THE IRISH LINKS to American rugby are plentiful and set to grow even further this year if Ray Egan is successful with his idea to bring players from these shores to the States.
Eddie O’Sullivan has had two stints as the USA national team’s head coach, while Dubliner Aj MacGinty and Cork native John Quill are current Eagles stars.
At Ivy League colleges and within USA Rugby’s developmental set-up, Irishmen Greg McWilliams and Gavin Hickie are working hard to bring through the next crop of player for the Eagles. Trinity man Tony Smeeth has done mountains of work with the American game. These are just some of the connections between Irish and US rugby.
Limerick native Egan has been working in the States as head coach of Belmont Shore RFC since emigrating from Ireland with his wife, Stephanie, in 2011. Having developed as a coach with Munster, Egan has thrived in the US.
His rise as a coach in the American game has now been recognised with his appointment as head coach of the San Diego team in the upcoming inaugural season of the PRO Rugby competition.
After years of nearly, buts and maybes – where the likes of the NRFL insisted they were close – a national league has finally been set up in the States and will kick into life in April.
Sanctioned by USA Rugby and World Rugby, this is a hugely exciting step for the sport in the US, as interest continues to rise rapidly thanks in part to the national sevens team’s success and the increasing availability of high-level European and Super Rugby on television.
The first season of PRO Rugby will feature five teams – Sacramento, San Francisco, Ohio, Denver and Egan’s San Diego – and will be played out over a 12-week season ending on 31 July.
Denver also have an Irish head coach on board in the shape of Sean O’Leary, who has worked with the University of Notre Dame and USA’s U17 and U19 programmes.
Though many amateur players will feature, this is the beginning of a professional league that could eventually change the shape of the global game if US rugby continues its rapid growth.
USA internationals like Todd Clever are set to be involved in PRO Rugby, as well as the cream of the club players from the existing Pacific Rugby Premiership and American Rugby Premiership leagues on either coast of the country.
Egan’s hope is that there will be a strong Irish representation in PRO Rugby too.
PRO Rugby is operated on a centralised basis, meaning all coaches and players are contracted to the organisation and then distributed out into the five teams based on geographical suitability and an effort to ensure an even spread of resources.
Each team will consist of a 30-man squad, meaning 180 players in total, and PRO Rugby has recently sent out 150 contract offers to American and foreign-based players. Egan believes Irish players can make bring quality to each of the squads.
“We’re talking about players that might be coming out of an academy contract and the provinces are not going to give a senior contract to them, or a player that isn’t getting game time with Munster, Leinster, Connacht or Ulster,” says Egan.
“They are heading to the back-end of their season and the provinces might know they’re not going to use the player. Maybe the player’s club is out of Ulster Bank League contention, there’s an opportunity to come over here for five months.
“It’s a five-month league, it’s the back-end of the league at home so even for a good AIL player whose side is out of contention for promotion or not going to get relegated, it might be an opportunity for them to come out and play full-time.”
PRO Rugby’s contracting system works on a tiered basis, with the full-time tier one deals going to the likes of USA back row Clever and his Eagles teammates.
Tier two contracts go to players being developed for the Eagles or perhaps the very best club players, while the third tier involves pay-per-play deals for current amateurs who may want to continue their full-time professions alongside rugby.
Egan’s San Diego outfit will be based out of the University of San Diego, while the rest of the league’s teams will play in stadia ranging from 3,000 to 10,000 in capacity. Their shortened pre-season begins in mid-March and he hopes to have Irish players in place by then.
A former Munster academy coach, Egan believes that PRO Rugby can offer young Irish talent a chance to gain all-important game time in the coming months, even if they are to join only a loan basis.
“I’d love to partner up with the four Irish provinces,” says Egan. “Professional rugby is professional rugby. The standard might be different, but you’re playing games.”
Egan looks at MacGinty and Quill as examples of what Irish players can achieve in US rugby if they are committed enough. Out-half MacGinty was not an underage star at Blackrock College, but completed three years at Life University in Georgia before becoming the Eagles’ 10 and earning a contract at Connacht.
“It doesn’t have to be the star academy or youth player,” says Egan. “Sometimes it’s just about a good player with good football foundations put in a pro environment. Four months before the World Cup, the Eagles decided AJ was the man at out-half.
“He played four World Cup games, ‘sink or swim and learn to play the position.’ He got more and more comfortable in that environment. Now he’s playing for Connacht.”
