Saturdays this fall, you can tune in and watch the players that should be the future of USA Rugby.
Now there are some caveats – for one, these players won’t be playing rugby. For another, these players may have never even held a rugby ball.
Nevertheless, what you will see are a tremendously deep pool of top-flight athletes playing a full-contact sport, that sport will just happen to be football. Division I college football, to be precise.
Rugby won’t ever get the best college football players of course, those guys are going to the NFL. But even after you scrape off the cream of the crop from college football each year, there are still hundreds of football players graduating from college each year who won’t have a future in the NFL. Here’s some basic math – you might find 100 players on a typical FBS college football roster. Once you factor in redshirts, let’s say 20 of those players graduate each year. There are about 120 FBS football programs, multiply that by 20 and you get 2400. Maybe 400 of those guys find their way to the NFL, leaving 2000 or so Division I-caliber athletes (not to mention some other pretty good athletes playing at other levels of college football) to be accepted into some other vocation. I’m suggesting rugby as one of those other vocations.
The reasons to push this sort of thing are sort of basic. First, this sort of infusion of athletic talent would put American rugby on par, at least athletically, with any other country. Yes, even once you subtract the guys going to the NFL. The pool of great athletes playing FBS football is plenty deep.
Second, this idea accepts the reality that it is going to be increasingly difficult to get America’s youth to play any contact sport, let alone rugby and the perceptions that accompany the lack of pads and helmets.
Of course, the most obvious downside is that you’re promoting the use of a bunch of inexperienced rugby players. Admittedly, converting college football players probably won’t ever allow American rugby to field the type of polished scrummagers and fundamentally sound players you’ll find in say, New Zealand. But let’s face it, before we worry about becoming New Zealand, USA Rugby has to get back to being able to beat the Georgias of the world at home. Increasing our athletic talent pool playing rugby will help.
For the sake of example, let’s use the case of Spike Davis. Earlier this year, Spike earned two caps as part of the Eagles squad that won the Americas Rugby Championship. Last year, he was the top try-scorer during the lone season of PRO Rugby.
From 2009-2012, Spike played defensive line at SMU. So in five years, he’s demonstrated the athletic ability and dedication to convert himself from an interior lineman on the football field to an international-level wing on the rugby pitch.
American rugby can develop more Spikes. A lot more. There are probably a bunch of ways to do it, but here’s one – as MLR builds toward launch and then hopefully seeks to succeed on a long-term basis, they’ll of course need players. Each MLR club (and some of the larger amateur clubs in other parts of the country) could reach out to current college football players and offer them the chance to train during the spring and summer. Their colleges won’t want the players participating in full contact drills, but there’s no reason they can’t learn the fundamentals. If you start that sort of thing now, then hopefully in a few years when some of the players start graduating, their interested enough (and MLR has the wherewithal) to take on these players and let them continue training such that eventually some of the players develop into MLR (and maybe Eagle)-type players.
You have to work with what you’ve got, and in this country we’ve got a deep pool of athletic talent, if not a reservoir of fundamentally sound rugby players. And beside, 15 Spike Davises running around on the pitch would make for fun rugby to watch.