Dublin: 5°C Sunday 23 January 2022

'This is a market people seriously need to look at' - US rugby combine a success

The NFRL hosted its inaugural rugby combine event in Minneapolis two weekends ago, with a number of former NFL players attending.

Image: NRFL

“HE IS JUST a complete machine, 110kg and 6ft 4ins.

“He’s a white guy who comes from Texas and he trained as a Navy Seal at the age of 18. He’s played rugby in high school and college, as well as college football. He would be a very good back row, already with a little bit of rugby knowledge.

“He is a very interesting prospect and at 24, I think he’s still got the time to learn.”

The words of Jonathan Stuart, who was the “eyes and ears” for 12 European rugby clubs at the inaugural NRFL [National Rugby Football League] rugby combine in Minneapolis two weekends ago. A client manager for Top Marque Sports, Stuart was tasked with scouting players such as the unnamed potential back row above.

The unique event was the brainchild of local businessmen Michael Clements and George ‘Mac’ Robertson, bringing together 140 athletes from a range of sporting backgrounds, all of them sharing the goal of becoming professional rugby players.

Munster and Ulster were among the clubs represented by Stuart at what he calls a “hugely interesting” event, where former NFL stars competed alongside ex-NCAA college footballers and American rugby players for the opportunity to earn a contract in Europe.

Shawn Zobel, the NRFL’s Director of Player Recruitment, organised and ran the combine alongside Eddie O’Sullivan, formerly the head coach of Ireland. “From a talent perspective,” Zobel was extremely happy with the quality of athlete that turned up to be assessed.

858821_1398725210404818_7141793705254978713_o 'Coach' O'Sullivan runs the rule over the prospects. Source: NRFL

While the majority of the participants had never even picked up a rugby ball in their lives before the combine weekend, those observing the two days of testing were in agreement that the American athletes’ trainability was immediately obvious.

“What shouldn’t be ignored is these guys’ ability to learn very quickly,” says Stuart. “That’s where they’re very impressive; hugely positive people who can make that adaption very quickly. They’re confident in their ability without being arrogant.”

European clubs [and union] represented by Stuart at NRFL event: Scottish Rugby Union, Ulster, Munster, Scarlets, Ospreys, Bristol, ‘Quins, Grenoble, Brive, Bayonne, La Rochelle and Béziers.

Perhaps even more impressive was the physical capability of a high percentage of the athletes who turned up at the combine.

“These guys have got physical scores which some of our professional rugby players don’t get in their late 20s after training professionally,” continues Stuart. “A lot of these guys are bigger than Carlin Isles and not a lot slower.”

Zobel and his assistants measured each players’ height, weight, vertical jump, bench press [as many reps of 100kg as possible], 40-yard dash, 60-yard shuttle, before a fitness drill which involved attempting to complete 35 seven-second reps of 40-metre sprints, starting a new rep every 20 seconds.

Yamon Figurs, a 31-year-old former NFL player for the Detroit Lions, ran a 4.31 second 40-yard dash, with others not too far behind, while Stuart says that on the vertical jump, “lots of guys were over the 30-inch mark” and the peak score was 40 inches.

The best effort on bench press was 31 reps, although one athlete who weighed around 14 stone stood out for hitting the 20 mark, “more than his own body weight 20 times!” In general, the impression made on Stuart, his colleague and the scout sent by Saracens was a lasting one.

O’Sullivan ran the players through six drills to test their core rugby skills, although the real knowledge gained in this controlled environment was what Stuart terms “the ability to listen to what he [O'Sullivan] wanted and then replicate that.”

“That’s where they are very good. The majority of them listened and then repeated basically exactly what he wanted. Their professionalism was excellent, they didn’t need to be asked twice.

They are respectful of coaches and authority; you tell them to run through a brick wall for a contract and they’ll do it. They won’t sit around moaning.”

Of course, every one of the 14o or so players present was not a 6ft 4ins, 110kg beast who ran a 4.40 in the 40-yard dash.

“There was about 50% of guys there who were just out of shape,” points out Stuart. “Big lads, but there is no way they could transfer what they had. They would have defensive line guys in football. At 28 years of age or so, learning the technicalities of playing prop forward is too far fetched.”

Robertson, partner to Clements in the RugbyLaw firm that is behind the NRFL, says there were in the region of “50 to 60 elite athletes” present.

