Which American rugby player is so famous that all MLR fans know their name?
Which U.S. player would be recognized by rugby fans in Europe or down in the Southern Hemisphere?
We’ll start with the fifth most famous player and work our way up to the top. You may not agree with us, but we’ll explain our reasons!
What Makes An American Rugby Player Famous?
We rated the players using these criteria:
- Big achievements with the Eagles e.g. playing in several World Cups
- Big achievements abroad e.g. playing for top teams overseas
- Great moments that catch the eye of the rugby world
- Controversial moments that catch the eye of the rugby world
Number #6: Mike Hercus (Flyhalf)
Mike Hercus was born in the U.S. in 1979 to Australian parents. The family moved back to North Sydney when he was young.
He stood out in Australian schools rugby and was selected for the representative schoolboy team. He also played for the Australian under-21s.
But Hercus was determined to play senior international rugby for the Eagles. He moved to the United States to play club rugby and quickly made the national squad.
Achievements and big moments
It can be hard to stand out in an American team that struggles against top-flight opposition. But Hercus was an excellent placekicker. He racked up 465 points over eight years with the Eagles.
His greatest moments at international level came in the 2003 World Cup when he captained the Eagles to a victory against Japan.
Achievements in Europe
When Hercus moved to Wales in 2005, he became the starting ten for the Scarlets.
Hercus was pivotal in the Welsh team’s run to a cup final the following year. His exploits saw him selected to play for the Barbarians, a rare honor for American players.
Number #5: Chris Wyles (Fullback, Winger)
Chris Wyles was born in Connecticut but played rugby in England as a schoolboy.
The Eagles coaches spotted him in the English Premiership and selected him for the 2007 World Cup squad.
It can be difficult for American players in the back three to stand out in world cups when they’re up against the top teams.
But Wyles was also the placekicker in 2011. Against Italy, he scored a try, converted it, and kicked a penalty for all of the Eagles’ points.
Big achievements in England and Europe
Chris Wyles stood out in the traditional home of rugby. He joined Saracens in 2008 and played for ten seasons with this big club.
He had an outstanding season in 2012/2013 when Saracens won the Premiership. Wyles scored a try in the final, which was his twelfth that year. He finished as joint second try-scorer in the competition.
Three years later, he scored a try as Saracens won the 2016 Premiership title.
And two years after that, he scored two tries in the 2018 final to become a champion for the third time.
Wyles also won two European championships by beating the top clubs in France, the United Kingdom, and Ireland.
Number #4: Paul Emerick (Center)
Paul Emerick played college rugby at the University of Northern Iowa. He got his first cap for the Eagles in 2003.
Emerick picked up plenty of experience overseas. He first moved to Italy, and then to Wales to play for the Dragons.
He spent three seasons with the Welsh club and caught the eye as a strong and aggressive outside back. He memorably scored the winning try that put the Dragons into the European Cup.
He would later play a few matches for Ulster and for Wasps.
Big moments – in the negative column
I said at the outset of this article that we’d count controversial moments as part of a player’s fame.
He was rightly red-carded in the 2007 World Cup for a bad tip tackle against the England flyhalf.
I saw that the Goff Rugby Report mentioned his suspension as being unfair. There was no lack of fairness about it! He upended the player to a vertical position and let him land on his head.
Emerick got double the suspension two years later as the Eagles were playing a qualifier for the 2011 World Cup. He got a red card for kicking the Canadian winger, DTH Van der Merwe, in the head.
There are plenty of rugby players who won’t pick up two yellow cards in their career. Picking up two reds is very unusual (and not desirable).
Big moments – in the plus column
American flyhalves can stand out in a World Cup by kicking their penalties. It’s hard for an outside back to catch the eye when the team is well-beaten.
Emerick bucked this trend, despite being on the losing side against Ireland in the 2011 World Cup. In the 79th minute, Ireland had an attacking lineout in the Eagles’ half and were chasing a bonus point for a fourth try.
The men in green put the ball through their outside backs. Paul Emerick picked off a pass by the legendary Irish center, Brian O’Driscoll.
Emerick raced for the Irish try line with his finger aloft, which you’ll see in this clip.
