PRO Rugby has started trickling out information about their search for players and to be completely frank, it has left many of us scratching our heads. That may not be the universal experience, but it seems to be common enough.
The first thing, would be to make a distinction from the rhetoric of PRO Rugby’s launch (and its vision) from what we’ve seen so far. As stated:
The PRO Rugby teams will have a 30-man squad comprised of current USA Eagles players, Rugby Canada National players, domestic club players, and a maximum of five international players.
Our primary goal is to grow and elevate the quality of rugby played in the USA and Canada. We are committed to working with the current clubs to supplement, rather than replace their activities. Current club players will be the foundation of PRO Rugby.
Throughout the club season, players based on their individual performance, can move between the PRO Rugby league and the club league —similar to the minor leagues systems within Major League Baseball.
Before league games, there will be combines where club players will have the opportunity to participate in rugby specific drills and showcase their skills in front of national team coaches, other players, family and friends.
From this statement, PRO Rugby presented what seemed like a clear vision for what their teams’ compositions would look like. The problem seems to come in operationalizing it.
Why does this sound familiar? Well, because it’s almost exactly the approach that the rival NRFL has employed to date.
It comes across as amateur (even if well-intended) and does a disservice to both the brand of PRO Rugby and the assumptions of the quality of league we’re likely to see in April.
What level of international player do they expect to fill in an application form? It’s not going to be Ma’a Nonu or Sonny Bill Williams.
Who do they expect will turn up with two weeks notice for a combine in Irvine, less than a week before Christmas? It won’t be the most elite domestic players. It’s a bit like that Keanu Reeves movie, The Replacements.
Do we believe that a ragtag group of misfits are going to win the inaugural season of PRO Rugby? If we do, we’ve really got problems. How many championship NCAA teams were filled with walk-ons versus strategically recruited players?
It’s also giving creed to the biggest misconception that the NRFL has been pushing: that there are tons of athletes with the hardware and all they need is the software for rugby. Unfortunately, downloading software updates (e.g. skills, tactics, understanding of the game) for rugby is a bit harder than the NRFL makes it out to be, and PRO Rugby would be wise to acknowledge. It’s not the same as updating the latest iOS on your phone. It’s a long-term investment. It’s hard coding. You can have combines and hope to convert top athletes, but to make them top rugby players, it won’t be in the first season, and it shouldn’t be at this level.
What is the purpose of all this? It’s great to appear to be open and inviting, but at some level, that’s not what one expects from a high level organization. Be strategic. Make moves.
If the expectation is that everything is going to fall into place in less than four months with this level of engagement on the player front (to say nothing of the similar application process for coaches), it’s hard to remain optimistic.
Here’s some basic steps that would clean up these initiatives and align with the previously stated vision.
Every single U.S. Eagles player not currently contracted to a professional club overseas should be signed. These are likely to be the core of the league and the most visible way to show progress. They don’t need to attend combines. They are already of the highest calibre. It’s in the interests of USA Rugby that they be part of this league.
There’s enough just from the World Cup squad that each PRO Rugby team could get two or three. That’s where you can have a high profile draft, if that’s of interest.
Sign them all first, and then let the teams select from that pool.
It’s not clear if that is already the intention, but it needs to be the first thing to signal to the public at large that PRO Rugby is a legitimate enterprise and not a NRFL clone.
Canadian national team players could also be signed and given one-season contracts in order to involve them this season, but leave open the possibility of them signing with a Canadian team in 2017, which would be in the interest of Rugby Canada.
What do PRO Rugby hope to achieve with combines? It’s not going to get all of the best club players from the American Rugby Premiership or the Pacific Rugby Premiership.
Follow the suggestion of the Rugby Fanalyst and sign agreements with the clubs. They can then work with them to identify top players, while also alleviating concerns that PRO Rugby is going to disrupt the club seasons.
It might make the clubs uneasy if they find out that their top players are going rogue and showing up at combines.
Non-Rugby High Performance Athletes
Have combines. Knock yourself out. But, treat these as investments. Place them with club teams to nurture and teach the basics. Head coaches in PRO Rugby aren’t going to be able to spend their time teaching a convert what a ruck is and the rules. They should be spending it showing top rugby players how to perfect jackal techniques and more nuanced details.
If we’re honest, even most top athletes won’t be good enough to play first team rugby at the club level. It’s a rare exception to get there. The whole hardware-software analogy gets busted open here. It’s not to dismiss the idea of building the largest possible pool of players, but timelines are going to vary. Some players are going to be years away from reaching their potential. That’s important for growing the game in the medium to long-term, but shouldn’t be the focus of preparing for the first season of the league.
Lose the application form. Immediately. Which other professional league can you name that does that?
PRO Rugby is a professional organization. Act like one. Contact player representative agencies. Speak with agents. Find out which players are out of contract at the end of the year. Find out how much they currently make. Find out if any of their clients are interested in this project.
Speak with some of the top clubs that have reputations for developing talent. Perhaps there are loan opportunities for young players that aren’t quite ready for their first teams. Perhaps there are other partnerships that could be had, such as what Seattle already has with Saracens.
Contact national bodies for countries that don’t have professional leagues. Are there Samoans or Tongans that want to come play in the U.S.? Start with their national team players that have demonstrated professional levels of play.
Don’t rely on application forms and YouTube clips.