This is MLR!
Source: Major League Rugby
Welcome to Major League Rugby!
The MLR is the latest attempt to form a genuine professional rugby union in North America. The league began its inaugural season this weekend. A criticism of both Rugby Canada and USA Rugby has always been that (with the exception of a few truly elite players) the players on the national teams have nowhere to play rugby as a full time professional. The MLR hopes to become that option. As a North American rugby fan, I’m excited and I thought I would introduce you to the new competition.
The MLR will be led by commissioner Dean Howes. Howes’ previous experience in professional sports includes CEO of the Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake and was a partner in SCP Worldwide, the owner of the National Hockey League’s St. Louis Blues. To clear up any confusion, this is a rugby union competition not a rugby league competition. The MLR will play 15 a side rugby where there is rucks, line-outs, and a try is worth 5 points. Although the name may lend itself to some confusion, I will admit it is a very North American sounding name. The 3 letter acronym is a staple in North American sports, so it might end up helping the league catch on.
This is not the first attempt to create professional rugby union in North America, but it does seem to be the most thoroughly planned. In 2016 Professional Rugby Organization (PRO) became the first professional rugby union in North America. However, PRO struggled form the start. The league had a head office located in New York City, which was incredibly far away from the teams in Ohio, Colorado, and California. Plans to expand the league were shot down when Rugby Canada refused to sanction the competition due to PRO’s demand that they receive exclusive rights to operate professional rugby in Canada. In response to that, PRO publicly stated that they did not want Canadian players. The games were not shown on television and generally the streams were only sought out by die hard rugby fans. I also felt the decision to have no logos and all the kits be a template with nothing more than different colours for the different teams really hurt the leagues branding. Bland kits with nothing more than “CITY NAME” written in Impact font did nothing to help build recognition for the league. The league struggled to pay player which led to a team folding immediately after the first season. The rest of the league would soon follow suit and PRO only lasted one year.
So what makes this different from previous attempts to form a North American based professional rugby union? For starters the one major issue PRO faced was that Rugby Canada refused to sanction the competition. Now, there is no team in Canada (yet) but Rugby Canada’s support of the MLR has clearly had a positive impact on the league already. PRO had 6 Canadian’s total in the 5 team league. The Seattle Seawolves alone will begin their MLR campaign with 8 Canadians on their roster. Actively working to include Rugby Canada only increases the player pool that the MLR can draw from. Support from the national governing bodies is a major benefit to the MLR.
The games are going to be readily available to all sports fans. The MLR has also signed a handful of broadcast deals to ensure the visibility of the league. ESPN+ will be live streaming the games and AT&T Sports Networks will take care of each franchises’ local broadcasts. Additionally, CBS Sports will nationally televise a “Game of the Week”. MLR being available on outlets that people already have access to will increase the chance of exposing rugby to new potential fans. If you live outside the United States, the MLR will also be streaming every game on their Facebook page. Again it’s great to see that this league is not USA focused and is providing a way for their international fans to see the games. This also allows rugby fans in more traditional rugby markets like New Zealand and the UK to check out the games and begin following the league.
Structurally, the MLR will begin its inaugural season with 7 teams located in the central to western United States. The league will operate as a single entity league, meaning that the teams are owned by the league and not individual owners. This is the same way that Major League Soccer got its start. The season will last 10 weeks with each team playing 8 games and receiving 2 bye weeks. At the conclusion of the season the top 4 teams will meet in the playoffs. The playoffs will be a simple two week semifinals and final format.
Meet the Teams
As with any new league the fans may be wondering who these teams are and where the players come from. The MLR has done a great job with coming up with some creative name, logos, and kits for their teams. Additionally, they are able to capitalize on some pre-existing brand recognition as not all the teams are entirely new. Having some big name players, especially those from the USA Eagles and Canada’s national team, will also help marketing in North America. So without further ado, let’s get to know the seven teams that will compete in the MLR’s inaugural season.
