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The Mid-South announced this week a self-imposed foreigner limit, with Davenport, Life and Lindenwood all pledging to field no more than five foreign players at a time in an effort to help grow the game domestically and develop more American talent. I’m good with the move. I think it’s a worthy endeavor, but is it necessary?
The short answer is no. For starters, Davenport has been almost exclusively American from the beginning. Aside from the odd Papua New Guinean or Thai player, the vast majority of Panthers have been from the upper Midwest, with one notable exception – JP Eloff.
South African-born Eloff led Davenport to back-to-back DI-AA National Championships in the program’s first two competitive seasons, and he’s been one of the best players in the country ever since. He’s currently recovering from a torn ACL, and I hope he comes back to finish a sterling college career with a bang.
The little brother of an Eagle, JP has been the model of what any coach wants from an overseas player. He’s humble, he’s talented, he makes the Americans around him better, and he wants to be an Eagle. From my perspective, there’s no denying kids like JP are good for American rugby. Still, there are those in the American rugby community that would bellyache about Eloff, because ‘instead of teaching Americans how to play skill positions like flyhalf, we rely on foreigners.’
Life has leaned more on overseas talent than Davenport, but not by a lot. The Running Eagles have run out guys like Joe Cowley and Cornelius Dirksen, both of whom have foreign accents, but have gone on to represent the United States at the highest level.
Lindenwood, on the other hand, has made some in American rugby cringe. I remember standing next to former eligibility committee member and current Tennessee coach Marty Bradley at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah in 2012 as we watched a few Lions drape themselves in Australian and Irish flags as they celebrated their DII National Championship. It didn’t sit well with Bradley, and it didn’t sit well with me.
The reality is, it didn’t sit well with current Lindenwood head coach JD Stephenson, who was a grad assistant with the Lions at the time, either. Since taking over as the head man in St. Charles, Mo., Stephenson has emphasized the recruitment of American talent. There are still a lot of foreign players on Lindenwood’s roster, but expect the percentage of them to go down over the next few years.
Lindenwood’s original recruiting plan under then-head coach Ron Laszewski netted foreign-heavy classes, and they included players older than the traditional American college students. Guys like Morgan Findlay, who will be upwards the age of 30 before his collegiate eligibility runs out (he’s grandfathered in under the old regulations), have become the poster boys for what the current eligibility rules are designed to prevent.
Findlay, a New Zealand military vet, is a good guy, a good player, and he’s helped raise the standard of Americans around him. Will he ever be an Eagle? If I had to guess, I’d say probably not, but he is set to become Eagle-eligible in the coming months, so we’ll see.
This week, a former Lindenwood player has proven himself to be on the other end of the spectrum – fodder for those staunchly against collegiate foreign imports. Harrison Stott played at LU under Laszewski, and in articles featured by ESPNScrum.com and New Zealand’s Stuff, he’s run down the coaching standard in America and touted his plans to save us rugby-playing Yanks from our ignorant selves. Coming across condescending, at best, Stott has made no friends in American rugby with his comments.
Arkansas State has often come under fire for its systematic recruitment of foreigners. Well, the house the Huckabys built, which has churned out fantastic true-blue Eagles like Jarvis Albury, Zac Mizell and Matt Huckaby, himself, and is the breeding ground for more homegrown Eagle hopefuls like Michael Baska, Gavin Brown, Dylan Carrion and Alex Goff, wouldn’t be the program it is without the support of the International Students Organization on campus.
The Red Wolves who gave BYU everything it could handle in the 2012 DI-A National Championship game, with Americans all over the roster, wouldn’t be the program it is without foreign players, and those Americans wouldn’t have become the players they did without those foreigners.
The foreigner debate in this country is not a new one, and it’s not going away. For every Chris Wyles or Madison Hughes that works very hard to advance American rugby, there’s a Stott that becomes a villain. And for every person who would point out as a negative that USA Rugby currently has an English CEO, an English 7s head coach and an English 7s captain, there are people, like yours truly, who are elated Mike Friday is at the helm and that Hughes is going to be available for most, if not all, of the 7s World Series.
United States Soccer deals with similar issues, and there are foreign players taking up soccer scholarships all over America. While some lamented about the German influence in the American team this summer, record World Cup viewership and attendance in Brazil by Americans indicates we want to support a winner, and that we understand you don’t have to possess a southern drawl or a speak like a Wahlberg brother to be considered American.
At the end of the day, the USA, like most rugby nations, even the best, benefits from the efforts of people who weren’t born here. We must accept that as fact, and try to strike the right balance. Davenport, Life and Lindenwood have decided what that balance is for them, and their gentleman’s agreement should result in more American athletes getting valuable scholarship money to play rugby. That’s fantastic.