Running a rugby club, whether it be amateur, semi-pro, or professional is not an easy thing to do. There are many things that go into making the team successful: budgets, supporters, youth infrastructure, players, etc. While professional rugby clubs may have the benefit of more resources that allow them to have nice stadiums, paid players, and youth academies, that doesn’t mean the choices they make are any easier. Sometimes they can become increasingly more complex and awkward for the team.
The prime example of the difficult choices facing clubs is the Aviva Premiership. Unlike their counterparts in the RaboDirect Pro12 and Super Rugby where the teams are funded (sometimes poorly) and supported by local unions, and in the Top 14 where wealthy benefactors and strong attendance keeps clubs from having to make some hard choices, the teams in the Premiership are individual entities that are often forced to choose between play on the field and making a profit. Sure, they receive support from the RFU, but at the same time it’s not enough to compete with the Top 14. The point is that Premiership clubs are often faced with a choice, do they pursue aggressive expansion in the hopes that they grow their brand and earn more money globally, or do they become insular and focus only on here and now to ensure that the club is solvent?
It’s a difficult choice and one that the teams in the Premiership haven’t quite figured out. However, as this choice evolves, two clubs are already showing the positives and negatives of choosing one path over another as exemplified by their use of international players. Northampton’s Samu Manoa and Saracen’s Chris Wyles don’t have much in common besides the fact that they both hold American passports and have at least once played for the Eagles.
Manoa is of Tongan heritage (his dad played for Tonga), but grew up and played rugby in the United States. Like most gifted rugby players in the U.S., he was offered a scholarship to play college American football. It was only after he finished his college career that he began playing rugby again for San Francisco Golden Gate. His strong performances for the club not only caught the eye of U.S. selectors, who included him on the USA Selects as well the Eagles 2010 fall tour of Europe, but also the Northampton coaching staff who signed Manoa to a contract.
That contract came during the summer of 2011, right as the U.S. was preparing for the World Cup. When then-Eagles coach Eddie O’Sullivan named his fifty-man roster Manoa was on the list. However, as the summer progressed it became increasingly clear that Manoa was hesitant about joining the team. Eventually he ruled himself out of the tournament in order to focus on establishing himself at Northampton. Why would anyone pass up a chance at starting in the World Cup to play LV=Cup matches? The answer is simple: money. Manoa’s contract was incentivized based on appearance. Manoa and the club knew that one of the few ways Manoa would hit the minimum threshold to trigger a contract extension would be to miss the World Cup when stars like Courtney Lawes were away. To his credit, it was a smart move for Manoa. He went on to be the revelation of the year, earned his contract extension, and established himself as a regular starter for the Saints.
But the story doesn’t end there. In the summer of 2012 the Eagles were preparing for their summer test series when more rumblings were heard about Manoa once again taking himself out of consideration for selection. Some fans speculated that Manoa wanted to hold out and hope to play for another country, but his cap against Georgia in the fall of 2010 already made that impossible. The official reason for his absence was to spend time with his family. Again, a very legitimate reason considering that they had just joined him in England and that he hadn’t seen them for quite a while.
During that time there were suspicions that Northampton wanted Manoa to rest instead of playing for the Eagles, but due to his family situation, most of those suspicions were cast aside. That was until last month when Manoa was once again kept out of the Eagles assembly. This time Manoa had his family with him and the Eagles were playing only a few hours from his house. It seemed like a perfect combination to allow him to finally put on the U.S. shirt once again. The Eagles wanted him in camp, but Northampton were reluctant to see him play, stressing that he needed to rest and recover from a shoulder injury. Tolkin requested that Manoa be allowed to play at least one match but was denied. As it turns out, during the three weeks that the Eagles had matches in November, Manoa played two full matches with Northampton in the LV=Cup; the only week he had off was the week there were no matches for the club.
It’s unclear if Manoa wanted to play for the Eagles during this time, but if the club is putting pressure on a player to stay with the club, what options does he have? The club cannot force him to stay if he is healthy, but a reminder of doing what is best for the club ahead of a possible contract extension is plenty incentive to stick around. Think of it from Manoa’s perspective: he’s an American so his options for playing overseas are limited, he just moved in his family, he’s starting at a good club, and he’s making a decent living playing rugby. Going against the club’s wishes would throw all that into jeopardy. Throughout this situation Manoa is the one stuck in the middle, and therefore the most vulnerable.
