Most rugby league fans apparently don’t think the NRL’s planned NFL-style combine in Las Vegas will unearth any potential American players.
The NRL will be holding a combine at which college athletes will have their fitness and skills tested. It’s part of what the league is promoting as a ‘festival of rugby league’ which will be headlined by the 2024 season-opening doubleheader at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, March 2nd.
The idea behind the combine is to hopefully find Americans who show that they have what it takes to play in the world’s best rugby league competition.
At Rugby League Planet we thought it would be interesting to find out what league fans globally think about that and so we ran a poll on X/Twitter to find out. The majority of people who responded doubt the combine will produce future NRL players with 60% saying no and 40% saying yes.
Given those results, we decided to take a deeper dive into the question and to get some answers we went back to our college sports expert, Damian Flint. He’s a former Ipswich Jets player who spent eight years in American college sports, completing degrees in Sport Management and Recreation Management as a student, before going on to serve as a college administrator and volunteer with the previous national governing body, American National Rugby League (AMNRL).
RLP: Do you think an NFL-style combine has merit, or is it just a marketing gimmick?
Flint: “Generally speaking, I think it has some merit. As an event, combines are well known throughout the American sporting landscape, so it’s going to capture the attention and imagination of aspiring athletes looking for an opportunity.
“The question, however, is whether this is just a one-off event in which its success will be measured on the event alone, or whether there are future plans to embed it into a development pathway in America (which has yet to be created).”
RLP: What is the attraction for American college athletes to take part?
Flint: “If you’re an aspiring athlete looking for an opportunity, then the possibility of securing an NRL contract would be enticing.”
RLP: How likely is it that crossover athletes good enough to play in the NRL will pop up?
Flint: “I certainly don’t want to dismiss the possibility; however, I think realistically the athletes with the most potential would have had some exposure to the game (or more likely rugby union) in the past in order to be successful.
“Otherwise, I’m of the belief that the learning curve is simply too steep and would take years to master without any previous similar experience.
“We’ve seen instances in the past where athletes with some previous rugby experience have come across from America into the Queensland Cup system, and I can’t recall too many getting through the lower grades. That alone has been a significant development curve for them.”
RLP: Do you think the NRL is serious about finding future American rugby league players?
Flint: “I think the NRL is serious about capturing part of the American sporting industry and capitalising on the obvious commercial benefits that come from that which I fully endorse.
“In terms of developing the sport from a playing perspective, time will tell whether the current plans are sustainable or whether there’s a better approach for developing the game in America. The fact that the NRL is going there and we’re talking about the game in America is a positive start.”
RLP: What kinds of skills will athletes likely be tested for?
Flint: “I can see there will be various physical and skill tests being conducted: Las Vegas combine events – Take your shot! – Click here to Play rugby league.
“What’s difficult to measure in a testing environment, however, is how those traits are applied in a match environment. Rugby league is a totally different match environment to American football with the latter relying on the athlete being able to carry out set plays with designated responsibilities.
“While rugby league does have a structure to it, it’s much less structured, players more freely make their own decisions, and the way in which the game flows is in total contrast to the way in which American football is played.
“This is one of the reasons why in my opinion the learning curve transitioning from American football to rugby league would be quite difficult to master in a short period.”
RLP: What criteria will be used to gauge if this combine is a success, or will it be too early to tell?
Flint: “I think it’s too early to tell and once again I think it depends on what the long-term future plans look like.
“I’d be delighted to see an American athlete play in the NRL – it would be a huge accomplishment and exciting to watch.”
The combine will be held on March 1st and 2nd at Resort World in Las Vegas.