Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, ex-USA Eagles captain TODD CLEVER talks about his love for South African rugby, a potential switch to WWE wrestling and the growth of the oval game in America.
Sport24 asked: You were in South Africa last month. What brought you back here?
Todd Clever: I visited South Africa for the inaugural World Schools Rugby Festival and came out with the Rhinos Rugby Academy based in California. (The festival will be an annual tournament hosting 20 premier rugby schools from across the world. It comprises the top 10 school sides from South Africa and 10 of the best schools from around the globe). We played against some of the best teams in South Africa and it was a great learning experience. All in all, I’m really proud of the team’s effort. Schools rugby isn’t that big in America and festivals aren’t that common, but it was great to be part of a platform which allows kids to express themselves on the field and get to know each other off-field. It would be fantastic if something like this was on our shores. The tournament (the brainchild of current Stade Francais coach Heyneke Meyer) was really well put together, with a high standard of rugby played over the course of the event. I loved my time playing and living in South Africa when I represented the Lions from 2009 to 2010. It was great to be back in the country and I consider SA as one of my homes. Any time I get the chance to come back to South Africa, I definitely take it up.
Sport24 asked: You faced the Boks at the 2007 World Cup, how was the experience?
Todd Clever: As a national team, I remember us watching the Super Rugby final in 2007 between the Bulls and Sharks. We were excited to watch, knowing that our pool was laid out and we would be playing South Africa. It was awesome playing against the Springboks, who ended up winning the World Cup. It was great to be on the same stage as them and feed off that energy. My biggest highlight was being part of the Rugby World Cup Try of the Year. (Clever began the move by intercepting a Springbok pass and Zimbabwean-born speedster Takudzwa Ngwenya famously rounded off a long-rage try by beating Bryan Habana on the outside). I believe experience, leadership and confidence made the Springbok class of 2007 a World-Cup winning team under Jake White. In terms of the current Springbok crop, they are obviously down a few spots in the World Rugby rankings, but South African rugby boasts a big talent pool. The local franchises in Super Rugby are playing well this season, so hopefully that can contribute to a good performance for the national team. Now that everybody is available for Springbok selection (with the 30-Test cap rule officially scrapped), it should drive more competition. Hopefully the new group of players come in this season and play with the passion we saw from Springboks sides in the past. If they play to their full potential, I definitely think the Springboks boast the ability to overturn anybody… I’m looking forward to the one-off Test between South Africa and Wales in Washington DC on 2 June. It’s a great opportunity to introduce high-level rugby to Americans. The match, which I hope corporates get behind, promises to be a spectacle for the sport and hopefully we see a free-flowing game with tries.
Sport24 asked: How did a California native end up playing Super Rugby in South Africa?
Todd Clever: When I started playing the game, the only rugby available to watch on TV in America was Tri-Nations and Super Rugby. I set myself a big goal of playing Super Rugby and to have had the opportunity to do that was great. My two-year stint at the Lions was some of the best times I ever had during my playing career. (Clever holds the distinction of being the first American to play in the Super Rugby competition). Loffie Eloff was one of the coaches that gave me a shot. When I arrived in South Africa there was pressure on me from the media to perform, but Loffie definitely eased it. He told me to play my game and said that he had signed me for a reason and I should go out and express myself. I had played a season of rugby in the States before playing for the Lions and the step up was vast. The intensity of Super Rugby was breath-taking. In terms of adapting to a new environment, one of the biggest challenges was that all the calls were in Afrikaans. However, I embraced the potential pitfalls in my path and I really enjoyed that time. When I was at the Lions, Warren Whiteley was just coming up and you could tell he was going to be next big thing in South African rugby. He is a great player, an impressive captain and leads by example. (Whiteley is considered a serious contender for the Springbok captaincy in June's three-Test series against England but, even though he has returned to the training field, he is yet to take contact). For me, Super Rugby is the best league in the world and I would encourage American players to experience the competition. I tell everybody over here in the States that South Africa is definitely one of the best places to play your rugby due to the passion of the supporters and the physicality of the play. I follow Super Rugby and am still a big fan of the Lions. I have watched their success over the last couple of years. There has been some player and coach movement but whenever Super Rugby is showing, I’ll definitely put on a Lions hat and cheer for them… The SA conference is so close with only one point separating second from fifth. That’s what you want because it makes the competition exciting. The Lions will be disappointed by some recent results but, when they are striking hot, they can beat anybody in the competition. However, owing to the pace, power and skill of the New Zealand sides, it will be tough getting past them in the playoffs if the Lions don’t bring their A-game.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess the ongoing development of American rugby?
Todd Clever: American rugby is improving, and the advent of Major League Rugby is hopefully going to help us head in the right direction. (Major League Rugby is an American professional rugby competition which started its first season in 2018). Having Major League Rugby is definitely going to raise the standard and competition within the US team, so that we can perform at a top level. We are ultimately getting to a point where we have a good pathway to a better-performing national team. Having a Super Rugby or PRO14 franchise from America would be amazing. However, I think we are a way off that at this moment in time. I agree with Loffie Eloff, who said: “American rugby is making a big effort but they are still far from where they should be.” With a seat on the board of directors for USA Rugby, I can attest to the fact that we are far behind, and not only in terms of the growth of players but the development of coaches, referees and facilities. There were a few things that could have been done better in the past, but right now we are putting ourselves in a position to excel. Hopefully all the positive steps we are putting in place will trickle through to better our national team. We are definitely lucky to have the experience of Gary Gold, who replaced John Mitchell as Eagles head coach and came into the role in January. I have had a few meetings with Gary. He was a bit surprised in terms of how far we still need to go but he is very optimistic and positive about the process. He brings a wealth of knowledge from coaching all around the world and his experience is set to prove invaluable. He is not only with the national team – he is doing coaching the coaches, which is exactly what we need particularly for our age-grade and university teams. USA have been drawn in a tough pool at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan alongside Argentina, England, France and Tonga. In saying that us qualifying as Americas 1, the first time we have ever done it as the leading American nation, and unseating Canada in the process, sets us up for success.
Sport24 asked: Are you poised to swap rugby for a professional wrestling career?
Todd Clever: At first, I kind of laughed about the idea of becoming part of WWE, but they were pretty serious. They flew me out to their performance centre in Orlando, Florida and I have had a couple of meetings since. There is some interest from both sides, but I haven’t yet signed a contract. The communication is quite strong and they are keen to get me back out there (to the performance centre). The WWE experience has opened my eyes and I had a lot of fun in the ring. I might give it one more go, train with them and see what comes of it. However, at the moment, it’s up in the air. My hands are pretty full at the moment on a professional front. I’m really interested in the business side of the oval-shaped game. I am co-owner of the Austin franchise in Major League Rugby; I’m helping the USA Rugby board and the USA Players’ Association as well. I’m really passionate about the current projects I’m busy with, but life is about enjoyment and not having any regrets. People who make it to the top can either stay in their own lane or they can step outside the box and challenge themselves. If the opportunity comes up, I’m all for it. I respect crossover athletes. Sonny Bill Williams, who tried his hand at professional boxing, is a competitor and so am I. In terms of the persona I could take on in the wrestling world, the biggest thing is that I would want to be true to myself. When I am not playing rugby, I’m quite relaxed owing to my Californian lifestyle. Once I step through those ropes, like when I crossed the four white lines, maybe I will become a different kind of beast. If I joined up with the WWE (Clever is 35), I would definitely bring my physicality to the fold and have fun, with my long locks waving around in the ring, but who knows what the future holds?
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