Pro Rugby in America: New National Rugby Football League Soaking Up NFL Talent

Jeff Hull@@HullatHomeContributor IIIAugust 29, 2013

It is hoped the National Rugby Football League will launch following an exhibition event in the summer of 2014.
It is hoped the National Rugby Football League will launch following an exhibition event in the summer of 2014.

Players cut from NFL teams are being given the opportunity to continue with their sporting careers through the new National Rugby Football League.

Bleacher Report has previously provided in-depth coverage of the race to establish North America's first professional rugby league, including the efforts of an American investment group known as RugbyLaw.

The group, headed by Mac Robertson and Mike Clements, had previously forged agreements with the NFL Network and the Aviva Premiership to hold a giant exhibition event at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., last June.

After backing off that plan due to lack of preparation time, RugbyLaw has embarked in a new venture, which they have dubbed the National Rugby Football League (NRFL). 

Taking the lessons learned from their previous experience, the investment group has hired NFL talent scout Shawn Zobel to comb through NFL rosters and preseason cuts to identify potential talent.

Zobel was enthusiastic about the opportunity when we talked with him on Thursday.

I originally was recruited here by Jeff Diamond, former NFL Executive of the Year, who has been working with RugbyLaw and the National Rugby Football League. He had experience with the Minnesota Vikings and Tennessee Titans and had run both teams. 

Jeff alerted me of this opportunity.

My background is in scouting football players for the NFL, hence which is why I was a good fit for this role, and it was a great opportunity for me. 

Zobel's first task will be to locate a pool of potential talent, made up elite college athletes or players who have recently been cut by NFL teams.

With more than 30 players being cut from 32 NFL teams in the next two weeks, RugbyLaw is in contact with current NFL free agents and upcoming free agents about playing professional rugby in the United States. We have talked to players from BCS schools such as Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, USC, Miami (FL), Texas, LSU, Georgia, Florida, and Texas A&M, among many others.

We believe that for the players that do not make NFL rosters this fall that the National Rugby Football League will be the next best opportunity for them to take advantage of their athletic gifts and to be a part of something special.

The New York Jets cut 14 players on Monday and we were in contact before they left the building.

It has long been believed by those in the global rugby community that if America could harness a certain class of athlete, then they would quickly become a power in the global game. Efforts like those Mr. Zobel is currently making, on behalf of the NRFL represent something fairly new in the American experience. 

It remains to be seen whether or not athletes who have trained their entire lives to play football will be open to making the switch, but Mr. Zobel believes that the results of his recruitment efforts will surprise a lot of people.

First off, our response from the NFL camps has been very, very positive. We have a very strong number of players that is growing daily as players are being cut. Our numbers represent all 32 camps, so we are definitely on their radar screen.

Conversations are back and forth. They know the National Rugby Football League has, in their shop a "Help Wanted" sign. Our numbers are only growing stronger as final cuts are being made.

What is very exciting about this is that this is an opportunity for these players. Their sails have been torn by being cut from the NFL but they are readily filled by the thought of playing another elite professional sport in the offseason of the NFL.

Players are already in top shape, having just been cut by NFL teams. Our Combine date and location is close to being announced as we are in the process of finalizing the deal. The Combine will be in the first quarter of 2014 at a major national venue.

The timeline described by the RugbyLaw group is admittedly far more realistic than their efforts in the summer of 2012.

RugbyLaw's co-head Mac Robertson helped lay out what the plans will be for his new group of recruited athletes, between now and the summer of 2014.

We have one of two streams available to us. Following the combine selections, we will either hold a five-week residential camp here in the United States, or we will do something similar overseas. 

Our work has attracted the attention of some interested parties in Europe, and so there may be opportunities there. That decision has not yet been made.

This will all be leading up to our premier event, the Independence Cup, next summer, with the launch of the National Rugby Football League to follow in its wake.

There are sure to be those who doubt the feasibility of such a project; however, there are also major voices in the sporting world speaking up in support.

Brian Burke, a former longtime NHL executive who was most recently the president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, recently called publicly for a path toward professional rugby in North America at a Rugby Canada press conference in Toronto.

Professional rugby is coming, in my view. We're playing catchup with a lot of established professional sports. We're playing catchup with a lot of broadcast sports, but that doesn't diminish the fact that we think we have a product that can compete with those sports.

Rugby is a late comer to us here in North America, but that hasn't stopped other sports from acquiring the kind of status they want to have in the professional community. So I think professional rugby is coming. I don't want to give you a time frame on it, but that's our goal.

Elsewhere, reports continue to surface about the interest from other professional rugby leagues in England and the Southern Hemisphere.

Burke and others contend that the North American sports market is perfect for a fast, non-stop, high-impact sport like rugby union.

If this project moves forward as envisioned, it will certainly be the test.

Only time will tell, if this new National Rugby Football League will unleash the enormous potential for rugby in America that many have seen for years, but if it can, the global rugby scene will never be the same.

Jeff Hull is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.

Unless otherwise states, all material was collected firsthand.

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