When talk of expanding professional rugby in America arises, inevitably someone will bring up the depth of the domestic player pool, or lack thereof, as a weakness. “Where are you going to get the players,” they’ll ask, certain they’ve just delivered the walk-off line ending the discussion.
The presumption is that America’s rugby-playing population, which hovered around 100,000-strong pre-pandemic, doesn’t yield the critical mass of skill and talent required to support multiple leagues or the expansion of existing ones.
Our most talented athletes are attracted to mainstream sports in high school and college, and if they pick up rugby, they’re too old to develop the skills and IQ of a world-class player. Those who do play rugby in those formative years don’t have the coaching, resources or athletic talent to become a world-class player. Or so the argument goes.
For Premier Rugby Sevens, the world’s first-ever pro league for sevens which launched its inaugural championship in October on the sculpted shoulders of almost exclusively North American talent, this conventional wisdom has been something to consider from the get-go. That the first visions of the competition were conjured during quarantine and founding conversations were had in 2020 only served to complicate the question at hand; is the domestic talent pool deep enough to make North America fall in love with the most electrifying sport on the planet?
For starters, scouting in a pandemic proved challenging, if not nearly impossible. From the time everyone’s old normal came to a screeching halt in March of 2020 through the spring of 2021, rugby across the entire country was on pause. National teams didn’t play a phase, nor did clubs, colleges or high schools, for the better part of 18 months.
As the vaccine was dispersed, rugby returned gradually. By the time General Manager Mike Tolkin had to divvy up the six men’s and four women’s teams for that inaugural tournament, any relevant film was nearly two years old.
Still, the league identified and signed more than 120 athletes, almost all of them hailing from the United States or Canada, and put on a scintillating show of skill and athleticism. With more tournaments on tap for PR7s’ first proper season in 2022, rosters will be expanding by two-thirds. That means once again, the league is going to challenge the widely-accepted notion America is short on talented, capable rugby players.
For the inaugural championship, a handful were plucked from obscurity at the Open Trials. A good chunk came from America’s men’s and women’s national teams, fresh off the Olympics, and Rugby Canada provided some capped internationals, too.
There were some products of the collegiate rugby pipeline and the competitive summer club 7s circuits as well as some out-and-out crossovers from mainstream sports, like Expert and tournament MVP Logan Tago, the former Washington State defensive end who’d been playing rugby less than a year. Or Loggerhead Leon Powell, the former UCLA track star.
None, though, came to PR7s more decorated than David Verburg, the two-time gold-medal-winning sprinter for Team USA, who pitched up for the Loonies in Memphis. Having retired from track before COVID, Verburg, who played football and soccer in high school, sought out rugby.
“I had done everything I wanted to do and I decided to stop [track] before I hated it,” he said. “But I was still fit, athletic, and still wanted to be competitive at a sport and potentially vie for a spot for the USA team. So I kind of stumbled upon rugby.”
Verburg and Powell both found their new sport through the grassroots club game, which isn’t uncommon. A month ago, I found myself in the stands of a college all-star tournament in the shadow of a former Texas A&M defensive end who now plays club rugby socially in Houston. On my club team in Kansas City, I coach a 34-year-old rookie who won a football national championship playing defensive end at a little school called the University of Florida. Urban Meyer was his coach. Tim Tebow and Aaron Hernandez were his teammates.
Ahman Green, the former All-Pro running back for the Green Bay Packers, made a run at the sevens national team after retiring from the NFL. The rugby bug bit him so hard, he even served as the president of a senior men’s club in Green Bay.
Maurice Clarett, poster boy of Ohio State’s 2002 national championship team and former Denver Bronco, trained with Tiger Rugby, where Perry Baker prepped to become an Eagle, for a short stint with the expressed goal of making the national team, too.
These occurrences are just common enough to whet the appetite of rabid Eagle fans, but just rare enough to keep the giant slumbering soundly. That’s how the rugby world views America, as its sleeping giant.
If only you could get rugby balls in the hands of people like Verburg and Tago at a young enough age, and keep them from being distracted by the allure of America’s mainstream sports, you would stir the giant out of its slumber and the United States would dominate as bigger, faster and stronger.