Chris Wyles was born in the United States and lived in the U.S. until age eleven when his family moved back to England where he took up rugby. His first taste of professional rugby came with Nottingham where he made forty appearances in the RFU Championship. Eventually that led to a move to Northampton, but he only made nine appearances for the club and was let go once the club was relegated at the end of the season. He thought about quitting rugby at that point, but the U.S.A. 7’s team came to the rescue and gave him a shot in the arm. His strong play on the IRB Sevens Series led to a secondment from U.S.A. Rugby to Saracens, and then a full contract.
During his time with Saracens, Wyles has always been available for U.S. duty when not injured or attending to a personal commitment. As a result, he has thirty-one caps for the U.S. and over 100 points. He has been a consistent performer and a leader on the team. For example, with the absence of a true kicker, Wyles took over the duties and has done an admiral job. Key to Wyles’s success with the Eagles has been the encouragement of Saracens. In fact, along with then fellow-Eagle and Saracens teammate, the club helped host the U.S. on their fall 2010 tour, the same tour in which Manoa was capped. The Saracens Storm even played the Eagles Selects in a match in London.
There is no indication that Wyles is more committed to the Eagles than Manoa, but there is a clear indication of how far their respective clubs are willing to let them play. The question is why each team has decided to take their respective approaches and what that says in the grander scheme of things about the Premiership and the choices clubs have to make.
For their part, Northampton have never been considered one of the big clubs despite their strong attendances and recent success. As a result they are more conservative with their financial approach and tend to favor safe moves. That means letting Manoa go for matches with Tier II nations doesn’t make sense. Manoa is much more valuable to the team as a player rather than a spokesman. In general, Northampton are concerned about the fans in Northampton, as they should be seeing that they are the main sports team in a medium-sized town. They also don’t have the benefit of an extremely wealthy benefactor. Their financial success is driven by how many fans they can get out to the matches and how far they advance in competitions to earn more television revenue.
Saracens on the other hand are more open to extending their brand overseas. The team is well known for its attempts to play Heineken Cup matches in South Africa and New York. They have also played matches in Hong Kong and have attempted to play a friendly in Dubai. Wyles is also far from the only non-Home Nation international on the roster. The team has a history of bringing in South Africans (due to their deep-pocketed South African owners), Australians, French, and Italian players. For the club having an international approach makes sense. Not only is London loaded with other Premiership rugby clubs, but it is loaded with some of the top English Premier League teams. Catching the attention of the international audience means making big flashes like playing overseas and holding matches in Wembley. It also means having international players. How many fans in South Africa do you think would choose Saracens as their favorite team in Europe because of the connection? How much merchandise are they buying? This way Saracens can claim to have more fans than other Premiership teams, such as Northampton, despite not having a higher attendance.
So which choice is right? It must be said that both approaches work for the here and now. Both the Saints and the Sarries are two of the best teams in the Premiership in terms of play and finances, but in terms of the future, the Saracens seem to have the best approach. The English Premier League has been extremely successful because it has managed to expand its audience across the world. Rugby, and the Premiership in particular, struggle to do just that. It comes from a lack of exposure. More teams need to follow the example of the Saracens and bring first-class rugby to other parts of the world. Only then will rugby take off to the levels that everyone hopes.
That means that Northampton need to make an effort to allow Manoa to represent the Eagles. You can hardly blame them for wanting to do what’s best for the team’s finances, but in the end it’s a short-sighted vision. Imagine what a strong performance in the World Cup would do for marketing efforts. The players representing England represent the league, but a Northampton player excelling for a Tier II nation represents only Northampton. The U.S. alone has over 300 million people, and while only a small percentage may be rugby fans, it is more than the population of Northampton. Sometimes it’s worth taking a risk, just as the Saracens have done in allowing Wyles to make so many appearances for the Eagles, in order to see long-term benefits.
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