It’s easy to appreciate the irony surrounding Hawke’s Bay rugby player Jon Karlsson’s scholarship at Arkansas State University.
Yes, the Hastings Rugby and Sports Colts player is leaving the best rugby playing nation in the world to study the game in one of the code’s developing nations. It could easily be compared with an American football player coming to New Zealand to study that code.
“I’m the first Kiwi to go over there and do the four-year rugby degree. I will study mechanical engineering at the same time and the aim is to eventually play for the United States in 15s or Sevens,” Karlsson explained before his departure last week.
The 18-year-old loosie who played for his club in their Hawke’s Bay Colts competition final 22-18 loss to Taradale on Napier’s McLean Park last month first heard of the opportunity three years ago through the IAM 360 (International Athlete Management) organisation.
“They wanted to invite a representative player and I had to go through an interview process,” former Hawke’s Bay under-16 and under-14 representative Karlsson said.
Earlier in his rugby career Lindisfarne College old boy Karlsson represented Hastings West through the grades up to Wakely Shield and Ross Shield levels before being selected for the Hawke’s Bay Ross Shield team. While at Lindisfarne College he played first XV rugby and first XI cricket.
“While I loved cricket I was more of a second XI player and had only had three games for the first XI. There are not as many opportunities in cricket as there are in rugby.
“The plan is to stay over there long term and hopefully work and play rugby,” Karlsson said.
“It would be awesome to end up like Tony,” he said referring to former Magpies, Hurricanes and Southland Stags loosie Tony Lamborn who has played for the United States since 2016.
Karlsson has met Lamborn and keeps in touch with him via Facebook.
Arkansas State University is an NCAA division one university and their rugby team recorded a top five finish in the division one competition which ended in May. The university’s rugby programme is extremely professional with fantastic facilities, their own team bus and Adidas as their sponsor.
Their players get to play rugby all over the United States including against an army team at West Point and navy team at Annapolis.
“Hopefully I can set up a trail for other Kiwis to follow,” Karlsson added.
Since leaving school last year Karlsson has worked for his father Nigel’s plumbing business and the physical labour associated with this job has assisted his rugby.
Karlsson’s Hastings Rugby and Sports head coach Aaron Painter labelled him the best openside flanker in the Hawke’s Bay colts competition.
“There’s not much of him but he is a similar player to Jeff,” Painter said referring to Hastings Rugby and Sports Club stalwart Jeff Karika who represented the Cook Islands and played 54 first class games for the Magpies between 1992 and 1999.
“Jon is one step ahead of the referees. He knows what is going to happen before it happens, he knows the laws of the game and he has a great attitude,” Painter said.
“He is good enough technically to follow a similar path to Tony [Lamborn] but he will have to spend a bit of time in the gym to bulk up.”
Painter recalled when Karlsson first arrived at the Hastings club at the start of the season.
“People thought he was a winger because he was that small. When I told them he was an openside some of them laughed at me but Jon started the season as an unknown and when he finished everyone in the comp knew about him.”
“He’s one of those blokes who would be first to arrive at training and last to leave. Because of his swimming background his lung capacity was tremendous … it was like he had a V8 engine in him on the field. I know he is planning to spend a while in the United States but when he eventually plans to return to New Zealand I know our club will welcome him back with open arms,” Painter added.