You are here
It’s the type of question that appears easy to answer but isn’t. Qualify for the USA by World Rugby’s eligibility standards and be really good would seem sufficient, but plenty can build a case they did that and were never rewarded with a cap.
Some will point to the age-grade national teams as stepping stones on a pathway, and though they may be, it’s a path many have skipped entirely. The true answer on the men's side is long, paradoxical and spelled out below.
The women's answer is largely similar. Subsitute Women's D1 Elite for D1A, and WPL for MLR, knowing WPL is full of amateur organizations with far less resources and bandwith for player identification and recruitment than their professional MLR counterparts.
That's generally true of most of the women's equivalents; the WJAAs play fewer games and provide less opportunities than the MJAAs, there are fewer high-powered women's touring teams actively trying to develop and identify young players, freak athletes are still cutting the line on the women's side a little easier than on the men's, etc.
For the beginners, let’s lay out the basics. You need to be American. How American? That’s defined by World Rugby as having been born in America, having a parent or grandparent born in America, or having resided in the United States for three consecutive years.
The first two are pretty straightforward, but that last one is a little more convoluted. You can’t leave the country for more than 30 days in a given year during those three years, and now World Rugby is starting to scrutinize why you’re in a foreign country for so long and how you afforded to be there. Also, that three-year requirement becomes five for anyone who doesn’t qualify by the end of 2019, as the rule is changing.
To actually get selected, you have to not just be both eligible and good, but known. The age-grade pathway is the most obvious opportunity to become a known commodity. It gets you into USA Rugby’s master database, so whenever coaches and managers are looking for players to invite to camps, they’ll have to at least scroll past your name. Now, how do you get on one of those teams?
Regional Cup Tournaments are designed to be the vehicle to the High School All-American team. There are regional and state-based all-star teams nearly nationwide that compete in these USA Rugby-anointed tournaments. So after your high school season comes to an end, join one of the regional all-star teams and show well at an RCT.
Like with every pathway, there are the exceptions. There have been plenty of HSAA selections who’ve circumvented the RCT pathway by being exceptional on the pitch or exceptionally connected off it. Companies like Eagle Impact and Atavus have sprouted in recent years to provide additional opportunities for exposure and development, and they can help quality players from poorer home clubs or far-flung places find a foothold.
If you miss out on the HSAAs, your next age-grade opportunity is the Junior All-Americans, also known as the U20s or MJAAs. Mostly, though, that team is sourced by former HSAAs and underclassmen from a select group of esteemed college programs. Well-connected standouts in the club game also occasionally find their way to this team.
Then it’s the College All-Americans, or MCAAs. Traditionally, you need to be a known commodity before getting to school, or you’ll need to attend a school that plays in one of the competitions national team coaches and staff pay attention to, D1A and the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship, to make the MCAAs. Of course, there are exceptions.
Last year, Major League Rugby teams treated the MCAA camp as their combine, pro day and senior bowl all rolled into one. So if you want to get to the MLR, which can help you get to the national team, being an All-American is really helpful.
MLR is the latest, and potentially greatest, pathway. It, above all others, has the ability to democratize the national team. In high school rugby, teams with the most means get greater exposure, and kids with the most means generally have better development opportunities. The MJAAs largely pluck from either the HSAAs or colleges, and the MCAAs insert an educational and financial barrier. Really good college-aged rugby players who aren’t students miss out on the MCAAs.
Major League Rugby’s only barriers to entry should be opportunity and ability. If you can get to a combine or get your film to the inbox of a coach, general manager or director of rugby, you can be found. If you’re found and you’re good enough, you can get into the MLR. And if you’re in the MLR and good enough, the national team staff will find you.
How to get to the MLR is a question grassroots coaches like me are fielding more and more these days. Since the league is so new, there are fewer success stories to point to as models. And the way teams are populated has already radically changed in two years, and likely will again going forward.
Right now, teams are committing varying degrees of resources to player identification. Some have hired general managers to take care of player personnel, and others are relying on coaches, CEOs and owners to multitask. No scouts have been hired, or if they have, those moves haven’t been announced.
