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Major League Rugby – As It Stands

A cautious approach is still favored by many for the newest professional rugby competition headed to American shores, but anticipation is building with news trickling out of various sources and potential kickoff now less than a year away. While it’s understood most teams are asking their players to arrive this fall to begin preparations, without a firm date set for opening day it remains to be seen when official pre-season training will begin and rosters will be finalized.

Of course there remain questions over the legality of such a competition. With PRO Rugby’s three-year exclusive sanctioning agreement with USA Rugby not set to expire until April 21, 2018, it could be that MLR will proceed initially as an unsanctioned entity with all indications that April is being targeted for the season opener. How this is interpreted by the attorneys has yet to be seen and will be a subject of great interest in the coming months. What does appear certain, however, is that MLR will go ahead as planned.

The competition will be comprised of nine teams in its initial stage, with standard home-and-away format of 16 games. There has been no confirmation of a knock-out stage following the regular season, though a final of some sort looks likely. As opposed to the single-owner design employed by PRO, each MLR franchise will be owned and managed individually, though there will be a league ‘buy-in’ fee required, a salary cap, and some kind of revenue-sharing model. Varying numbers for each have been suggested but none confirmed officially.

One number that does appear set in stone is a restriction on ‘foreign’ players on the match-day roster. Only five of the 23 will be allowed to have such a designation. Presumably this means players not immediately eligible to represent the Eagles though one wonders if other Americas players, Canadians or South Americans for instance, will be exempt.

Another distinction from PRO is the requirement for each team to develop players. Some have already announced academy sides and all will be expected to create relationships with local clubs and support schools and age-grade teams. The failure to engage with local rugby communities was seen as a major shortcoming for PRO, and it appears MLR is keen to get that right from the get-go.

The league has promised an announcement soon though again no specifics on the subject have yet been revealed. Rosters as they currently stand can be seen on our competition page though only Houston’s is confirmed for 2018. All others are presumed and list players affiliated with the team.

One of the main drivers of the competition, the Austin Huns have already been playing as a professional side and look in reasonably good shape heading into 2018. They have a quality Head Coach in Eugene Eloff – provided he isn’t snatched away by the Eagles – and a strong, established organization with good facilities. A larger complex at Nixon Lane is in the works that will give them three full-sized fields less than 10 miles outside of downtown Austin.

Upgrades to the roster will be required though there is already some top talent signed up, not least long-time Eagles captain Todd Clever. Other current Eagles include hooker Peter Malcolm and flanker Hanco Germishuys, with Junior All-American standouts in prop Mason Pedersen and scrumhalf Michael Reid. A new addition looks to be Aussie-born US-eligible winger Peni Tagive, a former rugby league winger who also played college football for Baylor.

Despite being an ‘established’ club, we don’t know much about what the Dallas Griffins have in store. They have certainly made the biggest splash in terms of a single signing off the pitch with the announcement of Mike Ford as Director of Rugby, but the team itself has not been in operation this season. Co-founders Phil Camm and Bill Bingham have previously announced plans to build their own multi-field complex in Allen, Texas. Located approximately 25 miles outside the Dallas core, the team has nonetheless incorporated the metropolitan name into their revised brand.

The playing roster will have to be filled in its entirety and it’s interesting that the Griffins have included an e-mail contact on their home page for prospective players to send CV’s and highlights. Certainly one would expect a high-profile name like Ford – who will arrive at the end of August – to attract some quality names to the side.

The Glendale Raptors are ahead of the curve. Arguably the most influential team along with the Huns in pushing the competition forward, the Raptors have been building towards full-time professionalism for some time. They are already considered by most to be one of best teams in the United States, if not the best. With ready-made facilities at Infinity Park and an impressive staff that features the likes of David Williams, Kieran Browner, and Luke Gross, it’s no wonder that so many high profile domestic players have migrated to Colorado.

Of all the sides so far Glendale are unquestionably the closest to having a complete roster. In fact they could easily head into the inaugural season as favorites based on the names currently under their employ. With a dozen capped Eagles on their roster, half of them involved in the June tests, the Raptors look like the type of team that should set the standard in MLR.

Most recently they have launched their Elite Development Program, dubbed the Merlins, a u20 side that plays its first game on September 1.

Hogging the headlines in recent weeks are the upstart Houston Strikers, essentially a new team that has risen from the ashes of a new-defunct former club of the same name. The Strikers have moved quickly and efficiently, snapping up Justin Fitzpatrick, Matt Trouville, and Sam Windsor from the Seattle Saracens to form the core of their coaching staff and then picked up some solid overseas talent in Charlie Hewitt, Connor Murphy, and Adam Macklin.

Just over the past few days we’ve seen names like Zach Pangelinan and Fiji 7s captain Osea Kolinisau sign on the dotted line, and they are now set to add USA Select flanker Cecil Garber to the cast. The forward pack already looks impressive and with a few more backs locked in this is a team to be taken seriously.

