The last few months have seen a number of America head overseas on professional contracts. Cam Dolan has joined Northampton in the Premiership, Carlin Isles and Folau Niua are with Glasgow, Luke Hume is with Narbonne, and Tai Tuisamoa, Toby L’Estrange, and John Quill have all joined London Welsh. Several other players have had significant looks from other teams and could join next season when money comes available.
These five players join an increasing number of players overseas. In total there are now fifteen capped or U.S.-eligible players (9 capped, 6 eligible) in the top three leagues of Europe. Ten players are playing in second divisions. This is a huge increase over previous years.
So why have the numbers increased? It’s common at this time of the year for players to bring in injury cover and a few players have been brought over for just that purpose. However, that alone still doesn’t explain the larger numbers.
The answer may lie in the strong Fall the Eagles had. Putting in a big showing against the Maori All Blacks certainly helped Cam Dolan while a big performance from Tai Tuisamoa against Russia surely caught the eye of London Welsh. Folau Niua was steady throughout the fall. However, teams in Europe had to have seen the Eagles in the summer when they went 0-8. Sure, they played well in some of those matches but it was hardly impressive.
The real answer may lie with one man: Samu Manoa. Since joining Northampton a couple of seasons ago (at the expense of going to the World Cup with the Eagles) he has emerged as not only one of the best players for the Saints but also in the Premiership. Of any American he has the capability of slotting into almost any other country’s starting line-up.
When he joined Northampton from SFGG he was far from a certain thing. He had only played for the Eagles once. He did star for SFGG as they ran to the Super League title but that is hardly comparable to a top European league. The Saints selected Manoa based on his physical attributes and his potential. It panned out for them big time.
We think it’s safe to assume that other teams in Europe see what Northampton got in Manoa and are trying to find their own gems. Americans are relatively cheap and if you can get them on the roster (visas are an issue) then you can develop them over time. Not all Americans have been signed on potential but players like Niua, Tuisamoa, and Dolan could all be traced to Manoa in some form.
The philosophy isn’t new. Dan Lyle opened a lot of doors for Americans in the early 90s. Americans have also been seen as physical potential but Manoa also showed, along with players like Scott LaValla, that we also now have the rugby background to get the job done. American players now come in with a leg up and European teams have noticed.
It’s not just Manoa that has opened doors, although he is the most high-profile, the play of Blaine Scully has also done wonders for Americans. If the U.S. has a strong summer and then a strong World Cup we could see even more players heading overseas. That is only good for the game. A lot is going to depend on how this new crop of players does. Even if a few pan out than attitudes in Europe could be permanently changed.