International recruiting, like in the college game, largely boils down to a personal connection to someone from the old country or simply responding to endless emails from interested players, coaches and their handlers or agencies. Domestically, teams are largely relying on the age-grade pathway, open tryouts and combines, hoping talented players will find them instead of the other way around.
If the league sustains, this will likely change. It’s not too much to expect that within a couple of years MLR teams will be pouring more resources into talent identification than USA Rugby ever has.
But right now, if you want to make it to the MLR, your best bet is either a traditional pathway, like the MCAAs, or shoving yourself in front of teams as often as possible via combines and participating in high-profile competitions, like the CRC or D1A. For club players, the options are more limited; select 7s clubs, be it for the summer season or one-off tours, Pacific Rugby Premiership, and the best clubs in MLR cities.
In Houston, Glendale and Seattle, the connections are formal or overt. If you play for the West Houston Lions, you have the eyes of the Sabercats on you. If you’re in Seattle with professional aspirations, you play for the Saracens. In Denver, plenty of really good players are still playing for the Barbarians, but the Merlins are the official farm team of the Raptors.
In other cities, connections may be less obvious, but they’re there. If RUNY runs out of flankers, before he goes to the grocery store that is free agency, general manager James English will look in his own cupboard of Old Blue and NYAC. San Diego will look locally, too, as will New Orleans and Toronto.
If you want to play in the MLR, your best bet is to get into the age-grade pathway, which if you’re trying to be an Eagle, you’re already working on. If you miss any of the age-grade entry points, you can still make the MLR by going to a combine and performing really well. If that doesn’t work, your best and last bet is to pack up and move to an MLR city to stay in front of the team’s decision makers. If you’re not willing to relocate, hopefully you can sink your teeth into playing 7s for a team that makes it to club nationals or Rugbytown 7s.
Some really talented athletes get to skip the line. There are generally two types of line cutters in American rugby – foreigners and freak crossovers.
The foreigners are usually American-qualified all the while they’re living abroad. Marcel Brache, for example, grew up in South Africa and played professionally there and in Australia, but he was born in Los Angeles. So, despite the fact he never participated in any kind of pathway, he got to skip the line.
The crossovers are extreme examples. They didn’t used to be. College football players pretty much zipped to the front of the line for at least a tryout with the national team, sometimes earning cheap caps, like in the cases of Bennie Brazell, Tommy Saunders and Brian Howard.
Carlin Isles basically did the same thing. He played one summer with Aspen before getting a crack with the Falcons in Vancouver. Four tournaments into his rugby career, Isles had a full-time contract with the Eagles.
Travion Clark, a former track All-American at the University of Arkansas – Little Rock, has followed in Isles’ footsteps right up through scoring 13 tries for the Falcons at the Las Vegas Invitational. He is objectively the second-fastest man in world rugby, and he hasn’t been extended a full-time contract like Isles was, signaling cutting the line isn’t as easy as it used to be, even for freak athletes.
People like empirical data. It helps us make sense of things. Quarterbacks should be 6’3” and able to throw the ball x-amount of yards at y-trajectory, releasing it in under z-seconds. If you’re 6’9”, you’re probably not a point guard or a running back.
Rugby is no different. Being objectively bigger, faster and stronger is generally helpful. So, yes, 6’8” second rows are going to be given more opportunities than their 6’3” counterparts, even if the shorter man is better in every way.
Isles’ height is an issue for him. It causes him trouble in defense routinely. Nonetheless, he leads the world in tries and is the best scoring threat on the best team. Still, there’s no denying that if he were taller and his limbs longer, he’d be better.
The lesson is that physically fitting the ideal profile of your best position certainly helps in becoming an Eagle, but not fitting that profile isn’t an automatic disqualifier. What you have to do is mitigate that disadvantage as much as humanly possible – while Isles can’t get taller, he can get stronger and make his tackle technique sharper. You also have to supersize your advantage. If Isles were only just as fast as the taller players, he would never be selected; he has to be significantly faster.
