Top college players can immediately move to and from American Rugby Premiership clubs while retaining university eligibility, a change intended to accelerate individual development.
Others can join senior teams once their college seasons have finished, USARFU said last week in a press release. Pacific Rugby Premiership clubs belong to the latter category, as Boulder hasn't designated the western league an 'elite' competition.
'Allowing college players a chance to continue their season is a common-sense update, and American rugby absolutely needs its top players to have a chance to test themselves in premier competitions ... without losing their collegiate eligibility', USARFU club manager Erik Geib said in a prepared statement.
The move points up dramatic, albeit evolutionary, change in Boulder's worldview. A decade ago, and perhaps much less, regard for competitive equity and individual safety would have precluded athlete mobility. The union's focus has since become sifting through players with potential to boost its international teams and thus its commercial prospects.
The historic concern of 'teenagers against grown men' appears to have receded in part due to the increasing proportion of collegiate athletes with high school experience, lending weight to the 'if you're good enough, you're old enough' argument. Additionally, there have always been older, post-military (or -mission) players in the university ranks, as well as college-senior matches.
The competitive ramifications are less certain. Impact college players could tip the balance of senior championships, particularly in the lower divisions, where depth can be thin. Geib expressed hopes the rule might encourage regional college-club alliances: teams will have to cooperate in administering transfers, which may broaden ties.
Interestingly, PRP teams lack the status of their ARP cousins partly because of the former's 'guest player' regulation, a player loan mechanism allowing intra-season callups from other senior teams. The union isn't comfortable with this deviation from its eligibility standards.
For USARFU, it's most important that the domestic game be harnessed to international competition. Since the 2011 World Cup, union officials have been concerned with the relatively low number of games American athletes play compared with Commonwealth rivals. As most US teams are well short of a high-performance environment, however, it has not been demonstrated that shorter training cycles and a longer season are innately superior to longer training cycles and a shorter competitive program, or that more games against low-grade opponents yields improved international prospects.
Last fall, USARFU conciliated graduate students by allowing them to compete with the undergraduate teams of their current enrollment, provided they had not played five seasons for another school or graduated from high school more than seven years earlier.