MUNSTER AND ULSTER are among the European clubs who will have scouts at a rugby combine taking place in Minnesota next weekend.
Harlequins, Saracens, Scarlets, Grenoble and Bayonne are also confirmed to attend the two-day event, where around 170 American athletes – including former NFL players, college footballers, current rugby players and even a handful of basketballers – will undergo physical and rugby-specific tests.
Former Ireland head coach Eddie O’Sullivan will run the latter portion of the camp, having teamed up with the combine’s organisers, RugbyLaw, in the past year. The Cork native’s involvement has added real credibility to a venture that hopes to eventually kick-start a professional rugby league in the US.
RugbyLaw founder Mike Clements and partner George ‘Mac’ Robertson, businessmen from Minneapolis in Minnesota, are behind the entire initiative, with their dream of launching that league under their NRFL [National Rugby Football League] moniker.
Next weekend’s combine is the starting point of their plans and in that regard, the NRFL’s Director of Player Recruitment, Shawn Zobel, has been essential. Zobel built his reputation in American football, where his expertise and knowledge of the college game have seen him scout the last nine NFL draft classes.
Over the last year, Clements and Robertson have tasked him with finding ideal candidates to take part in the forthcoming combine; American footballers with the physical and mental capacity to become ‘crossover athletes’ and take rugby by storm.
Zobel has willingly fulfilled those demands, and is expecting somewhere in the region of 170 athletes – including 60 who have recently been on NFL rosters – to fly into Minneapolis on Friday. He outlines what those players will face over the 5th and 6th of April.
“It’s going to be a combination of NFL combine-style drills, coming from my background, as well as rugby positional drills, which will be run by Eddie O’Sullivan,” Zobel told TheScore.ie. “There will be three different sessions throughout the weekend, where we’ll have 50 to 60 guys in each session.
“They will start out in the morning on Saturday by going through height, weight, bench press, vertical jump tests. Then there’ll be buses that take them to the field where the players will go through a 40-yard dash and a 60-yard shuttle.
They’ll also have a 100-yard sprint to test endurance. Then there will be the rugby positional drills that Eddie will run, so we’ll have the timing drills to test the raw athleticism, and then we’ll see what they can do with a rugby ball in their hands.”
The scouts from Munster, Ulster, Grenoble, and elsewhere will observe the athletes’ every move, looking for that one player with the potential to be a rugby star. Furthermore, cameras will be present at the combine, recording every bit of the action, to be sent to other interested clubs or possibly to be made publicly available.
While other clubs remain unconfirmed as attendees, there has been interest in the event from Super Rugby and several other Premiership and Top 14 clubs.
Zobel and O’Sullivan have been the driving forces in logistically organising the event, ensuring an equal balance between testing of the athletes’ physical abilities and a thorough filtering of their skills in rugby-specific settings.
“He and I have worked pretty closely to try and set things up and arrange things,” says Zobel. “I obviously needed to know what specifically he wanted on his end in terms of the rugby position drills.
“At the same time, I explained why we wanted to go with certain timing drills to test the athleticism. He and I have almost worked like in American football, where you have a general manager and a head coach.
“One guy tries to find the players and the other one coaches them. It’s been a similar type of relationship. So far we’re very excited with where we’re at.”
One of the major challenges for Zobel has been the fact that a year ago, he had little or no knowledge of the sport of rugby. The University of St. Thomas graduate has undergone a steep learning curve, but found a passion for the game he hopes many other Americans will replicate.
I took a crash course where I spent a month or two just learning anything and everything I could about rugby. I’ve been in the office just watching game after game after game.
“I remember walking into our founder’s office, Mike Clements, and asking ‘Why do they touch the ball down when they get in the endzone?’ He went on to explain how you get a try and how the touchdown in American football came from rugby.
“A year ago I didn’t know anything about the sport and this year I was sitting in my house watching the Six Nations on my computer. I was watching Saracens v Harlequins last weekend.”
A selection of the athletes attending the NRFL’s rugby combine:
Yamon Figurs [5ft 11ins, 84kg] - A former wide receiver and return specialist, the 31-year-old has been a member of the Detroit Lions, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns, Tennessee Titans, and Edmonton Eskimos.
Ran a 4.30 second 40-yard dash at the 2007 NFL combine, the fourth-fastest in history.
Mario Fannin [5ft 11ins, 104kg] – A running back who excelled for Auburn at college level, before being signed by the Denver Broncos after running a 4.38 second 40-yard dash at the 2011 NFL combine.
Knee and achilles injuries in 2011 and 2012 ruined good impressions built in training camps and the 26-year-old was released in 2013.
Thretton Palamo [6ft 3ins, 107kg] – Became the youngest player in Rugby World Cup history when he appeared for the US against South Africa in 2007, just eight days after his 19th birthday.
The son of a former Samoa international, Palamo had a brief spell in the Top 14 with Biarritz in 2008, before returning to the US to complete his studies at the University of Utah, where he played American football. Still just 25.
Antareis Bryan [6ft 2ins, 88kg] – Played cornerback for Baylor University 34 times, before being picked up by the Chicago Bears as a practice squad player in 2011.
