, and they're still dreaming, but those dreams have got nowhere to go. You can play Arena Football, which is pretty exploitative and you barely scrape a living, or perhaps in the Canadian Football League, where you might be paid $50,000."
That Robertson can describe his attempt to convert this group to rugby as "arbitrage, taking advantage of inefficient use of factors production" testifies to the Nova Scotia native's 30 successful years on Wall Street, but it also describes the opportunity.
It is precisely because the NFL has no competitor, semi-professional adjuncts or minor league (a role performed in practice by the colleges) that there is this large pool of unused talent whose skills, tastes and temperament may very well adapt to rugby.
And, given the talent on offer, it would be a surprise if nobody emerged from this weekend to eventually join compatriots like the rocket-fast Takudza Ngwenya, versatile Saracen Chris Wyles or Samu Manoa, who has long transcended his curiosity value as the Premiership's best Spoonerism by becoming one of its most formidable players, in Europe's major leagues. But Robertson, his business partner Michael Clements and O'Sullivan see this as more than just a talent-mine for Europe. They also want their operations to be a springboard for US rugby as a whole.
Looking back over years of conversations with Clements, who made his money in legal services, about how to sell rugby to Americans, he says: "We started finding answers when we stopped thinking of it as a rugby problem and thought of it as a business problem."
Samu Manoa is now an established Premiership performer © Getty Images
This is not, in Robertson's view, about building up grassroots participation. He argues that sport in the US develops differently: "Here it has always been top-down. Look at how hockey developed - in the beginning the New York Rangers were a bunch of Canadians watched by people who had never played the game, but who got to like it."
His ambition is develop rugby as a major league sport - a status which he argues that Major League Soccer, in spite of its name and its doggedly incremental development, has not yet attained: "The National Hockey League can go into Morgan Stanley and get financing. MLS can not."
Finding players would seem to be the least of his problems. It is not hard to imagine that a good number of this weekend's attendees and others like them, plus solid players from South Africa, Argentina and the South Pacific, might very easily be attracted to the idea of making a living playing professionally in the USA.
Finance and broadcasting deals - which tend to go together in US sports - are the big challenge. And this is where Robertson's Wall Street credentials and experience, which far outweigh his rugby status as in his own words 'an Old Boys prop', come in.
He has already found current NFL owners and investors interested in diversifying into a new sport, while the NFL TV network, received by more than 70 million US households, is looking at showing an exhibition match.
That's some way from making it all happen. He'll have to convince some pretty hard-headed plutocrats and broadcasting executives that there is a potential public for the game. Some might say that it is Robertson, even more than the men who will be trying out in Minneapolis, who is dreaming.
But as Robert Kennedy - a Harvard footballer whose aggression, fearlessness and headlong participation in his family's famously ferocious touch football games suggest a man who might easily have taken to rugby - once said "There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?"
And if Robertson's dream comes to fruition, he also has a prediction: "By 2023 we'll have 30 American players in the European Premier Leagues. And if we're successful, and Americans love elite rugby enough to make it the smallest major league, USA will win the 2023 World Cup."
Fulfil even part of that and Robertson and his colleagues will change our game. Minneapolis, as much as Limerick, Clermont Ferrand, Belfast or Toulon, will be watching this weekend.
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