Monday, December 22, 2014

Top 14: Samu Manoa could become USA's first global star

Image Rugby Rama
As had been widely circulated in recent weeks USA international Samu Manoa is to leave the Northampton Saints at the end of the present season to link up with the most powerful team in European rugby today, Toulon. His move to south-eastern France comes at a time when he is becoming increasingly known to rugby supporters far and wide and also when USA Rugby is experiencing significant growth both on and off the field as evidenced by selling out Soldier Field and defeating Canada and Romania in 2014. The 29 year old Californian Manoa could now potentially become the USA's first genuine global rugby star. 

Today opportunities exist for amateur unions to have genuine world-class talent seen on the global stage. Now more than every before talent is being exposed to the same level of rugby on a weekly basis and individuals are able to maximize their opportunities. 

Argentina and Fiji did this in 2007 when both made it past the group stage of the World Cup despite having no professional rugby whatsoever within their countries. They advanced at the expense of Ireland and Wales and had certain players who lit up the World Cup including Juan Martín Hernández, Agustín Pichot, Seru Rabeni and Vilimoni Delasau. 

Both countries closed the perceived gap which had been depicted as suggesting rugby's competitiveness was restricted to the Foundation Members which consisted exclusively of the former Six Nations and Tri Nations unions. In other words, Rugby World Cup 2007 served the sport a reality check in showcasing that a South American side could finish third and a Pacific Island nation could make the final eight.

It came two years after Japan's bid to host Rugby World Cup 2011 had been declined. The foundation unions direct majority on the World Rugby Council resulted in New Zealand being allocated the hosting rights and thus, Oceania would host two World Cups in eight years. Rugby World Cup 2007, though, marked a clear change as a vastly improved match schedule enabled Argentina, Fiji and others to perform better than previously and Bernard Lapasset's subsequent global policies were advantageous to more nations.

The USA was unable to win a match in France 2007 but did unearth a host of players who have gone on to have highly successful careers abroad. Of note were Taku Ngwenya and Chris Wyles who started all four matches and have been professional players permanently in France and England since the tournament.

Their success in Europe did not transpire into a strong USA team but it did provide domestic based USA players with greater exposure and a number of players were thereafter signed to play abroad. This saw Rugby World Cup 2011 debutants Scott LaValla, Hayden Smith, Blaine Scully and John van der Giessen all becoming professionals for prominent teams and  greater exposure and an improved set-up at home aided the USA win tests v Canada and Romania in recent years.

Missing from the World Cup was Samu Manoa who had signed for Northampton in April 2011. His missing the tournament was a matter of concern due to the Northampton Saints having blocked him from travelling to the World Cup. He had debuted for the USA in 2010 but would not play another test again until 2013 despite being available for selection on numerous occasions.

By remaining at Northampton, training on a full time basis and receiving regular game time Manoa has grown to be among the best forwards in the Aviva Premiership. While his limited international duty of ten caps has seen him impress against both Ireland and New Zealand in addition to Uruguay the real story of his career to date has been winning the Aviva Premiership and regularly being identified as a star player.   

Without official acknowledgement Manoa has taken over from Todd Clever and Taku Ngwenya as being both the most famous and the most marketable USA rugby player. His presence for the USA in Rugby World Cup 2015 against Samoa, Scotland, South Africa and Japan will be noted by not only both the opposition and supporters but all by the global rugby media.

Although the USA does not realistically have the same opportunity of advancing in a manner comparable to Argentina and Fiji in 2007 there are winnable matches and Manoa's abilities can be captured and marketed as being what they are - genuine World Class. One man who believes him to be as good as any other in his position from any team is Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal who upon confirming his signature said ''he will become the star of the Top 14''.

The new four year contract will see the Californian given the opportunity to complete the rare three-peat of winning the English championship in addition to both the French and European titles. Although Northampton is a highly successful team and currently the best in England it cannot match the scope of Toulon when it comes to marketability. 

In terms of capacity Franklin's Gardens can be said to be similar to the Stade Mayol in that it seats 13,500 compared to 15,400. What differentiates the two is the policy of relocating fixtures in France compared to in England. Despite having utilized Stadium MK in Milton Keynes previously, and there being a home fixture there v Saracens in April 2015, the club has publicly been opposed to playing anywhere other than Franklin's Gardens.

Toulon, by way of comparison, is active in looking to capitalize on big matches by moving them to Nice and Marseilles, large French cities known internationally. Playing league matches in big stadiums and attracting a large crowd generates publicity. USA Rugby did so recently by playing a test in Chicago and will look to build upon this in the future.

One genuine possibility is that of the Bay Area hosting the Rugby Sevens World Cup. Manoa is from the Bay Area and his four years at Toulon could be used by USA Rugby to build a campaign to attract support and further promote the sport locally. Toulon's interest in moving matches could also, potentially, see action taken to play a match in the USA. The club has demonstrated interest in plauing matches of a non-traditional nature such as having a desire to play a Top 14 v Super Rugby champions match.

Toulon faced Perpignan in the Barcelona Olympic Stadium in 2011 and the Top 14 final will be played at Camp Nou in 2016. There has also been talk in recent years of a European Cup or Aviva Premiership match in the USA. With the Californian in Toulon building such a fixture around Manoa encourages the possibility. Toulon could propel him to stardom on a scale yet to be seen by any USA rugby player. USA Rugby should now act to market him as the face of the sport in the country. 

1 comment:

  1. I believe that these megaclubs are hurting rugby more than they help. Clubs should develop players, not buy them.