USA Rugby League

By Brian Lowe, Date: 25/3/19

In an extension of our two-part series in which we compared the all-time statistics of the American national team under the two most recent US national governing bodies, the next logical analysis is a review of the selection processes used by both NGBs.

As explained in Part 1 of our series, the common denominator for the two teams is the Rugby League World Cup. The Americans have qualified for the past two RLWC. The USA Tomahawks were there in 2013 and the current USA Hawks participated in the 2017 tournament.

The Tomahawks went 2-1 in their group games and advanced to the quarterfinals in 2013, whereas the Hawks posted an 0-3 record in their pool matches and went home early in 2017.

The Tomahawks played under the banner of the American National Rugby League (AMNRL) which folded in 2014 and since then the Hawks have competed under the USA Rugby League (USARL) administration.

The two governing bodies couldn’t be more different than in the way in which they chose, or choose, to manage the game in the United States, which is precisely why the USARL formed a breakaway competition in the first place in 2011.

The original teams that split from the AMNRL felt that the governing body wasn’t inclusive enough and they disagreed with the AMNRL’s policies on how to manage the game in America.

Conversely, the USARL was established by those same teams who all chimed in with input on how the clubs competition should be run, which is by and large the system that is still in place today.

One of the major points of difference, if not the catalyst for the USARL breaking away, was the AMNRL’s selection process for the national team.

Under the leadership of David Niu, the AMNRL felt it was in the team’s best interests to include as many eligible overseas-based players as possible to increase the chances of winning, whereas the USARL, under the chairmanship of Peter Illfield, believed, and still does, that it is better to pick more homegrown players to help develop the game at a grassroots level.

It should be said there is no right or wrong policy, it really boils down to what you believe gives you the best chance to achieve your goals, and of course the goals can be different.

The 2013 team roster consisted of NRL players, an English Super League player, some second-tier guys from Australia, plus a couple of homegrown players. The 2017 incarnation had one NRL caliber player and a handful of second-tier guys from Australia and the UK, while more than half of the team was made up of US domestic players.

The results speak for themselves and that’s by no means a criticism of the US-based players. It is a matter of fact.

Here’s the thing. National governing bodies in Tier II and Tier III countries need to determine whether winning on the international level is a priority, or if the longer-term development of the game at the grassroots level is more important.

The AMNRL chose the former and the USARL opted for, and still goes with, the latter.

The reason the Tomahawks shocked and awed the rugby league world in 2013 is because they had so many top-quality players on the team and the reason the Hawks crashed and burned in 2017 is because they didn’t. There’s no question about that. It’s not debatable.

When you look at the rosters of the three countries the US played in 2017, it is painfully obvious that they also opted for the AMNRL kind of policy. Fiji, Italy and Papua New Guinea all fielded NRL players and they all posted big Ws against the Hawks.

That’s not to say that US teams shouldn’t include homegrown guys. They should. But the big difference is that those homegrown players can benefit a lot more from playing alongside NRL and Super League guys in games that really count than they can by trying to figure things out as they go.

In between World Cups is a good time to blood domestic-based players so that they can get a taste of what it’s like to play at the higher level, but when it comes to RLWC qualifying series and then the World Cup itself, you do yourself no favours by not picking the strongest team possible and the US found that out the hard way in the RLWCQ last November.

The Hawks’ team was predominantly a domestic-based squad and it came up against a Jamaican side in the do-or-die game that was coined the Reggae Warriors’ best ever squad because it comprised a bunch of players from the English Super League and Championship and the end result proved the point.

The fact of the matter is, it would be a stretch to say that rugby league in America is even semi-professional. It’s not. It is an amateur game.

Players, coaches, administrators, volunteers and fans alike all pay out of their own pocket to be involved in the game, and for that they are to be commended.

However, rugby league is destined to always remain a fringe sport in this country, that’s not debatable, and as such, it behooves the NGB to put the best possible team on the field to ensure the US achieves the best results that it can.