This defiant last-ditch effort won the admiration of the neutral fans.
Number #3: Alan (“AJ”) McGinty (Flyhalf)
AJ McGinty is one of two flyhalves on this list. That’s not surprising, as the number ten tends to be one of the most high-profile players in a team.
If the flyhalf is also the team’s main placekicker, they often have the camera trained upon them as they line up a kick.
McGinty grew up in Ireland before attending college in the United States. While he was studying, he played rugby with New York Athletic Club.
He moved to Georgia to do a master’s degree and played for the Life Running Eagles.
Catching eyes at the 2015 World Cup
Once AJ had spent five years in the United States, he was qualified to play for the Eagles. There’s no doubt that the U.S. couches were tracking the young outhalf for several years.
He got his first Eagles cap in the Pacific Nations Cup in the summer of 2015. He quickly established himself as a valuable place kicker, scoring all the points in a narrow win against Canada.
But it was the 2015 World Cup that made the rest of the rugby world take notice of McGinty’s place kicking. Although the Eagles had a challenging tournament, AJ didn’t miss a single penalty kick.
Playing in Ireland and England
Connacht, an Irish professional club, certainly took notice of the flyhalf and signed him after the World Cup.
He was a fantastic signing for the club. AJ steered them to their first title win in the PRO 12 tournament of Irish, Welsh, and Scottish clubs.
He then moved to play for Sale Sharks in the English Premiership. With five solid years at Sale, AJ was pivotal to the club reaching the play-offs for the first time in five years.
Number #2: Takudzwa Ngwenya (Winger)
Takudzwa Ngwenya played Sevens rugby for the United States before he was selected for the fifteens squad for the 2007 Rugby World Cup.
One spectacular try in that tournament made him famous throughout the rugby world. In one of the greatest tries scored in any World Cup, Ngwenya’s teammates sparked off a counterattack and got the ball into his hands.
Ngwenya’s sidestep and arc around the great Bryan Habana remains one of the great tries by a winger (here’s a clip).
Ngwenya is high up on our list because most rugby fans have watched and re-watched that clip on YouTube!
Scoring tries for fun in Europe
There were plenty of European clubs vying for the American winger after that World Cup.
Biarritz won his signature and he played for nine seasons as a first-choice winger at the club. Here are some of his outstanding try-scoring stats:
- 8 tries in the 2008 Top 14
- 10 tries in the 2009 Top 14
- 6 tries in the 2010 European Cup (joint 2nd top scorer)
- 7 tries in the 2011 European Cup (joint 2nd top scorer)
Number #1: Todd Clever (flanker)
Todd Clever was the face of American rugby for many years.
There are other players on this list who became well known through playing in Europe. But there are very few players who go down to the Southern Hemisphere and mixed it up with New Zealanders and South Africans.
The Californian played rugby at the University of Nevada and was capped for the Eagles while still in college.
He was only twenty-three when he set his sights on playing in the Southern Hemisphere.
Clever moved to New Zealand and played for North Harbour, one of the best amateur clubs in the famed rugby country. The Kiwis embraced him for playing a tough game with a smile on his face.
What bigger challenge is there than playing in New Zealand? Well, if you’re a forward, then playing in South Africa beats that.
Clever played professional rugby with the Golden Lions in South Africa. He played in Super Rugby for the Lions, going up against the best teams of South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia.
The long-haired flanker stood out with his attitude and zeal for the game.
Controversies and triumphs
Clever holds the record for the most games as Eagles captain. He was always a talisman for the team when he played.
In a strange decision, the Eagles coach decided not to take him to the 2015 World Cup. The reason was a minor transgression. Clever was booked to appear at an awards ceremony, and there was some clash in timing with a training session.
That could have been the ignominious end to his international career.
But after the Eagles had a poor World cup, the next coach brought him back into the squad and gave him the captaincy to boot!
All great sports stories end in triumph. The Eagles aren’t striving to win World Cups, their challenge is to qualify for them. Qualification was on the line for 2019.
Clever captained the team to a big win against Canada that won their place in the elite tournament.
That’s the hero’s moment! He promptly retired from international rugby.