The USA Tomahawks squad picked for next month’s Rugby League Atlantic Cup in Jacksonville comprises an interesting blend of experience and youth, as well as crossover athletes.
Among the 22 players named in the squad are a couple of former Division I college football players, ex-Arena Football League players and a former US U19 Rugby Union speedster.
Akarika Dawn, who played with the AMNRL champions Jacksonville Axemen this year, and former NFL practice squad signing Vaka Manupuna are on the Tomahawks’ starting roster.
“I’m very happy with the selection. I don’t really know how to feel because in football there’s no national team,” Dawn commented when told of his selection for the Tomahawks squad.
Both Dawn and Manupuna played college football together at the University of Colorado – Dawn was a linebacker and Manupuna a tackle, the latter earning an honorable mention as an All-Big 12 Conference player.
Manupuna was signed as a free agent by the Washington Redskins in 2006, was signed to the New York Jets practice squad later that same season, before re-signing with the Redskins in 2009. In between times Manupuna played in the Arena Football League with the Utah Blaze and Spokane Shock.
“He’s actually a really, really good friend of mine so I’m looking forward to playing with him again,” added Dawn. “It’ll be like playing with my brother. It’ll be kind of like a reunion and going into battle with him again.”
One of the youngest players on the squad is former USA U19 Rugby Union player Sione ‘Pila’ Taufa. The young flyer, who like Manupuna hails from Maui, is regarded as one of the fastest players in Hawaii having clocked a time of 4.3 seconds over 40 metres.
Joining them on the US squad is another former Arena Football League player Matt Thornton, who has been called up for a second stint with the national team having debuted for the Tomahawks in 2000.
Thornton made a successful return from injury this past season with the Jacksonville Axemen and the captain Apple Pope is yet another crossover athlete, along with his brother Taco, who also played football at college.
Two other players who’ll be making their international debuts are Brent Shorten and Damien O’Malveney.
Shorten is an explosive pivot who steered the Axemen to their first AMNRL championship this year, while O’Malveney plays half back or centre. Both area originally from Australia and qualify for selection having played in the United States for the past three years.
“The selection of Vaka Manupuna is a real indication of the potential pool of talent we can and will tap into throughout the USA,” said AMNRL president David Niu.
“We have some great talent identification plans in place nationally. Vaka and Sione Taufa validate our efforts to recruit top level athletes to move rugby league forward in the USA in all our regions.
“There are dedicated groups throughout America keen to develop rugby league interest in their regions. Chicago and Hawaii are good examples of this expansion. They are an integral part of the AMNRL strategic plan and core mission to develop rugby league in the USA.
“Damien [O’Malveney] and Brent [Shorten] have consistently been two of the best players in the AMNRL competition for a number of years and now that they have satisfied the eligibility criteria to represent the USA it was very exciting for the coaching staff to announce their selections.”
USA face Canada and Jamaica in the round robin event in Florida. All matches will be played at Hodges Stadium, Jacksonville
16th November – USA v Jamaica
18th November – Jamaica v Canada
20th November – Canada v USA