by Curtis Reed
When most people think of Americans playing overseas they think of Chris Wyles (Saracens) and Samu Manoa (Northampton) in the Aviva Premiership or Taku Ngwenya (Biarritz) in the Top 14, but could you name the league with the second most number of Americans in it this season? You’d be right if you guessed the RFU Championship.* Four Americans (Andrew Suniula, Robbie Shaw, Mike MacDonald, and Shawn Pittman) ply their trade in the English second division this year and more could join them in the future.
Only a couple of years ago the RFU Championship was strictly full-time rugby players. Only starting in the 2009-10 season did every team in the league pay all of their players. Prior to that time it was a mixture of teams that were as professional as the Premiership and teams that were just happy to be there. As a result of the change, teams have begun to take the competition seriously and the standard has improved. One of the ways teams have gone out to improve themselves was by finding players that were affordable but skilled enough to play.
For Americans wishing to play rugby full-time it’s a good match. Many top English and French clubs might be hesitant to sign an American because they are either leery of their ability or do not want to use a foreign spot. Teams in the RFU Championship however can afford that risk. It’s a good opportunity for Americans to cut their teeth on professional rugby as well. They get to train every day and play high quality matches every weekend. They get the pressure of the playoffs while not having to deal with the pressure of playing in a top league. The RFU Championship’s purpose is to develop players, so why not have Americans take advantage of that?
Shawn Pittman was one of the first to take advantage of the opportunity. Since joining London Welsh a couple of years ago, Pittman has made a name for himself as a fantastic prop. He has transformed himself from a rugby player with raw talent into a player with savvy and skill. In a few years time, Pittman could be the penultimate example of an American putting in their time in the lower division and then getting a call to the Premiership. Chris Wyles and Paul Emerick both played in the league before finding bigger clubs.
The league can also be used for players who’ve played Premiership rugby and want another crack. All-time leading cap winner for the U.S. Mike MacDonald is one such player. After Leeds was relegated at the end of last year, MacDonald chose to stay on the team and mentor younger players. That can only be good for the Eagles as well.
Other players in the league include MacDonald’s Leeds teammate, Robbie Shaw, who narrowly missed out on the Eagles World Cup roster. Andrew Suniula plays for the Cornish Pirates and has been a big part of the team when healthy.
In the end, it is all about developing players for the Eagles. There are some great rugby players in this country but they don’t get the same amount of training that they would in the RFU Championship. The Eagles need consistency in order to improve. Players won’t get that consistently until they practice and play regularly. Argentina has bought into this philosophy over the last several years and it has paid off, as has Canada (who has 7 players in the league).
Still, while the RFU Championship provides a great opportunity for Eagles to improve their play, not everything is rosy for Americans in the league. Often talented Americans struggle to latch onto a team because of work permits and foreign player restrictions. Shaw for instance has English citizenship. Tim Usasz and Junior Sifa, two Eagles who previously played in the league with Nottingham, had similar situations that allowed them to play. So while it is easy to say more Americans should play in the league, it will take some connections and luck to make it happen.
Additionally, the prospect of promotion to the Aviva Premiership is not automatic. Even though the league is in the midst of its promotion playoffs (Pittman and Suniula will move to the next round but MacDonald and Shaw will miss out) only a couple of its teams can even be promoted. Rules on the number of supporters that must be registered to the club as well as stadium size and financial means mean that many teams, including both Pittman’s London Welsh and Suniula’s Pirates are not eligible for promotion. This year the promotion playoff semi-finals will feature Bristol, Bedford, London Welsh, and Cornish Pirates, but only Bristol meet the requirements. If they don’t win the league there will be no promotion.
Overall though, the Americans that have played in the RFU Championship have become quite polished players. Pittman, MacDonald, Suniula, and Usasz were all fantastic players for the Eagles at the World Cup, and Shaw could be a big contributor at the next World Cup. For Americans looking to catch the eye of teams throughout Europe there is no better opportunity than the RFU Championship. Hopefully more players will get the opportunity in the future, and hopefully more American fans will start to pay attention to the league.
*The Aviva Premiership has the most with five but Hayden Smith has pledged his future to the NFL, and Paul Emerick and Chris Biller have only played in a handful of matches between them this year. Here’s hoping they get more.
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