Home Stadium: Round Rock Multipurpose Complex
Head Coach: Alain Hyardet
Key Players: Andrew Suniula, Todd Clever
Why you should cheer for them: A USA Eagles legend, essentially defending national champions
The Austin Elite is essentially a combination of the two major Austin based clubs; Austin Huns and Austin Black. The Huns have been one of the top amateur clubs in North America and are the reigning National Champions. Their owners opted not to join MLR and stay an amateur club however, there was no ill will toward the Elite and many former Huns now make up their roster. The Elite’s kit is a nod to Austin rugby heritage combining the Black with the powder blue of the Huns.
The Elite boast one of the most high profile players in the MLR. Long-time USA Eagles captain and flanker Todd Clever has been announced as a late signing to the Elite. Clever will be a welcome addition to the Elite’s pack that also features flanker Hanco Germishuys, prop Paddy Ryan, and hooker Peter Malcolm who all have Eagles caps under their belts (however Malcolm will not be starting the season due to injury). The backs feature Andrew and Roland Suniula. The Suniula brothers will bring a wealth of experience to the Elite’s back line. The have both been capped by the Eagles and are the only 2 backs that have major international experience. Andrew will serve as the team’s captain.
Home Stadium: Infinity Park
Head Coach: David Williams
Key Players: Ben Landry, Shaun Davies
Why you should cheer for them: They are the best team heading into the season.
The Glendale Raptors were founded in 2007. Their first team will be making the jump to the professional game while the amateur teams are being rebranded as the Marlins. The Raptors will be led by USA Eagles lock Ben Landry. Die hard football fans may recognize Landry’s name from a brief stint with the Seattle Seahawks and playing on the same defensive line as J.J. Watt back in high school. After the NFL didn’t work out for Landry he has decided to return to rugby for the inaugural MLR season.
The Raptors have a few advantages over their MLR opens. First, they have all played together. As I said, the Raptors were formed in 2007 and nearly their entire roster (including Landry) has played together. Secondly, the Raptors have Infinity Park. Infinity Park is quite simply a rugby the best rugby facility in North America. Apart from the 5,000 seat stadium where the Raptors will play their home games, Infinity Park boast a monstrous training facility complete with additional practice fields, gyms and weight rooms all specifically dedicated to improving rugby performance. The USA Eagles also train out of Infinity Park. The familiarity to Infinity Park and the Glendale, Colorado area may be a big reason why the Raptors are loaded with 7 Eagles. If you find yourselves in Las Vegas and want to place a bet on who will take home the first MLR Championship, you are probably picking the Raptors.
Home Stadium: Dyer Stadium
Head Coach: Justin Fitzpatrick
Key Players: Josua Vici, Osea Kolinisau
Why you should cheer for them: The Flyin’ Fijians
Houston will be the second team representing Texas in the MLR. Unlike their state rivals in Austin, the Sabercats are a completely new team. By all accounts they are well balanced. This team should be a lot of fun to watch. The team features Josua Vici and Osea Kolinisau who come to the Sabercats from the famous Fijian Sevens team. Kolinisau captained Fiji to an Olympic Gold Medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. The Flyin’ Fijians (as the sevens team is more commonly referred to) is arguably one of the most entertaining sports teams on the planet. Kolinisau and Vici both embody that style of fast paced rugby and a lot of highly skilled offensive flair.
New Orleans Gold
Home Stadium: Eagle Athletic Facility
Head Coach: Nate Osborne
Key Players: Hubert Buydens, Nikola Bursic
Why you should cheer for them: Best kit in the league, Canadian legend Hubert Buydens
First off, I have to say that I love the Gold’s kit. One of the key things when developing a new league is going to be brand recognition. The NOLA Gold has nailed that with their kit. Both the solid gold kit and the white with gold accents look great and are completely their own. In a league where 6 of the 7 teams are primarily black or blue the Gold really stands out. NOLA also brings some international flair to the MLR.
