Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Impact of American Samoa

The IRB announced this week that American Samoa has been granted full IRB membership and is now eligible for all IRB events such as the World Cup and the Sevens Series. While it is great that the international rugby community is continuing to grow, there is no doubt that this move will have a significant affect on rugby in the United States. Exactly what that may be and whether that is a positive or a negative is another story.
As an unincorporated territory of the United States, residents of American Samoa are U.S. nationals but not U.S. citizens. This means that they are entitled to free entry into the U.S. to live and to work. However, they are not allowed to vote in national elections and must abide by residency rules established for resident aliens. If one parent is a U.S. citizen than any children may also apply to be U.S. citizens. Okay, but what does this mean for the U.S. rugby team? That is what is unclear.
One of the biggest question is how IRB defines nationality? Would a player born in American Samoa be eligible for both American Samoa and the United States or would they have to be U.S. citizens? One of the few situations similar to this circumstance is the Cook Islands, which have an independent rugby union but whose players are New Zealand citizens. A quick scan for famous players from the Cook Islands seems to show that many of their players had multiple playing options and chose the Cook Islands once it was clear they weren't going to be a Wallaby or an All Black. So would American Samoans make the same decision to wait for a chance with the Eagles? They would probably have a better shot at making the World Cup but the Eagles are no All Blacks and might not be able to attract the best players.
This potential drain could be a big problem for the United States. On the 2011 World Cup squad there were four players on the roster that qualified for the U.S. through American Samoa: Junior Sifa, Nese Malifa, Andrew Suniula, and Roland Suniula. Worryingly for the U.S., both Malifa and Roland Suniula represented the two options at flyhalf. The U.S. has consistently struggled to develop their own domestic flyhalf and have always had to rely on outside help, which recently has come from American Samoans received training in Australia or New Zealand. Malifa and Suniula are still relatively young and are tied to the Eagles, but this development will certainly put more pressure on the U.S. to develop players in "skilled" positions.
While there are plenty of things to worry about for the Eagles, there are also some positives. Full IRB membership will help grow rugby on the islands and could eventually push more players to represent the United States. If more and more players are playing the game and developing key skills, some of the better players might be drawn to the Eagles as a chance to play in the World Cup or on the IRB Sevens Series. We could always use more players with a U.S. option and this certainly wouldn't hurt.
How exactly this situation shakes out will be determined over the next several years. It could hurt the U.S. but at the same time it could be a blessing in disguise. Here's hoping it's the latter.

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