Rugby Union: Pro Dream Still a Big Climb for North Americans

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Rugby Union: Pro Dream Still a Big Climb for North Americans
Eric Fry is one of the lucky North Americans to earn a pro contract

Rugby union professionals, in the modern era, are recipients of some of the best coaching and sports science in the history of athletic pursuits, and there are few phrases used as much in modern rugby coaching as "10,000 hours of mastery."

The saying comes down to us from the psychologist Anders Ericsson and was most recently examined by Malcom Gladwell, in his book Outliers

One of the most important and fascinating parts of Gladwell's research, which focused on different groups of people who had reached the peak of their professions, was his findings in regards to pro athletes in the sport of ice hockey.

Gladwell discovered that Canadian hockey players born in the first few months of the year, were far more likely to become professional players than the rest of their peers.

The logic was that players born early in the year were likely to be more physically mature than other boys at various stages in their childhood and therefore more likely to be identified as more athletically gifted.

This, in turn, caused these players to receive more hours of elite coaching and attention. These are the players that went on to benefit from Ericsson's 10,000 hour theory and subsequently become professionals.

If only the issues around pursuing a professional rugby career were so simple. 

For ambitious North American rugby players, the very idea that they could accumulate such hours of training so early in life seems highly improbable. For starters, rugby leagues for the very young are a relatively new phenomenon for North Americans, and today's young adults with professional aspirations are likely to have only been in the game for a comparative handful of seasons. 

European national unions, as well as their associated professional clubs, all have youth development programs which are specifically designed to identify, acquire and train promising young talent in England, Ireland, Wales and elsewhere.

So where then is a player like the USA's Eric Fry to turn?

The 25-year-old California native had been trying earn a full-time professional contract for some time, after breaking in to the American national team as a prop in 2010. Its a challenge for any athlete born in North America, as European pro clubs have their own depth charts of local talent that flow all the way down to local youth rugby.

Recently, the powerful front-row forward was able to sign-on with London Scottish of the R.F.U. Championship; a club in the second-tier of professional English rugby. He said:

It is a difficult process for North Americans to sign contracts overseas.  This is my second overseas contract. My first being for the Manawatu Turbos in New Zealand.  One of the difficulties is that we are competing for spots with players who have been playing as a professional for some time, or against young players who have been identified as having potential and been put into an academy program.

Domestically, in North America, there are no professional leagues nor is there a way for us to play and train at a level as high as our full-time European counterparts. One of our opportunities to showcase our abilities is in international tests. However, there are only a few of those a year, and we often don't have as much time to prepare for them as we'd like.

Fry is one of the lucky ones. The lack of a professional league in North America means that, often, North American athletes are forced to try and find innovative ways of displaying their talents for professional scouts and managers. Its a strategy that can come with a lot of risks.

Another option which is much more of a gamble is to prove yourself at the amateur level in a country with a professional league. Last February, I quit my job and moved to New Zealand to train full time in a competitive rugby environment. I was hoping that my time in New Zealand would help develop me as a player and as a scrummager and that it would add to my credibility and make me less of a risky investment to professional team. I was extremely fortunate that.

Being a full time player in the ITM Cup grew my game a lot and gave me game footage to prove that I could benefit a professional team in another part of the world.   With this experience I played better in my next international tour with the US team. Without it, I don't think I would have won a contract with London Scottish.   

Fry is correct that his gamble paid off. The entire purpose RFU Championship is to push talent up into the ranks of the English Aviva Premiership, where the truly big money contracts can be found.

Players with London Scottish are offered far more meagre wages, with some clubs in the league still occasionally fielding purely amateur players.

One of Fry's new teammates is Canadian international lock forward Tyler Hotson. Hotson joined London Scottish this season and has already played several seasons in England; he is a veteran who truly appreciates the opportunity to earn a living playing the sport he loves. He added:

It's a massive opportunity to play over here. This league continues to improve and it can be so physical; even more than Premiership games, depending on the day.   

As far as the quality of the RFU Championship is concerned, I can completely attest to it. It's so important to get guys over here and out of their comfort zones, and obviously it’s worked out really well for me in a positive way. The more guys we can get over here playing somewhere, the better.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Canada's Tyler Hotson is Eric Fry's teammate at London Scottish RFC and a fellow overseas professional.

Hotson's hopes for more Canadians joining him overseas, a hope that is no doubt shared by Eric Fry and the Team USA management, will be difficult to realize. As Fry explains, the system is currently stacked against players from across the Atlantic.

Another hurdle North Americans face is that clubs have to sponsor us for a work visa which can be an difficult, expensive and timely process. Additionally, in most professional leagues there are restrictions on the number of overseas players. Furthermore, it is my understanding that some teams have financial incentives if they average a certain amount of players who are eligible to play for their affiliated national team.  

Recently, news became public that the Super 15, the southern hemisphere's premier professional rugby competition, is pondering the idea of expansion to North America. Rugby communities across the continent rejoiced at this development.  

For with the arrival of a truly professional league in both Canada and the United States would also come the resources necessary to identify talent at a younger age and unleash the vast potential that the North American athlete pool holds.

Surely then the world rugby community will stand up and take notice.

If players like Eric Fry and Tyler Hotson can be moulded into rugby machines of their caliber in a little under a decade, one shutters at the thought of what might be possible when the next generation of North American boys and girls start off much earlier, in search of their own 10,000 hours of rugby.

Jeff Hull is a contributor to Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise stated, all of the above quotations were obtained first-hand.

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @RugbyScribe

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