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There are two major decisions coming down from World Rugby that will send ripple effects through the global game – the new calendar and proposed changes to the residency rule. The former is already done and dusted and will take effect in 2020, and the latter will be decided on next month and could have more sudden, sweeping ramifications for American rugby.
The calendar change boils down to two major shifts. The June test window is being pushed to the first three weekends in July, and the November test window is being bumped a week earlier and now makes up the first three weeks of that month.
With club and college national championships typically ending by early June, there is now a buffer between the end of club and collegiate play and the beginning of international play. This really only impacts a few domestic teams or players. It would have been a bigger deal if it came down during the life of the Super League, which regularly sweated having its best players available for the postseason.
Nowadays, USA Rugby’s club playoffs don’t even include most of the top Eagle-producing clubs, anyway. And there is no Super League going into June, PRO looks to be dead (if it’s not yet it will be by 2020 when the calendar kicks in), and Major League Rugby still has plenty of time to get its seasonality right before then, as does any other potential competition that may come along.
The most impactful bit may be how the Premiership reacts. It will push its championship out a month, no longer allowing league matches to overlap with the November test window or Six Nations. The upshot is a double-edged sword for Americans playing, or hoping to play, professionally in England.
For a long time we were, we being the American rugby community, led to believe that Americans got their shot overseas largely to cover for when European internationals were off doing more important stuff. This was held over the heads of Americans playing professionally, forcing them to choose between club and country. World Rugby's Regulation 9 has always stated that clubs technically can’t prevent players from playing internationally within these windows, but in practice, we know players have been strong-armed into skipping out on international duty in the name of job security on several occasions.
The new calendar will tell us the truth – if fewer Americans are awarded contracts from 2020 and beyond, what we were spun was true. If not, then the old line of thought was porous, and theoretically, we should see our best players released for entire November tours and Americas Rugby Championship campaigns. That’s what should happen. The cynic in me says what’s likely to happen is English clubs will take as many Americans as they do now, if not more, and still be stingy with their availability.
This is a major issue for Team USA, which has been left for years to come up with complex tour rosters based on its best players only being partially available. Last fall, for example, 17 of the 38 players named to the fall tour roster were available for only part of the three-match series. For the most recent Americas Rugby Championship, 19 players were only partially available.
Not all of those guys are playing professionally overseas or in England, but everyone who is playing professionally in England is one of those guys. Take AJ MacGinty, for instance. John Mitchell has now coached the Eagles in 15 contests. His top-shelf flyhalf, MacGinty, has only played in three of those games, and only twice as flyhalf. So the Eagles are going into Rugby World Cup qualifying with one of the most important players on the team, if not the most important outright, having very little working experience with his head coach. MacGinty has suffered some injuries, but the bigger issue is he’s employed full-time by Sale and thus not always available for American call-ups.
Americans playing overseas is a good thing, but Americans being yanked around unfairly by overseas clubs is a blight on the game. Hopefully, with new clarity and three years for the Premiership and other European leagues to prepare and get used to the idea, we will see that practice come to an end.
Also tucked into the calendar change is the plan to increase more crossover between first-and second-tier unions, adding tours from top-tier teams through North America and the Pacific Islands. More revenue-generating tests is a good thing, so this is a positive, and it's supposed to result in nearly 40-percent more matches between the top two tiers.
The residency rule issue is more pressing, as World Rugby powers meet next month to discuss bumping the residency rule from three years to five, meaning non-passport-holders or those who don’t qualify via parentage would have to live in a place for five years before becoming eligible to represent that nation in international rugby.
The move is being championed by the unions which stand to benefit the most from it, and England has spearheaded the effort. England has long boasted an insular culture, not allowing players who play professionally outside its borders to play for the national team. With the largest population of domestic players in the world, over two million, England stands to lose very little with the new rule.
France, home of the world’s third-largest playing population, is self-enforcing a five-year residency rule regardless of how next month’s talks go. Agustin Pichot, the former Argentine international and current vice chair of World Rugby, has also championed the change. Argentina doesn’t have much of a history of blooding players who’ve qualified via residency.
While stodgy xenophobia and racism lies beneath the surface, with immigration being a hot button topic globally, evidenced by executive orders and Brexit, the most compelling public argument for making the change is that it will somehow stem the outgoing flow of talent from the island countries of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. And what’s good for the island nations is what’s good for rugby. While I don’t disagree with the latter sentiment, I’m calling BS on the former argument.
For starters, emigration from the Pacific Islands isn’t exclusive to rugby. Estimates have the USA’s population of Samoan-Americans as higher than the population of actual Samoans in the entire country of Samoa, and it ain’t because of the rugby.