Legendary Canadian prop Hubert Buydens will be leading the Gold’s pack in their first year. Buydens is known equally for his tough, physical brand of rugby as he is for his distinctive beard. NOLA will also feature Chilean prop Nikola Bursic. Chile is a rising nation in the rugby world and could greatly benefit from the MLR if more player follow in Bursic’s footsteps.
San Diego Legion
Home Stadium: Torero Stadium
Head Coach: Rob Hoadley
Key Players: Nate Augspurger, Mike Te’o
Why you should cheer for them: Best team name in the league, creativity.
I love team names that don’t end with an s but are still plural. Legion knocks it out of the park. On the field they will be led by Mike Te’o and Nate Augspurger. The two men have been key cogs in the USA sevens program for the last few years. Much like Houston’s Fijians, sevens players are known for bringing a bit more creativity to the game. Te’o will be lining up as a fullback for the Legion which will allow his skill set to shine. Check back soon, I guarantee we will have a Te’o video where turns a nothing play into a highlight reel.
Home Stadium: Starfire Stadium
Head Coach: Curry Hitchborn
Key Players: Phil Mack, Tim Metcher
Why you should cheer for them: They are basically Team Canada.
If you are a Canadian rugby fan the Seattle Seawolves might be the most appealing team to you. The Seawolves will be led by long-time Canadian scrum half Phil Mack. Mack will also serve as the team’s assistant coach, possibly preparing himself for a bigger role with Rugby Canada upon retirement. Joining Mack are 7 other Canadians including Ray Barkwill and Brock Staller. Canadian rugby players have longed for a place to play professionally close to home and the Seawolves seem happy to provide it. Seattle is located only 2 hours and 20 minutes away from Rugby Canada’s Al Charon National Training Centre making it a short trip to return home and prepare for international tests.
Aside from all the Canadians, one of the more interesting players on the team is prop Tim Metcher. Metcher comes to the MLR from Super Rugby’s Melbourne Rebels. The 26 year old was not an everyday player for the Rebels only making 6 appearances between 2015 and 2017. He spent most of his time plying his trade in Australia’s National Rugby Championship (one step below Super Rugby). However, Metcher has plenty of big game experience having competed against the British and Irish Lions on two separate occasions. Metcher is certainly one of the more interesting import signings in the league.
Home Stadium: Zions Bank Stadium
Head Coach: Alf Daniels
Key Players: Fetu’u Vainikolo, David Tameilau
Why you should cheer for them: Most internationally diverse team
The Utah Warriors feature a number of players from New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Fiji, and Tonga. Although some of them are using their dual nationality so they don’t go over the MLR’s maximum of 5 imports rule. The biggest name the Warriors bring to the table is winger Fetu’u Vainikolo. Vainikolo is the Tongan national team’s all-time leading try scorer. Besides his international success, Vainikolo has also spent considerable time in the Pro 14 and Super Rugby, two of the best rugby union competitions in the world. If all goes well this season perhaps Vainikolo could be vital in brining over some big names to the MLR in the future.
Rugby United New York and Ontario Arrows
MLR does have plans to expand to the east coast. Rugby United New York has already been confirmed as an expansion team for the 2019 season. The Ontario Arrows have not been officially confirmed as of yet. The MLR is waiting still gauging interest for rugby union in Toronto. The Arrows have been playing games against MLR teams in the build up to the beginning of the season. The Arrows defeated Utah 24-20 in one of those exhibition games. Unfortunately the Arrows home opener at York Lions Stadium against RUNY had to be cancelled due to the ice storm that hit Toronto last week. That does make it difficult to gauge fan interest. The Hurricanes of the New Zealand Super Rugby conference have already formed a partnership with the Arrows. This is both a huge boost to the credibility of the Arrows as well as MLR’s presence worldwide. Hopefully, we will see both RUNY and the Arrows in 2019.
Rugby union is a great sport and it is about time that a genuine professional competition has come to North America. All of the games are going to available to watch live on tv or on the MLR Facebook page. It’s going to be a fun season so check it out!
*All Images Above Are Courtesy of MLR*