North America’s premier rugby union competition, Major League Rugby (MLR), recently held a collegiate draft ahead of its 2024 season. It was MLR’s fourth draft since first introducing one in 2020.
As with the major pro sports in the United States, a draft enables teams to sign eligible college players for the coming season, and to be eligible, a player must have been in a US college for at least three years or be over 21 years old.
When it first started, the MLR draft was livestreamed but this time it was televised by FOX Sports 2 in the US and TSN in Canada.
It is another indication of how rugby union is becoming more professional in North America and begs the question – is a draft a possibility for rugby league in the US, and if so, would it benefit the code in America?
To get some answers, Rugby League Planet spoke with Damian Flint, 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 national governing body American National Rugby League (AMNRL).
In 2011, the AMNRL appointed Flint as its Collegiate Development Manager. At the time, he was club sports and intramurals coordinator at The College at Brockport in New York state and his role was to develop a strategy to establish a footprint for league in the college community.
He says the AMNRL saw college sports as a potential talent pool for rugby league and for good reason.
“Recent statistics indicate there are over 16 million students enrolled in colleges across the US, and in 2022 the NCAA reported 522,000 students participated in sports at the NCAA level,” says Flint.
“Colleges not only have a captive target market, but they also have exceptional sporting facilities, and are well resourced to support the development of sport at a standard, that in my opinion is unrivalled throughout the world.”
He says one of the first students he identified as having potential was Phil Lauria, who went on to play for the Connecticut Wildcats, represented the national team the USA Tomahawks, and scored a match-winning try against Canada.
“While there was some immediate success with the identification and development of playing talent, I was at the time also juggling some of the management responsibilities in the lead up to the Rugby League World Cup,” continues Flint.
“The role then of course disappeared when the AMNRL was disbanded, so there was never the opportunity to build on any momentum and develop strategic outcomes that had any substantial resources allocated to it.
“Looking back, if there were resources allocated to the growth of the sport at the collegiate level, I’m confident pathways that support the development of the sport can be created and maintained.
“Not only is there a well-established pathway through the NCAA system, there’s also club opportunities which sit outside the NCAA and are often driven through student participation and interest. These clubs often operate with the full support of the college, without having to adhere to the same level of governance required by the NCAA and can still be quite successful.”
Flint says he believes now, as he did then, that rugby league has a place in college sports.
“Definitely,” he says. “If you look at sports pathways and development in the United States, I believe the best opportunity for enhancing opportunities for participation is through the collegiate sports sector as it already has dedicated quality facilities and resources to support the development of sport at a high level.
“In an ideal world, rugby league would have a model that caters for children in junior and high school programs, through to the collegiate level with the sport sanctioned by the NCAA (ideally) and then on to the professional (club) and national team level.”
So, what about setting up a rugby league draft in the US? At this point in time of course, it’s a hypothetical question as a draft would require there to be a professional league in place. If any of the previously proposed pro leagues had been established, and there have been several in recent years, then a draft could be a genuine pathway for college athletes wanting to pursue a professional playing career in rugby league.
Flint agrees that having a pro league would be a major part of the equation, although he says it would depend on what the purpose of the draft was and how success was measured.
“As well as being a great event and marketing tool, a draft is set up to provide equity in terms of the talent pool and how it’s spread across the playing competition,” he says.
“If you have a strong competition a draft may be beneficial because it gives teams at the bottom of the ladder an opportunity to recruit players they may not have normally had access to if the draft was not in place.
“The other side of course is the impact on the players and how much support they receive if they are recruited to a different part of the country. You can see the potential negative ramifications if players are being recruited to clubs they don’t want to play for, or cities they don’t want to live in, without substantial support mechanisms in place.”
Assuming rugby league eventually goes pro in the US, Flint says he thinks a draft could work.
“In my opinion it could be successful if there was a full development pathway from the junior level to the elite, sanctioned by the NCAA at the collegiate level, with a professional competition at the top end in place,” he adds. “I could see then the potential benefits of having a draft in place.
“The NCAA reports that less than 2% of NCAA athletes go on to professional sports. If there’s a development pathway at the collegiate level, then any further opportunities beyond that would naturally be attractive for a college student.”
The AMNRL was replaced as the NGB by the US Association of Rugby League (USARL) Inc. in 2014 and the latter has not followed up on the former’s foray into college sport.