So if a coach tells you you’re too short to be a flanker and you should instead shift focus to hooker, that doesn’t mean you can’t be a flanker. Ask James Denise of 6-1 Rugby United New York or Australia’s Michael Hooper. You may never be a lineout option at the level to which you aspire, but if you’re that much better than the taller options at everything else, you can overcome the physical disadvantage.
Then again, moving to hooker might actually be the right advice, too. And all too often, coaches don’t give that advice when they should. American rugby is filled with sawed-off loose forwards and outside backs who should have been steered towards scrumhalf but weren’t so their clubs could yield more immediate results. It’s also filled with tubby No. 8s who belong in the front row at the next level.
It’s imperfect, but there is a pathway to the national teams. There are many different entry points, varying barriers to entry, and extreme exceptions who get to cut the line. The eligibility requirements are fairly plainly spelled out, though there are nuances. We’ve established being exceptionally big, fast and strong is helpful, as is aligning with certain well-connected programs and people across all levels along the way. But those things aren't requisite, and they're not sure bets.
The reality is, you can be big, fast, strong, skillful and eligible, plan out your entire career from high school through the pros giving yourself every opportunity to be developed or discovered, and still not make it. You can do everything in your power the right way and still miss out.
For most of us, it’s because we’re not good enough for one reason or another. Being an Eagle is special because Eagles are special. The very nature of being special is that we can’t all be. For fewer, it’s because of timing. Maybe you’re a zig specialist, and just as you’re coming into your prime, the USMNT hires a coach who prefers to zag. Injuries. Personality conflicts. Mental blocks. Life gets in the way.
There are some who are just going to be overlooked; for one reason or another, coaches kept finding reasons not to pick someone who was good enough. Look at Brodie Orth, who got his first cap at 31. Just as easily, he could have never gotten one at all. How many Brodie Orths never did?
A Bit of Advice
I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or the players younger, but it seems more and more, they have to know the end of the story before they decide to read the book. Does it end with me being an Eagle or a professional? If yes, okay let’s go back to chapter one and figure out how I did/do it. If not, no thanks, beer league softball sounds nice.
Whatever happened to, I want to become the best rugby player I possibly can and enjoy playing the game while I can, and if that ends me in an Eagle jersey, hooray!?
If you want to be an Eagle, get process oriented. It’s basic. It’s commonly stated. It’s not my idea. But there is only one right way to coach, and that’s from a process-oriented perspective in lieu of a results-oriented perspective. If improving is the only thing that matters, you strive for daily improvement, and if you achieve it more often than not, results will eventually come. If results are all that matter, improvement is no guarantee.
The same is true for players. If the only thing that matters is making the national team, then everything you do your entire career is a failure until that happens. That kind of binary thinking is what quitters employ to justify not even trying in the first place.
If the only thing that matters is constantly improving, success is attainable every day. And as long as you’re improving, you’re doing what it takes to reach your potential. Unless you’re a freak, (And if you are, why are you still reading this? Just cut the line already.) you’re going to have to maximize your potential to become an Eagle anyway. So why not just start there?
The crossovers or newcomers who say they only want to play rugby if it means drawing a paycheck and playing in the Olympics never make it. They go back to their hometowns and become personal trainers. The ones who obsess over and embrace the process of getting better everyday give themselves the best chance of making it.
They also tend to enjoy the journey. Forget which mindset will best deliver your desires, process- or -results-oriented, you’ll just be happier if you covet improvement over results. You have maximum control over your individual improvement, and minimum control over results, considering yours is but one of 31 hearts beating between the lines.
If there’s one thing I’ve taken away from the hours and dollars I’ve sunk into listening to coaches and achievers speak about their success to people hoping to find the silver bullet to their own, it’s that winning the championship isn’t as gratifying as you think it is. At the end of everyone’s career, what matters most is the journey. Time spent with other people working hard toward a common dream. Same is true for those with full trophy cabinets and those without. If that journey and those moments are only validated by an end result, did you really enjoy the ride?
You want to know what it takes to become an Eagle? Well, I just laid it all out for you. Now quit asking people how to do it and whether they think you can do it. Just get busy doing it, already.