If you have been following the American National Rugby League this season you will be aware that the Northern Raiders are having one of their best runs in years and one of the main reasons for their success is solid recruiting, both at home and overseas. The club, which competes in the AMNRL’s Atlantic Conference, looks to be playoff bound for the first time in a long time and its improved showing in 2011 is attributable in large part to the players’ belief in themselves.
One player who has helped bring that belief to the club is Australian import Matt Vautin. The back-rower, who originally hails from Sydney, also brings pedigree to the Raiders. He is the son of Queensland and Australian rugby league legend Paul Vautin, now a TV commentator in Australia. The younger Vautin came up through the junior ranks of NRL clubs Gold Coast and Manly and was playing for the Narraweena Hawks before coming to the US. And just how he ended up in the States was more or less by chance. “I heard about it through some friends at work who were talking about rugby league overseas and in particular the competition in the USA. One day I just thought I wanted to do something different for a while, so I got in touch with David Niu [AMNRL president] who said he would be more than happy to let me come over and play. The idea of living in New York and playing and developing rugby league in the USA was what prompted me to come over.”
Used to playing a high standard of football at home, Vautin expected that he and his fellow imports would be asked to share their experience with their Raider teammates, particularly those who are new to the game. That’s precisely what they have all been doing since arriving in the spring and it has been paying dividends. “I came over with three other Aussies and we pretty much share the ball playing roles so that nothing is too complicated for the American guys who have never played,” he continues. “The guys from America have a rough idea of how the game goes and are willing to give it a good crack. Rugby union is actually a lot bigger over here than league so that's helpful, it's quite big amongst the colleges in the Northeast. Most of the Raiders players have a union background, which makes it easier to teach them about league and the slight rule variance.”
According to Vautin, the reason the Raiders are doing so much better this season than in past years is because of the positive attitude of all of his teammates. “We all love playing the game and getting involved at training and learning more,” says the lock turned center. “The Aussies in our team do the best they can to teach everyone else about how the game works - we try to pass on our knowledge so that in years to come the Raiders may take out a competition and we may get some guys in the USA national team. We have some very skillful upcoming players to watch which I think can make a big impact in years to come.”
And speaking of the future of rugby league in America, Vautin thinks it looks pretty bright. “I think league is growing. It just needs time and patience in a very tough market,” he says. “There are six teams in the Atlantic division. There are also teams across America now establishing themselves. David Niu has done an excellent job of promoting the game in Utah, Atlanta and Chicago and has also managed to get a competition underway in Hawaii. “Full credit must go to Niu and the AMNRL for the progress the game has made in the last 10 or so years considering the American sports that they contend with.”
The young Aussie will return down under at the end of the season and while he’s unsure as to where exactly life will take him when he gets back, he’s absolutely certain of two things. “I know I'll always play Rugby League and I'll never forget my time here in America.”