Alicia Keys called it the ‘concrete jungle where dreams are made of’ and Frank Sinatra wanted to ‘be a part of it.’ New York, that is. The thriving metropolis in the self-proclaimed ‘Land of Opportunity,’ with Rugby League set to be added to a prestigious sporting portfolio in 2022.
USA international Joe Eichner, for one, can’t wait. The 28-year-old has enjoyed a fruitful career since partaking in Toronto Wolfpack’s ‘Last Tackle’ in 2016.
He became the first North American-born player to feature for the club and has since headed out to Northern Pride in Intrust Super Cup, one division below the NRL.
His historic performance for Toronto came in a 54-12 drubbing of Coventry Bears in June 2017, as he tasted the English pyramid for the first time.
Eichner holds that accolade in high regard, although he admits there could have been more opportunities, and hopes to have another opportunity to showcase his abilities to the UK. This time, closer to home.
“Now the season has been cancelled because of COVID-19, I’m trying to figure out what I’m doing,” he told Total Rugby League.
“I’m looking at playing for them for next season. After that, I wouldn’t mind trying to finish off with the New York team.
“I think that would probably be my end goal. With the Coronavirus everything is up in the air at the moment, but I’d definitely like to stay over here for a while.
“I’m probably too old to try and crack the NRL now, and Toronto have risen up the divisions. That’s my aim now.
“When Toronto were in League 1, I believe they could have had more Americans in the team, but now we’re not going to be able to play against Super League teams.”
Fellow Last Tackle graduate Quinn Ngawati, who became the first Canadian to feature for the club a month after Eichner’s debut, is hoping to buck that trend after re-signing for the club.
But the American has since carved an intriguing path to after leaving the Wolfpack, after he first headed out to Australia to play for Junee Diesels in Group 9, along with USA teammate Tui Samoa.
A move to the Northern Pride, a club formerly coached by Adrian Lam and Jason Demetriou, followed for the American. And despite the Toronto Wolfpack not amounting into a long-term stay, or a first-team berth, he still credits the Canadian side for his upward career curve.
“I consider myself very lucky to have picked up a contract with the Wolfpack,” he added. “It was an amazing experience to play footy full-time. It shows you the difference. They taught me everything. I was getting little tips as we went.
“They really helped me build a foundation to grow my game and become a proper Rugby League player, which I’d say I am now.
“People forget that Toronto Wolfpack didn’t have any obligation to do that. I was really grateful for the experience. I’m a real success story for Toronto.
“I came to Australia not knowing what to expect and I took the leap. I didn’t know if I was going to stay down there and then Northern Pride came in.
“That really sank in that I was going to be on par with North Queensland Cowboys players every week. I looked at the talent around me and realised I’d come a long way in the game.
“I’ve been able to sit back and realise that since not playing the sport at 18, I’ve played at the 2017 World Cup and professionally in England and Australia.”
Certainly an 18-year-old Eichner, growing up in Florida, would have been bemused at the idea he would eventuate to play Rugby League professionally. He spent his childhood playing baseball and dabbling in wrestling, even an American Football alluded his grasp.
Eichner would then pick up the oval-shaped ball at the University of North Florida, where he studied a degree in building science, and joined local Rugby League side Jacksonville Axemen. It was with the Axemen that Eichner would break into the national side, before being spotted playing against Canada in 2016 by the Wolfpack.
“I owe a lot to the Axemen,” Eichner proclaimed. “We had a pretty good set-up at Jacksonville. You always got a couple of imports there every year and that really helped us to grow the game.
“In the Rugby League countries, you start playing the game at six-years-old. They really taught us the basics, drove the nail home for us all, and wrapped our heads around it.
“There’s a lot of talent in the States and athletic ability. It needs someone to come in and fine-tune good athletes to become good Rugby League players.”
The responsibility to make that happen no doubt lies on Toronto Wolfpack and New York, as well as 2021 League 1 entrants Ottawa Stags, in the eyes of Eichner. With rugby union still dominant in both USA and Canada, the American convert sees nines and sevens as a potential route.
The world of Rugby League has quickly taken to nines, launching the 2019 Nines World Cup, in which Eichner featured in defeats to Papua New Guinea and New Zealand.
“The Nines was just wild,” he said. “You walked through the sheds and you see all these players. All NRL and Super League superstars.
“What an experience for me. I’ve idolised some of them since I started playing. We played against New Zealand and I saw Shaun Johnson opposite me.
“In the back of my head, I was thinking he was going to burn me. I didn’t want to make his highlight reel. He got around me and I don’t know how he did it. It’s times like that when I realise how far I’ve come.”