Is USA Rugby's arrangement with Chris Wyles and Saracens a case of creatively managing the fullback's everyday schedule, or paying an Englishman to practice and live in England?
One's view may depend on the reading of an interview which not only outlines the deal, but also makes clear the union has little faith in the ability of American teams to produce international players.
The Stamford, Connecticut-born Wyles, who has been one of the better US backs since 2007, when he came from completely outside American rugby into the 7s team and later the World Cup lineup, is being loaned to the Premiership club so he can train professionally and yet be available to the Eagles outside of the approved window for international matches, USA Rugby chief executive Nigel Melville told the International Rugby Board's media service.
'That's how we're trying to structure our contracts, so that we have access to our players but they are working in a great environment every day,' Melville said in a piece entitled 'Melville and Johnson set out US masterplan.'
Wyles has been the harbinger of a new phenomenon: In 2008, Australian wings Gavin DeBartolo and Tyrone Coppedge and Irishmen Robbie Shaw (halfback), Kevin Sheahan (flanker), and Ben Barlcay (prop) have been drafted into the national team pool having played few, if any, domestic games. The trend amplifies a practice common at the Under-20 (formerly Under-19) level, and USA Rugby is actively looking for more such players, according to people familiar with the matter.
The Eagles have always fielded foreign-born players, of course, but previously they have been immigrants settling in America, playing for American clubs and territories while fashioning new lives here.
In the same IRB interview, Eagle coach Scott Johnson pronounced that America has lacked a 'pathway' to its national team, seeming to dismiss the Under-19 (now Under-20), All-American, and territorial teams which have been competing since the 1970s and 1980s, or the newer age-grade teams which have proliferated in recent seasons.
'The reason that [the US] haven't moved forward, from the little time I've been here, is they haven't got a pathway for young people to go through. I'm going to start again. ...I'm not just looking at 2011. I'm looking at building an ethos within the group and what's expected as a professional rugby player,' he said.
Johnson also opined that 'The reality is that we've probably picked journeymen over that period of time and people who have come here because they can't play somewhere else and they see it as a stop-gap measure.'
It's not clear whether Johnson meant to suggest that most of the Eagles have been from abroad, or from outside rugby, or something else. A query to the union went unanswered.
The US is 3-14 since 2006, when it revamped its board and began reshaping its competitions and 'pathways', with the help of IRB 'high performance' funding. The team is presently mired in a record 10-match losing streak, which began with a winless 2007 campaign under Peter Thorburn, and has fallen to 20th from 13th in the international rankings.
The 25-year-old Wyles becomes the union's second contracted player, joining Todd Clever. But the OMBAC flanker, who is expected to soon link up with a European team, according to people familiar with the matter, could demonstrate that the union faces a greater challenge in controlling the movement of Americans facing the double duty of pleasing their employer and their country.