Often, these high-performance athletes who randomly stumble into rugby fall off, like Green and Clarett. Sometimes, they get hooked long enough to become Carlin Isles, the former D2 wide
receiver who picked up rugby after qualifying for the 2012 Olympic Trials as a sprinter. Now 10 years and two Olympics later, he ranks seventh all-time in tries on the World Series. His story is that of Verburg and Powell, with more time.
Or Alev Kelter, another true example of a crossover, having represented the USA at the age-grade level in both hockey and soccer before double-lettering at Wisconsin in both sports. She had never so much as touched a rugby ball until the age of 23. Now she’s arguably the best sevens player in the world, even though she’s taking a hiatus to play 15s professionally in England.
Other times, these high-performance mainstream athletes were actually rugby players before they were considered high-performance mainstream athletes. Before he excelled as a receiver at FCS Fairmount State, signed an undrafted free agent contract with the Philadelphia Eagles, or played a down in the Arena Football League, Baker was just a high school kid being recruited to play rugby by his football coach.
Nine years after putting down the pads and picking up the rugby ball full-time, Baker sits one spot below Isles on the all-time try list, but one spot above him on the trophy count, having led the Experts to the inaugural PR7s title.
All-Pro and three-time Super Bowl champion Nate Ebner was also a rugby player before he was known as a football star. The son of a rugby-playing father, Ebner played peewee gridiron, but put down the pads to focus on rugby throughout high school. It wasn’t until his junior year at Ohio State he put all the gear back on again, walking onto the Buckeye football team before being selected in the sixth round of the NFL Draft.
Ebner famously returned to rugby during the NFL offseason to earn a spot on Team USA for Rio 2016, becoming the first athlete with prior NFL experience to compete in the Summer Olympics. Those are two of the rugby guys who became really high-performing stars at the top end of other professional sports and returned to the pitch.
There are also plenty of guys who grow up with the sport, like Ravens Hall of Famer Haloti Ngata, Steelers Pro Bowl wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Johnson Bademosi, who played high school rugby at Gonzaga before his nine-year career in the NFL, that never return.
All that to say, American rugby isn’t short on talent. We create it through our grassroots, with high school, college and senior clubs regularly recruiting and developing exceptional talent for the national teams. When our best athletes play rugby long enough, they excel.
In sevens, this is confirmed by the USA’s emergence as contenders on the global stage. Both the men and women rank fourth currently. It’s confirmed by Ebner, a rugby kid who became a mainstream star and returned to rugby. By Kelter and Isles, mainstream stars who found rugby late to become world class.
And by people like Team star Danny Barrett, who grew up in the shadow of his rugby-playing brothers and followed every step of the age-grade pathway to the Olympics, or Headliner Katie Johnson, whose father was her first rugby coach and took the same route as Barrett to Rio. Neither identified by a mainstream coach as such special athletes they were wooed away from rugby, but both now on the spectrum of world famous for laying the wood.
It’s further evidenced in 15s, where there’s an extra layer of validation when Joe Taufete’e, who started playing club rugby to impress his girlfriend in his early 20s, becomes one of the all-time international try scorers at the position. Or Samu Manoa, the former HBCU quarterback-turned-lock who becomes one of the highest paid players in the world.
If you start playing rugby in high school in America, you can become a world-class player, whether you’re good enough to be signed to an NFL contract like Baker or simply a mortal human like Barrett or Johnson.
Some of the athletes who play rugby as kids are so good, like Ngata and Smith-Schuster, they never return to rugby, because they’re too busy becoming generationally wealthy playing football.
American athletes are so talented, that even if they start playing rugby late in America, like Kelter, Taufete’e and Manoa, they can still become world class.
Bottom line; America has athletes. And it has rugby players. It has so many of both, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish who is which. Is Nate Ebner such a good rugby player because he’s an NFL-caliber athlete, or is he an NFL-caliber athlete because he was such a good rugby player?
The belief that America is short on athletes who can pick up the game in their 20s and become legitimate stars belies the data and serves as a sleep aid for the giant. Same with the belief that American ruggers are inferior athletically.
Often, the most elusive requisite for an American athlete to have world-class rugby potential isn’t an athletic pedigree. It isn’t even rugby experience, nor necessarily time. It’s an opportunity. And that’s where PR7s comes in.
By Pat Clifton