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The Foreign Question

Wednesday Aug 26, 2009 in Elite Level Rugby National Teams

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(Eagles with hands on hearts. Many would give much to be there. Ian Muir photo.)


USA 7s coach Al Caravelli prepares to attend the 7s all-star championships to scout players, the USA Selects have to pick a team to play in the new ARC in October, the All Americans just came back from tour.

And often the leading question regarding all these selections isn’t so much who the coaches will pick, but where those players come from. Elsewhere in the rugby world the concern as to the birthplace of a particular player isn’t particularly strong. This is in part a leftover from the days of the British Empire, when you could be born in Australia or New Zealand, but would be British at the same time.

It is also in part due to the fact that the British Isles are so darned small. Irish people living in and having kids in England, Welsh moving to Scotland. It’s no big deal.

Said one source in Ireland: “Even the All Blacks don’t seem to worry where their players are born as long as they can play.  In the UK the Celtic nations have long understood that they need to include dual qualified players if they are to compete with the vast numbers in England.”

So the USA looks for overseas-based players who qualify for the USA, and some complain. Other company’s “rejects” some would say. Maybe, and sometimes those “rejects” work out pretty well. Few would argue that Mike Hercus has over his career been a great addition to American rugby. Chris Wyles is perhaps the most shining example – a player with England prospects who chose the USA, liked what was going on here, and became a star as a result. He has no regrets that he chose the Eagles, and we shouldn’t, either.

But there are also examples that don’t work out (recently Gavin DeBartolo, Dan Power, Tyrone Coppedge). For each there’s an individual story, but there are also some underlying themes:

1. If a player is only looking to play for the USA as a means to play international rugby, then they won’t bring the passion, the patriotism, needed to succeed in the enormously difficult world of test rugby.

2. There’s a mistaken feeling among many that if you’ve learned your rugby in another country, then somehow you’ve learned it better. This isn’t always the case. Coaches who approach players assuming they are better simply by being from overseas, or players who are from overseas who come into camp thinking that, are usually part of a bad experience, not a good one.

But this doesn’t mean every player born or raised overseas is a liability. Few would question the patriotism of Vaea Anitoni, or the dedication of Riaan van Zyl, or Jone Naqica’s heart. We as fans, just as the coaches do, simply have to take each player as he comes and evaluate whether he will be part of the family. Caravelli has done that, and for the most part judges well. Eddie O’Sulilvan has those choices to make, too.

But we should all be careful of judging players based only on their place of birth.

Consider, for example, Robbie Shaw. He’s an Irishman, right? He qualifies for the USA but he’s an Irishman. But it might be a surprise for you to know his family has always considered itself Irish-American. Shaw grew up in constant contact with his American relatives, played baseball, basketball and football (his mom, Sandy, taught him to throw a spiral pass) and as a kid loved playing in his Miami Dolphins uniform.

Shaw’s first attempt at national team honors weren’t with Ireland or England (where he also qualified) but the USA. At the time, he was too young for any representative play. His story shows how difficult it is to simply label someone “not one of us.”

This year the issue has come to a head in two arenas.

The first is the case of Hanno Dirksen, a South-African born player who played high school rugby in the USA. Dirksen was touted as an Eagle in the making and at 17 played for the USA Selects. Then he went to school in England, and helped his school win a national championship.

But now Dirksen is being courted by former USA coach Scott Johnson, who signed him to the Ospreys Academy and hopes he will, in three years, qualify for Wales. A sneaky move by Johnson, to be sure, and it’s worth pointing out that Dirksen had never lived in Wales until this offer came through.

In the end it’s Dirksen’s choice who he plays for, while it’s up to Johnson to look himself in the mirror. In the USA we have to use this story as a chance to start asking questions about whether a player is worth money and resources if he’s just going to bolt somewhere else (a la James Paterson or Alex Corbisiero).

The second example is the All Americans. The AAs toured South Africa this month, going 1-2. No one begrudges them losing against a very strong South Africa Universities team, because it was a learning experience. But who benefits from that experience?

The All Americans took seven players who were born overseas or learned their rugby there. By definition the All American program is for the best college players in the USA, regardless of their background. That is fare and right. But when you’re talking about the All American team touring and learning to play international rugby, that’s a different animal. That’s where many feel USA Rugby should skew American-born, or at least American-committed. Why should we put resources into players who won’t play for the United States?

It’s a legitimate worry, and one with a complicated answer. Reports are that Seth Strauss, after touring with the All Americans in 2008, committed to be an Eagle if called upon. That’s wonderful. Will the same be true of Paul Bester, Roland Evans, Dylan Lubbe, Aaron McMaster, Chris Parker, Mike Su’a and Nardus Wessels?

If there’s any doubt along those lines, then they should not have been on the tour. With the All Americans, or HS All Americans, or U20s, it’s not about whether a guy is truly American, or really cares, it’s about development dollars and resources. It’s about what is right for USA Rugby, and USA Rugby can’t afford to put effort into developing players who end up playing for another country.

USA Rugby has already proved that we can develop players who are outstanding on the world stage. We’ve also proved we can take overseas players who were marginal and make them better. In short, many in the game in American know what they’re doing.

But when we put effort behind developing our young players, we should have a reasonable expectation that we are going to get some payback.


- Alex Goff
(Alex Goff was born in Watford, England of American parents and despite loving most of his first 16 years in the UK, always considered himself an American, counting as his childhood heroes Carl Yastrzemski, JPR Williams, Bobby Orr, Eric Heiden, Jean-Pierre Rives, Roger Staubach, Graham Mourie and John Havlicek.)




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