Former five-game Rooster Peni Tagive has secured an athletic scholarship with American university Baylor to play Division I NCAA College Football.
No-one saw that coming, did they?
According to an article in the Waco Tribune:
Former Australian rugby [league] player Peni Tagive is coming to Baylor on a football scholarship.
Tagive retired from rugby last year to pursue a football career. He played Australian rugby [league] for the West Tigers in 2008-09, the St. George/Illawarra Dragons in 2010-11, and the Sydney Roosters in 2012.
The 24-year-old Tagive, who has never played American football, is expected to enroll at Baylor in July and is projected to play linebacker.
The athletic scholarship will provide the 6’4″, 99kg Tagive — who as the article mentioned has never played American football — a minimum of one year of free college tuition and the opportunity to develop his game with an eye towards entering the NFL draft after a season, or a further season at college.
Tagive originally retired at the end of last year following a NSW Cup Grand Final win with the Newtown Jets to “concentrate on his studies” according to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, and I guess this is one way to do it.
According to a blog on US News, there are roughly one million kids playing American football in high school but only around 19,500 college football scholarships available in a given year. For Tagive to score a scholarship out of a pool of one million players, having never played the game, is a huge accomplishment for a player who played just 18 games in the NRL for six tries. To win a scholarship with a Division I team — the highest level of competition in college football — is incredible.
The Baylor Bears, based in Waco, Texas, finished 7-5 in 2012 and won the Holiday Bowl for good measure. What that means is anyone’s guess, but the college recently graduated Heisman Trophy winner (given to the best player in college football) Robert Griffin III, known as RGIII, who was later drafted second overall in the 2012 NFL draft before going on to become the 2012 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
In short: this is a serious college football program which is taking a massive chance on an athletic specimen who has never played the game before, meaning they see something in the former fringe first-grade winger.
But the interesting point to take out of this is the former winger is projected as a linebacker, a defensive position. For those unfamiliar with the American game, teams are split into attack and defence i.e. once the team gets the ball, the defence comes off and the attack takes over.
So the strengths that Tagive was seen to provide in the NRL — size under the ball, tackle busts and speed — will not necessarily be utilised if the projections are correct.
This is a big test case for rugby league as players such as Tagive have the speed, size and skill to succeed in the American game, and their weaknesses are effectively halved as they only have to play and focus on one side of the ball.
Think of Akuila Uate: A pure athlete, impossible to tackle at pace and someone who possesses more speed than Ben Cousins at Schoolies. His biggest weakness is his defence: he comes in too often, struggles to read the play on occasion and isn’t too safe under the high ball.
But what if you took the need to defend away and just let the dude run?
That’s what American football could potentially provide. Uate would not have to defend a lick — just run like he’s Forrest Gump out there before coming out to let the defence take care of all the heavy lifting.
If these were the rules in Origin — attack and defence take turns — Uate would be the first winger picked.
But besides all that, the money on offer in the NFL, at the minimum, is greater than anything a typical NRL player, even the superstars, could possibly fathom. As an example, RGIII’s teammate at the Washington Redskins, former Collingwood Magpie Sav Rocca, recently re-signed with the Redskins to a two-year deal worth US$2.24 million.
You know what Rocca’s role is? He comes in on the fourth down (effectively the fifth tackle), kicks the ball downfield and then he comes off. That’s it.
He is not a running back or linebacker, players who can command US$100 million towards the top-end of the scale, as Adrian Peterson does for the Minnesota Vikings (seven years, US$100 million).
If the Tagive experiment is a success, we could see many of those young players on the cusp of first grade lost to the game before they have a chance to blossom into the player many know someone like a Uate could become.
Best of luck to Tagive, a player who showed promise in the NRL but never really got the opportunity to cement a spot in first grade. And for rugby league fans, this is a space we should watch with keen interest, as there could be more of the same in the future.
And for our American friends reading this and curious as to what Tagive can do in attack, check this video out: