Two world-class sporting markets are set to join Major League Rugby (MLR) in 2019. New York City and Ontario (based in greater Toronto area) are in advanced talks to join the new startup league in its second year. While there are still financial and logistical obligations that need to be fulfilled, it is expected that both groups will have no issues meeting the requirements. Representatives from each attended meetings in Houston last week along with the current MLR franchise owners.
Official confirmation is not expected from the league until 2018 but the additions are sure to capture interest from potential sponsors. New York will be the first professional team from the Northeast, a hotbed of rugby in the USA, and the inclusion of a Canadian team will make MLR the first multi-national North American professional domestic competition. While MLR does not officially kick off until April 2018, concerns over its medium-term viability were greatly diminished with the confirmation last week of a multi-year broadcast deal with CBS Sports Network.
The news will not come as a major shock to those following recent developments. The Ontario Arrows have already played an exhibition against Glendale in September and have made no secret of their desire to turn professional. They are currently under the umbrella of Toronto investor Bill Webb, manager Mark Winokur, and coach Chris Silverthorn. All have extensive track records in Canadian rugby.
Rugby Club New York, as they are currently branded, are backed by the Murphy Kennedy Group (MKG), a construction management firm in Manhattan. MKG Founder and CEO James Kennedy is directly involved with the team and recent hiring Nishant Nereyeth – who has experience with the national unions of India and USA – appeared on the Rugby Wrap-Up with Matt McCarthy last week to briefly discuss progress.
Permanent venues will be a talking point for both franchises. New York are determined to stay within the city itself with McCarthy suggesting Gaelic Park in the Bronx as a possible location for early matches. The Arrows have several options available and if they retain their provincial identity could choose to play at multiple venues, however a full-time home base in the greater Toronto area appears most likely.
Professional rugby league already exists in Toronto with the Wolfpack playing their first season at Lamport Stadium, with reported crowds ‘in excess of 6,000.’ Major League Rugby is a rugby union competition, a far more widely-played version of the game than rugby league, which uses a different set of rules.
Sources have indicated to Americas Rugby News that a proposed independent elite competition involving five Northeast teams in 2018 is no longer on the table. Ontario and New York were due to be joined by teams from Boston, Columbus, and Chicago. The latter was one of the original teams named to form MLR but have since dropped out of 2018 and progress appears to have slowed somewhat.
Ontario and New York will not be sitting idly on the sidelines until 2019, however. The Arrows are holding a player combine next month to evaluate new talent. Both teams will be playing a series of friendlies beginning in the spring of 2018, some of those games coming against current MLR sides. Specific details are still to be confirmed but the Arrows are booked to face the Houston SaberCats in Texas on March 3 and have officially committed to games against New York and the Utah Warriors with more on the way.
Putting together competitive rosters will not be a problem for either team. The core of the Arrows squad will be comprised of players from the five-time MacTier Cup champion Ontario Blues of the Canadian Rugby Championship. Six players that traveled to Glendale with the Arrows – Eric Howard, Lucas Rumball, Andrew Ferguson, Patrick Parfrey, Guiseppe du Toit, and Kainoa Lloyd – were in Canada’s match day squad that faced the Māori in Vancouver. Howard has already signed for another MLR franchise, the New Orleans Gold, for the 2018 season.
New York has a plethora of talent to choose from several prominent local clubs such as New York Athletic Club (NYAC), New York Rugby Club (NYRC), and Old Blue. Of the Eagles squad headed to Germany this week four are attached to New York clubs – Nate Brakeley, Cam Dolan, Nate Augspurger, and Ryan Matyas – while Anthony Purpura, Demecus Beach, Al McFarland, James Bird, and Luke Hume have each won caps in the past two years.