Relative unknown Johnny Harrison has been rewarded with a contract as a result of the first of two combines open to walk-on players who fancy their chances. Their second combine takes place on August 19 and with a modest price of $30 (USD) to participate it’s a great way to get to know the local talent and maybe unearth a couple hidden gems.

Fitzpatrick and Co. have been highly visible in the local rugby community already, and like their Texas neighbors Austin and Dallas there are plans afoot for a high quality rugby facility. Houston have also opted to change logos before a ball has been kicked. One has to admit the new look is rather ‘striking’.

The Kansas City Blues take their name from the existing Division 1 side but will in fact be a separate entity whose eventual roster could be significantly different to its current state. Former Eagles lock Brodie Orth should be on the list while a recent addition to the team is Chilean PRO Rugby star Sebastián Kalm, who has shipped in from New York. Loose forward turned midfielder Gannon Moore is currently in New Zealand playing for North Harbour’s Mitre 10 Cup development side.

Other players linked with the team include Davenport winger Reece Czarnecki and USA 7s cap Walt Elder. Oklahoma Sooners football walk-on and track athlete Najee Bissoon has recently been spotted with the club’s 7s team. A supporters club has been launched that gives members an equity share in the team. Aside from that we don’t know much, with the primary venue yet to be revealed.

Like Kansas City, the New Orleans Gold are a bit of a mystery. They’ve brought in former Eagles assistant Nate Osborne as Head Coach but the playing roster is almost completely unknown with only uncapped Eagles ARC hooker Cam Falcon and former Texas A&M flanker Conor Bertrand mentioned in passing. Hopefully we will hear more soon.

One of the originally announced clubs was the Seattle Saracens, a firmly established club that has been the home of several international players in recent years and currently plays in British Columbia’s CDI Premier League. The amateur club will remain in that competition under the Saracens banner with the new MLR side now dubbed the Seattle SeaWolves.

Having lost Fitzpatrick, Trouville, and Windsor to Houston – and Garber albeit indirectly – the team has said goodbye to a huge amount of leadership that will need to be replaced, not to mention some classy operators on the pitch. They still have some quality in the side. The likely first choice front row of Val Lee-Lo, Mike Shepherd, and Olive Kilifi is a formidable unit and together with former Sacramento Express lock Robert Meeson, Eagles ARC loose forward Aladdin Schirmer, and versatile Kellen Gordon and Eric Soto, there is the making of a solid forward pack.

The backs lean heavily on the dazzling skills of dual-international Shalom Suniula and could well be a home for high-profile recruit Psalm Wooching. Aside from them, however, there is perhaps a lack of star power. Building new ones will be the job of the new Development XV. Short of being a formal academy program, the side will act as a feeder program for the CDI and MLR sides.

Based in Salt Lake City, the Utah Selects are essentially a state representative side at the moment. That will change next year with the move to professionalism and it’s not yet clear if the team will keep its current name or adopt a new brand. The current Head Coach is former Eagles prop Blake Burdette, and he looks likely to continue in the role for the MLR season. Another former Eagle, Kimball Kjar, is CEO while current MLR commissioner Dean Howes is interim Chairman.

Though it might also be said that the team is short on short on household names, the team is bristling with Pacific Island talent and could well be a surprise package. Of those that will be familiar to some USA rugby fans are former Eagles lock John Cullen and current lighthouse Matt Jensen, while USA 7s caps Don Pati and Anthony Welmers are also likely to suit up. A number of former BYU standouts should be named, with the likes of Jackson Kaka and the Whippy brothers, Jared and Josh, set to be unleashed.

One team that remains completely shrouded in secrecy is the Minneapolis franchise, evidently not directly affiliated with Metropolis though surely there will be some of those players involved. As of yet there is no logo, website, social media, or even a team name available, though the associated LLC is named the Tornadoes. Reportedly there will be some kind of announcement from the team in the near future.

For now it appears that there will be no further additions to the franchise list for 2018, with previously announced Chicago opting out of the inaugural season to continue work on their new field and develop infrastructure. Does that mean expansion can be expected in 2019? If all goes well it certainly does, and some of those places that do not have teams lined up for 2018 are very much in the mix for the future. That discussion, however, is best left for another article.

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  • Gregory Parkes-Skell

    It’s been established that there is interest coming from a group in San Francisco and following a tweet the other day from a former Breakers fan in which MLR responding potentially San Diego.

    I know that Jamie Kennedy of the Kennedy/Murphy group has set up RC NY with an aim to kick off in ‘Spring 2019’ which while not clear on which competition it may be certainly aligns with the suggested MLR schedule.

  • nico christo

    Fingers crossed it works

  • Mike

    Hope the competition can generate some local interest. USA must be getting close to establishing a professional rugby competition that is sustainable and works.