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Five North American Rugby Players To Watch In European Rugby 2023-2024

Five North American Rugby Players To Watch In European Rugby 2023-2024

North American rugby will be at a crossroad over the next decade, but the quality of players certainly is there - and increasingly so over the years.

Nov 7, 2023 by Briar Napier
Five North American Rugby Players To Watch In European Rugby 2023-2024

It has been a rough couple of years for North American rugby on the international side of things, but as for the continent’s many individual players carving out careers in the sport worldwide? They’re doing OK for themselves — and most no doubt will be determined to use club form to propel and help take their national teams back to the sport’s biggest stage, the Rugby World Cup.

The United States and Canada, long North America’s dominant rugby nations, both had rare World Cup misses in 2023, as both failed to qualify and were nowhere to be seen over the past couple of months in France. 

With a growing domestic league (Major League Rugby) and the 2031 World Cup coming to the United States in less than a decade, the continent is at a crossroad and must begin to make more major, assertive strides as the tournament approaches.

Nonetheless, the quality certainly is there in North America, and plenty of names are showing out and showing off what they can do for some of the most successful clubs on Earth. 

Tying it all together and turning club success into international success is a trickier task, but talent in the ranks certainly doesn’t hurt in terms of trying to make that happen.

Here’s a look at five of North America’s top rugby exports to check out in Europe’s top leagues this season, as the best from the United States and Canada duke it out with other top clubs across the continent:

AJ MacGinty, Fly-Half, Bristol Bears (United States)

Arguably America’s best-known active XVs player, the national team’s captain (who quickly is approaching Mike Hercus’ all-time Eagles points record) and fly-half still is going strong in Premiership Rugby at age 33. 

The Ireland-born ex-Connacht and Sale Sharks man reunited with his prior coach at the former club, Pat Lam, when MacGinty opted to join the Bears for the 2022-2023 season after a fruitful career to date, being a crucial part of Connacht’s Pro12 winning side of 2015-2016 and turning it into over 100 appearances for the Sharks. 

With Sale, he became one of the most prolific scoring options in the Premiership with a high of second-most points scored (with 188) in the 2020-2021 season, and though he had international heartbreak with the rest of USA Rugby as it failed to qualify for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, MacGinty’s club career is going along nicely in the meantime. 

In his first season with Bristol a year ago, MacGinty was one of seven men to cross the 100 points mark in the Premiership, and the Bears earned a berth back to the EPCR Champions Cup. He’s up to 17 points across three appearances and 121 minutes in all competitions thus far this campaign. 

Greg Peterson, Second Row, Glasgow Warriors (United States)

Standing at a towering 6-foot-8, the Sydney-born Peterson has represented the United States at two World Cups and bounced around a variety of top clubs across various leagues worldwide, a journey that has included stops in the Premiership (with various clubs), Super Rugby (with the New South Wales Waratahs) and the Top 14 (with Bordeaux-Begles). 

But when he signed a short-term deal with the Warriors in the offseason to provide depth in the second row for coach Franco Smith, it created a reunion between the club and the 32-year-old, after Peterson previously made 32 appearances for Glasgow from 2015-2018. 

Now a bona fide veteran of European club rugby at this point in his career (Peterson made 75 appearances for the Newcastle Falcons from 2019-2023, before joining the Warriors a second time), Peterson played the full 80 minutes at lock in Glasgow’s opening-round United Rugby Championship victory over Leinster and provided an assist for a Warriors try in the process — the perfect start to his second stint at Scotstoun. 

As someone with prior experience in the Warriors’ dressing room and with newfound leadership qualities — he captained the U.S. national team in a friendly against Toulouse in September — Peterson should be a valued piece of a Glasgow side looking to grow event further from its fourth-place URC finish and Scottish/Italian Shield win last season.

Tyler Ardron, Lock, Castres (Canada)

Canada’s captain at the 2019 World Cup, Ardron — one of the Great White North’s most accomplished rugby players ever — opted to step away from the international game in 2022 to focus on club rugby with Castres, as the Ontario native and former lock/No. 8 with Ospreys and the Chiefs, has been an effective piece of rugby squads all across the globe. 

One of the mainstays for Castres’ lineup since joining the Top 14 club in 2020, Ardron has played all 320 minutes possible in the side’s four league fixtures as of this writing Friday afternoon, even scoring a try at the No. 8 in Castres’ epic 27-24 victory over domestic and European giants La Rochelle last weekend. 

Canada, along with the United States, failed to qualify for the World Cup, making it the first edition of the tournament without a North American presence, and that letdown influenced Ardron to call for his international retirement, according to Americas Rugby News when the announcement broke. 

But if a change of heart were to come in preparation for the 2027 World Cup, and Ardron continues to be in good form and good health as he ages, one of the biggest names of the country’s rugby scene likely will be welcomed back with open arms. 

Makeen Alikhan, Back Row, Harlequins (United States)

Whereas most of the other names on this list are longstanding figures in European club rugby and/or the international game, Alikhan is a bit more of an unknown, but an exciting prospect to watch out for in the future. 

Making his senior debut for Harlequins during the 2021-2022 season, Alikhan came on as a sub in a Premiership Rugby Cup match last month against Nottingham and has been used sparingly overall by the London-based club, as he’s yet to make an appearance in the Premiership. 

However, the Unites States' national side has been eyeing him, as he has been called up to the under-20 national team in the past, though Alikhan is awaiting his senior team debut on that end. 

Nonetheless, there’s still plenty of time on the flanker’s side to grow and mold together a great career; he only just turned 22 in October, and Harlequins has shown a willingness to recruit, roll with and develop American players, like they did with retired lock Luke Gross and now-Utah Warriors center Paul Lasike, both of whom competed with the Eagles at World Cups in 1999 and 2019, respectively. 

Kapeli Pifeleti, Hooker, Saracens (United States)

Playing for the same team as now-retired Eagles legend and Saracens’ all-time try leader, Chris Wyles, Pifeleti, born in Tonga, came up through Saracens’ academy as a youth and has carved out a spot within the senior team in a competitive spot, especially considering club legend and England mainstay Jamie George plays the same position as him. 

Pifeleti’s own international allegiance, meanwhile, is with the Eagles, since he met residency requirements to play for the United States (though he was an England under-18 international at one point), and his time in North London has been full of success on the pitch. 

He made the matchday 23 as an unused substitute in the final where Saracens finished runner-up in the Premiership for the 2021-2022 season, whereas he scored three tries for the club a season ago en route to it capturing its sixth league title. 

He's approaching 50 first-team appearances for the club in all. 

Pifeleti is yet to make his 2023-2024 Premiership debut, making just two Premiership Rugby Cup appearances this year, but the front-rower is in good company as he continues to grow his game and be a big part of England’s most successful club — both domestically and in continental competitions, with three Champions Cup titles since 2016. 

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