Jay Finley [5ft 11ins, 92kg] – Drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the seventh round of the 2011 NFL Draft after rushing for 1,218 yards as a running back in his senior year at Baylor.
Finley also spent time with the Seattle Seahawks.
Aaron Francisco [6ft 2ins, 96kg] – Has eight years of NFL experience as a safety/specials teams player with the Arizona Cardinals and Indianapolis Colts, as well as practice stints with the Carlina Panthers and Detroit Lions.
The 30-year-old’s career NFL statistics include four interceptions and 218 tackles. Has played in two Super Bowls, with the Cardinals in 2009 and the Colts in 2010.
Stanford Keglar [6ft 2ins, 113kg] – Drafted by the Tennessee Titans in the fourth round of the 2008 Draft, went on to make 22 tackles in the NFL over the next three years, one of which as with the Houston Texans.
The 28-year-old linebacker signed with the Minnesota Vikings last season, but didn’t advance beyond their preseason squad.
Rob McCabe [6ft 2ins, 108kg] – A 2012 All-American selection and the leading tackler in Georgetown University football history, the linebacker signed with the Miami Dolphins practice squad in 2013.
Xavier Adibi [6ft 2ins, 111kg] – A former star linebacker at Virginia Tech, the 29-year-old was picked in the fourth round of the 2008 Draft by the Houston Texans, where he played three seasons in the NFL.
Subsequently had one-year stints with Vikings and Titans, racking up a career total of 70 tackles.
While those are just a few of the well-known names among the list of athletes set to attend the rugby combine, which will be hosted at the TCF Stadium in Minneapolis, there is a wide spectrum of former American footballers of varying ages [21 being the youngest] involved.
Recent figures showed that only 1.6% of NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] players – more simply, college footballers – go on to play in the NFL, meaning that men like Mac Robertson of the NRFL believe that there is a vast quantity of athletic potential going to waste in the US.
American football’s cast-offs can be rugby’s gains. Robertson explains to TheScore.ie why former Ireland and US Eagles coach Eddie O’Sullivan has confidence in the NRFL’s plans.
He really believes that a key component of our project is that America is probably sitting on the biggest reserve of elite rugby talent in the world; they just don’t know they’re rugby players yet. He knows how to talk to these guys, to invigorate and coach them.
“We’re hugely complimented that Eddie wants to get involved,” continues Robertson. “We are also very respectful of his international reputation and capabilities. He’s got a unique talent to call it how he sees it, and that really plays to Americans.
“We think that’s going to be a huge attribute, because he’s of the mould of NFL and NHL coaches in being extremely forthright and sincere.”
While the combine will offer the attending athletes a chance to impress the watching clubs, this also marks the beginning of the NRFL’s longer-term goals, which include a game against European opposition in July.
A squad of 30 players selected from the combine in Minnesota will go into training camp over the coming months to prepare for the slated ‘Independence Cup’, most likely against an English Premiership club and possible over two legs, home and away.
O’Sullivan is scheduled to coach that NRFL team, and the hope is that those fixtures will be the prelude to the launching of an American league in the spring of 2015. Robertson underlines that he and his partners are under no obligation to fulfill those targets, but says they are realistic.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because an identical plan for the Independence Cup was mooted in 2013, with London Irish heavily linked with playing an NRFL team in Boston. That idea fell through due to a range of funding and logistical issues, but Robertson and his partners are attempting again.
He sees a “phenomenal opportunity” for a professional rugby union league in America, but insists that it must only be launched with a high base of playing quality. The MLS [Major League Soccer] has failed to capture the imagination of American sports fans, simply because the standard is so poor in comparison with other leagues in the world.
The NRFL cannot afford to make the same mistake. The idea is that teams in NRFL’s division would be made up of “an Irish coach, with some tough kids from Texas, some Tongans thrown in,” for example.
If the starting point is one of high-quality, Robertson believes collision-loving American sports fans will “fall in love with 15s elite rugby union.”
Having first met O’Sullivan through Brown University – where the Irishman helps with pre-season training most years – Robertson and Clements have been keen to keep him on board with their ambitious strategies.
With four years as the US Eagles head coach under his belt, and currently out of full-time rugby coaching employment despite a history of success, O’Sullivan may be ideally suited to helping the NRFL to drive their plans forward in the long-term.
The thing about Eddie is that he really understands America,” says Robertson.
For now, let’s combine
Even if the plans for the professional league take longer than anticipated to bear fruit, the NRFL are intent on their combine event becoming a regular occurrence, offering American crossover athletes the chance to earn European contracts.
With the likes of Samu Manoa [Northampton], Scott LaValla [Stade Français], Blaine Scully [Leicester] and Takudzwa Ngwenya [Biarritz] impressing in recent times, clubs in this part of the world are becoming more open-minded about American players.
Add some freakish athletes from American football backgrounds into the mix, and there is reason to be excited. Clearly, learning rugby skills and awareness will prove too difficult a leap for some of these athletes, but it is a fascinating project nonetheless.
“It’s a very diverse set of players,” says Zobel. “We think we’ve got a lot of guys that, both athletically and mentally, can offer a lot in terms of development. I think in terms of a talent stand point, we’re very happy with where we’re at.”