Quill, meanwhile, was good enough to feature for Munster at A level, but the 25-year-old now has 17 caps for the Eagles.
“John might only have played club rugby in Ireland until they found out he had an American passport,” says Egan. “Within six months, he’s the Eagles’ starting seven.
“They are the kind of opportunities that I would love to be able to give to guys from back home. If there are players, with or without a US passport, we can hopefully help them go bigger and better, or at least give them an opportunity to play.”
The league itself is a huge opportunity for American rugby, which Egan has lived and breathed since the day of his arrival in Long Beach, California in 2011.
While head coaching Belmont Shore to continuous success and leading the Griffins Southern California side, he also acts as a regional academy director for Tiger Rugby, an organisation that works to improve the quality of both coaches and players.
Coaching the coaches is a huge factor in American rugby, given that many of those tasked with leading the development of young players have no rugby background or expertise whatsoever.
“Just because of my experience from home, they use me a lot that way in terms of coaching content,” says Egan. “Really it’s just about trying to find what works for coaches. It’s very hard to get coaching courses here consistently. Because it’s such a young sport, it’s dads coaching or people transferring from football.
“That’s one of the things the IRFU do right in the domestic game; youth development officers, academies, all of those are doing good stuff. Regardless of how much the downturn in the economy happened, they left that alone and the pro game took more of the hit.
“That’s one of the smart moves they made and I don’t think the IRFU or the provinces get the accolades they deserve for it. There is a conveyor belt of players coming through and now it’s up to the top-level coaches if they’re going to use them.”
Formerly a player with Young Munster and Cashel, among others, Egan’s original background is in the world of strength and conditioning, having graduated out of Loughborough University with a Sports Science and Physics degree.
He joined Munster and the IRFU in 2005 in such a role, but gradually moved into a position as an Elite Player Development Officer, “because the rugby coaching is what I was interested in doing.”
He worked with the likes of Conor Murray, Simon Zebo and Peter O’Mahony during his years with Munster and the IRFU, and was involved in the 2009 Churchill Cup with Ireland too.
“I learned so much at Munster,” says Egan. “You come in with an idea of rugby in Munster and underage Ireland, but you don’t understand what lengths they go through.
“It was nothing to do a 60 or 70-hour week, driving down to Kerry, to Cork. That was part of the game. There are guys all over the provinces doing that now and not getting any credit for it.
“It’s a labour of love. I remember Declan Kidney used to say to me every morning coming into the office, ‘It could be worse, we could be working for a living.’ When you get into that idea, it was a great knowledge for me.”
Egan – who also worked with Limerick’s senior football team at one point – picks out Kidney, Anthony Foley and Jason Holland as among the biggest influences on his career, but he is forging his own path now in the US.
His children, Jack, Conor and Ella, are “big and bould” enough to keep him busy away from rugby, but the demands of the oval ball game are relentless. Kidney’s words echo in his head whenever the going gets tough.
Mainly, however, this is a time of excitement in the US, particularly with Egan’s appointment as head coach of San Diego and the developments in that sense. The Limerick man sees only major growth in the game.
“The standard of play of rugby in the five years I’ve been here is very different,” says Egan. “Technically the players are much better. There has been a big influence of foreign coaches coming in and that has had a knock-on effect at the upper levels.
“The youth side is just exploding. Last year, there was a 20% growth in youths rugby. High school football level is actually down 20%, although the overall numbers are obviously on a different level.
“You’ll find that these football schools are now implementing rugby programmes in their off-season and they’re seeing a benefit in their players in terms of tackle, fitness, hand-eye coordination, skill level, all those things.”
The NBC television network has struck a deal to screen 20 Aviva Premiership games live, meaning the a boost to the chances of Americans casually flicking to a rugby game and embracing the contact element that is so beloved in their football.
The success of the men’s sevens team has been hugely important too, and a strong performance at the Olympics would further boost rugby’s profile.
Egan is confident that PRO Rugby, hopefully with an Irish influence, will be an integral part of that picture.
“The change is happening and the sevens gives rugby a much higher profile,” says Egan.
“It’s in the media more and the public now understand what rugby is. Five years ago they might have stared at you and asked, ‘what’s rugby?’ It’s hitting a broader audience and now it needs the next step.”
- This article was updated at 2.15pm on Sunday 28 February to include mention of the appointment of Sean O’Leary as Denver’s head coach.
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