Peter Illfield

Bu Brian Lowe, Date: 15/5/17

The USA Rugby League (USARL) 2017 season is set to kick off soon and because this is a World Cup year, the national governing body has some specific targets in mind in terms of its expectations from the domestic competition.

“What I’m hoping will come from the season is an improvement in performance from our domestic players to make a genuine bid to represent their country,” said USARL chairman Peter Illfield.

“We’ve been looking at players ever since we were successful at the (RLWC) Qualifiers in December 2015.

“We’ve been taking into consideration the squad we had then, plus the players we had in the Test matches in 2016, and we’ve put together a group of players that we continue to monitor.”

Leeds Rhinos coach Brian McDermott, who led the Hawks through their successful RLWCQ series, will again serve as USA head coach, while Mark Gliddon, who coaches Norths in the Intrust Super Cup in Australia, was recently named as an assistant coach.

Jacksonville Axemen coach Sean Rutgerson will guide the national team in this year’s Rugby League Americas Championship and he has developed a plan utilizing social media to overcome the tyranny of distance obstacle that constantly plagues players in the US.

Rutgerson has set up a USA Hawks accountability Facebook page where strength and conditioning programs are laid out for players to follow.

The end goal is to accelerate players’ rugby league readiness and fitness to give them every opportunity to be considered for select side and then national team honors.

Dovetailing in with that, the domestic competition has some built-in select side matches including the North vs South All-Stars game, North and South Conference championships and the Grand Final.

Illfield says in line with that, the USARL has also appointed coaches they believe are capable of handling the higher level of play.

“They will have an eye on players throughout the season and I have no doubt they will select quality players to represent the conferences.

“The hope is that the competition raises its level and the players respond to that. I think the North vs South match will be a much more intense and competitive game than in the past, and it will highlight a much-needed opportunity for guys to be selected.

“There are no guarantees, so the guys have to do the work from here on in to get themselves rugby league fit and I’m hopeful the players will respond.”

As was the case for the previous RLWC, Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) eligibility rules give the USA more options for picking the Hawks team. Overseas-based heritage players, resident players and home grown domestic players will all be in the mix, but there are some inherent obstacles.

Illfield says the key is to continue to communicate with all players about their availability as their seasons progress.

“The difficult thing for the American player is his ability to get time off work.

“We’re asking these guys to take four weeks off work, possibly five if we get through to the finals, and I just hope they’re able to appease their employers to be able to get that time off if and when they’re selected.

“And as in the past, even for domestic Hawks matches and North-South conference games, some players aren’t able to afford that time from work to be able to participate.”

Financial supplementation for players’ commitments is another age-old problem that players in North America are faced with, and one which Illfield concedes will be no different this year.

As a volunteer organization, the USARL is not in a financial position to cover players’ expenses, however, Illfield is optimistic that things will change for the better in the future.

He says with the USA’s participation in this year’s World Cup, plus a potential second-tier international competition in 2018 proposed by the RLIF and then the 2025 RLWC to be co-hosted with Canada, the hope is that sponsorship dollars can be attracted, which can then be used to partially offset player expenses.