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At first glance, the run-up to the World Cup looks fantastic for Team USA. The Pacific Nations Cup will provide four games in July and August, and a pair of friendlies with Canada and another possible test against Australia or a Premiership team will give the Eagles seven games in quick succession and over two months of assembly time.
However, it is quite possible they’ll be without their overseas professionals during the entire month of July, including for the first three Pacific Nations Cup games. The official World Cup window doesn’t begin until August, and there is no June window in a World Cup year, so top-tier professional clubs are not required to make their players available until just over a month prior to the World Cup.
Southern hemisphere teams are okay, because the southern hemisphere player-release window runs during the month of July (the northern hemisphere window runs February into March, when the annual Six Nations takes place). So, theoretically, southern hemisphere teams could be granted a full extra month of assembly time over northern hemisphere teams leading right into the World Cup.
Northern hemisphere unions with means, though, won’t fall victim. England has already planned a July camp in Glendale, Colo. So the English players will be assembled, but not play any full international matches in that time. World Rugby’s regulation nine, which outlines player release for international duty, really applies to those playing matches.
For example, when Blaine Scully was barred from participating in the Eagles November tour after his availability was swapped for the Nov. 1 All Blacks game, he spent a chunk of that time working out in Berkeley, Calif. at his alma mater – Cal. It was okay that he wasn’t with his professional club in England, as long as he wasn’t playing with the United States.
How the Eagles’ World Cup prep could negatively be impacted by all this is by the USA playing three Pacific Nations Cup matches in July. Professional Eagles have to get special dispensation from their clubs in order to participate in games during this time, and that hasn’t been granted yet, if it ever will be. Having to carry a roster of probably close to 30 for those matches, USA Rugby won’t likely be able to afford to house, feed, pay per diems to and fully accommodate all their professionals at the same time in an already expensive year. So not only will the Eagles potentially miss out on three games with their full assault of players, they’ll lose a full month of crucial assembly time.
Potentially impacted players include Samu Manoa, Chris Wyles, Blaine Scully, Hayden Smith, Eric Fry, Thretton Palamo, Brett Thompson, Cam Dolan, Titi Lamositele, Greg Peterson and Scott Lavalla. Try drawing up an American team capable of winning the Pacific Nations Cup sans those guys.
USA Rugby’s hope for the inclusion of about a dozen of its best players hangs on the negotiation skills of CEO Nigel Melville, who appears to have lost the negotiation battle with the Premiership over November availability. He brokered the loss of Premiership pros for three games in the November test window for their participation in a 68-point loss to New Zealand, and those Eagles weren’t exactly starting every match for their clubs while being prevented from playing with the National Team.
If the release of Premiership players for this summer was part of the November, 2014 deal, then kudos to Melville. If not, then the entire relationship between rugby in the United States and the Premiership, specifically, needs to be called into question. (Stade Francais’ Scott Lavalla was made available by his club during the Premiership-enforced moratorium in November.)
There are substantial rumors about the Premiership looking to expand into the United States, be it with a developmental league or one-off games, and Melville and other heavy hitters stateside have met with Premiership representatives. But how much flogging should the United States National Team endure from the Premiership before reaping some kind of benefit?
While USA Rugby can't play victim entirely in this whole mess, these negotiations shouldn’t be left for Tier Two teams to deal with, and imbalance between tiers isn’t an entirely new concept in regards to the World Cup. In the summer of 2011, the Eagles didn’t have access to all their pros for the Churchill Cup, while the England Saxons did. Rumor has it the RFU greased the palms of the Premiership for their players’ release.
During the actual 2011 World Cup, first tier nations had almost exactly a week between pool matches – a pretty standard amount of downtime in the world of rugby – while second tier teams had much more sporadic breaks between matches, and sometimes just a few days. That issue was widely publicized and has been addressed ahead of the 2015 World Cup.
But what also needs to be addressed are the player release windows, especially as it pertains to second tier teams. The current release windows are tailored to accommodate the top nine teams, and 10 of the top 15, in the world rankings. The Pacific Nations Cup, an IRB creation, includes the 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 16th and 18th ranked teams in the world. By kowtowing to Six Nations and The Rugby Championship schedules, and fostering an environment that hurts second tier teams, the IRB is essentially promoting a class system.