Secondly, until there is the option of lucrative, professional rugby contracts on the islands of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, talented players will continue to sprawl across the globe in search of a more handsome living. There have been whispers of Super Rugby expanding with an island franchise, but there’s no evidence of any plans to validate the murmurs, and the league, which is struggling financially anyway, just announced that it’s actually contracting next season.
Thirdly, and this is maybe most important, playing professionally in England, France, Japan or South Africa doesn’t preclude a player from being able to play internationally for their country of origin. Plenty of players have played professionally all over the world and still chosen to represent Samoa, Fiji and Tonga, turning down more enticing test paydays from the rugby powers.
The Tuilagi family in and of itself is a good study. Manu, perhaps the most famous of the Tuilagis, is the lone brother to play for England. Four of his brothers played professionally all across Europe, including in England, France, Wales, Italy and even Japan, but they all chose to play internationally for Samoa. Manu was born and raised in Samoa. He became a resident of England by visiting his brothers on a holiday visa and illegally overstaying in the country for six years before being granted indefinite leave.
With its support of the residency rule, the RFU is saying it thinks it’s perfectly okay for Manu to suit up for England under these circumstances, but not okay for someone like AJ MacGinty, who qualified for the USA via the three-year residency rule, to play for the Eagles.
It would appear, from an outsider's perspective, England’s stance on residency, which has hardened considerably as of late, is a reaction to winning just one Six Nations title in 12 years, spanning from 2004-2015. England has claimed the last two European titles, but the wheels of change in regards to the residency rule have been in motion for years now, predating the recent success. It’s salt in the wound that Irish clubs have only just recently more freely and honestly started contracting younger players from other parts of the world who have, or will, qualify for Ireland, Munster’s South African-born No. 8, CJ Stander, being the prime example.
It’s also interesting that pundits and the rumor mill have Denny Solomona as a likely selection for England’s tour of Argentina this summer, if he’s not picked for the British & Irish Lions’ tour of New Zealand. Solomona is a former Samoan league international who via residence just became eligible to play union for England.
The reality is that the English union isn’t acting altruistically on behalf of rugby as a whole in regards to championing a change to the residency rule. It’s simply acting in the best interest of English rugby. That Nigel Melville, recent former CEO of USA Rugby and now the head of the pro game for the RFU, is publicly backing the change is an additional slap in the face to American rugby.
Like the United States of America has a history of welcoming expats from all over the world of all vocations, so does its rugby community. MacGinty is just one example. Shaun Davies, Chad London and John Quill, all currently in the Eagle player pool, are others. Melville pulled in more than $2.3 million presiding over American rugby for nearly a decade. He orchestrated the creation of Rugby International Marketing, the movement of USA Rugby’s most significant assets under RIM’s umbrella, the sale of RIM stake to the RFU, the Premiership’s Harlequins and England-based Chime Sports Management, and now as an employee of the RFU is publicly supporting legislation that will have a major negative impact on American rugby.
No, bringing in ringers from other countries and getting them into Eagles jerseys via the three-year residency rule isn’t a long-term plan for success. We need to be obsessed with creating homegrown talent, and more of it. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the chance to hold onto something which makes us more competitive in the meantime.
That these two issues, the calendar and the residency rule, include a lot of the same players signifies a bigger issue. This isn’t just a Melville problem, a residency problem, or a seasonality problem. Add it all up, and there’s a major problem with how English rugby – the RFU being the richest, biggest and most powerful union in the world – views America.
There are a lot of differences between the richest and poorest rugby unions, but the most fundamental one is how many people pay to watch rugby. There are television contracts, corporate sponsorships, licensing, and many other revenue streams, but at the genesis of it all is paid attendance. In the long history of sport, paid attendance precludes everything else. Big crowds first, then TV. And in rugby, it's part of what has kept the island nations down. They get to host so few profitable test matches they can't keep up. Sold out tests have long been the primary source of income for a rugby union. So home tests are at a premium.
I say this to spell out something about how the RFU views USA Rugby; no tier-one nation has visited the USA less than England. That's right, Australia, Argentina, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, South Africa, New Zealand and Wales have all given USA more home tests than England. This, despite the fact that practically every major airline, from Lufthansa to Kuwait Airways, flies from London to the USA.
The Premiership looks at the USA as an expansion frontier, where it can benefit from our population with a TV deal and ticket sales from the odd match here or there, but add nothing tangible to the domestic game. Its clubs put higher importance on mid-season matches than the international careers of our players. And now the RFU wants to keep guys like MacGinty from ever becoming an Eagle.
It’s time USA Rugby, like the RFU, acts exclusively on its own behalf, and playing offense on the residency rule is a great start. Current USA Rugby CEO Dan Payne needs to engage with Bob Latham, former chair of USA Rugby’s board and current member of World Rugby’s executive committee who worked in lockstep with Melville for years, to combat this arbitrary move.
Summation: in order for American rugby to win on the field, it needs to start winning some battles off it, too.