10258581_1398725620404777_7324663335933122180_o The athletes get set for fitness testing. Source: NRFL

“We had a third with NFL experience, a third had NCAA Division One experience or were elite athletes who just didn’t get onto the NFL track, then the final third were rugby guys from the United States.”

The physical supremacy of those with American football experience over their rugby rivals was “sobering,” according to Robertson. While Stuart points to the concerns over “how long it would take for them to adapt to professional rugby,” these former NFL contracted players in their 30s pose an interesting question to rugby clubs.

“One of the challenges the scouts have is that we’re away from the usual academy system in rugby,” says Robertson. “A lot of these guys are older, they’ve had four or five years of successful times in the NFL, sometimes after five years of success at their NCAA college.

We had the endurance test, similar to a bleep test, and it was painful just to watch these guys. Very few people finished it, but all our older NFL guys finished it. They’re all running 4.4 or 4.5 seconds over 40 yards too.

“The challenge for rugby is what do you do with these ‘second career’ guys? You just can’t dismiss them as too old, because either we or someone else is going to get them on their side. You’re going to have to explain to your manager why you didn’t sign these athletes and how they’re causing damage against your side.”

More immediately, and realistically, Stuart has made the European clubs aware of “the guys who hadn’t made it into the NFL, who had probably been to similar combine events but hadn’t been picked up.

“They were still impressive physically. They were around 24 or 25, because they all do four years minimum in college, so that’s why you don’t get many younger guys.”

“We were sort of learning on the hoof, but that’s why you don’t get the 20/21-year-old physical specimen, because that guy will give his all at college. He won’t drop out of college because he can’t go professional until he finishes his college degree.

“So you get these mid-20s guys who are interesting athletes. We’re looking mainly at outside centres and wings, maybe a blindside flanker or No. 8.”

It need not be pointed out that the main issue from a playing point of view is that these athletes may have little or no rugby skill at present. However, Stuart underlines that in terms of beating defenders, such a core ability in rugby, some of those at the NRFL combine are undoubtedly remarkable.

There were a couple of very good ex-college footballers who I think would make really good outside backs, not just with size but the ability to beat players with their footwork and acceleration; guys who are used to carrying the ball in heavy contact.

“There’s no doubt that these guys are very, very good in terms of ability to change direction with power and pace.”

Each of the players who took part in the NRFL’s event has been commercially contracted to the organisation, but the European clubs who scouted the event are completely free to sign them up.

Visa issues complicate matters, as Robertson points out in particular reference to Munster and Ulster. A prominent Premiership club has already agreed to sign one of the athletes present at the combine, but now need the US Eagles to cap him this summer in order to secure a work permit for the UK.

Beyond those legal issues, the European clubs would clearly be taking a risk by committing their resources into turning one of these undeniable awesome physical specimens into a professional rugby player.

“If I was a club, I would take a gamble on one of these players,” says Stuart. “Looking at them, I would potentially contract three to four of them straight onto a development contract and I would trial a handful of other guys without a shadow of a doubt.

“The trial system is low cost. Get them over for two weeks and make a call at the end to see if this guy can hit the ground running within six months, 12 months, 18 months, whatever it is.

Ultimately, it’s the club’s choice. They need to work out whether they can afford to take that gamble, because regardless of what we say, it’s always going to be a gamble. But I think it’s going to be a gamble worth taking.”

As for the NRFL rugby combine, Clements and Robertson are optimistic and ambitious for the future. The confidence O’Sullivan has in the project informs and drives their planning.

“We’re going to make this a regular legacy event, and we’re even thinking of twice a year,” says Robertson. “There’s a lot of talent out here in the United States. Eddie is the final word and if he thinks these guys can be picked up, there is no doubt.”

Tweaks to the format, timing and publicity around the event will need to be made to ensure growth, with Robertson admitting that “it’s all about learning as we go along.” For Stuart and the European clubs, this first event was a step into the dark too, but the Top Marque man stresses that we have had a glimpse of the future.

“If there’s one lasting impression from the event, it’s that this is a market people seriously need to look at.”

‘Yellow card the catalyst’ for Glasgow win while Ulster injury toll rises again

Irishman Lydon destined for London after a year of learning at Stade Français

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

Read next:


This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel