This week the Toronto Arrows, Seattle Seawolves, San Diego Legion, and Rugby United New York will prepare to battle it out in the Major League Rugby Championship Series for a chance to raise the Americas Rugby Shield. MLR is in their 2nd year of existence and is the only professional rugby union competition in North America. Prior to the formation of MLR, North American players had to earn contracts overseas if they wanted to pursue a professional rugby career. MLR has opened up a lot of doors for North American rugby players who now get the chance to live and train in a professional environment year-round. In its first year of existence, the MLR consisted of 7 teams all located in the United States. Year 2 saw the league expand to New York and Toronto. The Toronto Arrows are the first professional rugby union team in Canada and their inclusion in MLR dramatically increased the number of Canadians in the league. The Arrows want themselves to be something that Canadian kids playings rugby can strive towards. The Arrows have opened a lot of doors for Canadian rugby players who now have a professional option in their home country for the first time. MLR has been a massive benefit to both Canadian and American rugby. Players are now able to train in a professional environment and dedicate all their time to become better rugby players. As a result, the quality of players that Canada and the United States is going to increase dramatically. You can already see it this year in the improvements of many Canadian players throughout the year. However, MLR has not just been opening doors for rugby players in North America. MLR features players from Fiji, Australia, Ireland, England, New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay.
Uruguay is a nation that is also greatly benefiting from Major League Rugby opening up more professional opportunities in the western hemisphere. At the 2015 Rugby World Cup only 4 members of the Uruguayan team (nicknamed Los Teros) were professionals. Those 4 players were Mario Sagario, Agustin Ormaechea, Felipe Berchesi, and Gaston Mieres. Sagario, Ormaechea, and Berchesi were all playing in France and Mieres was playing for Valpolicella in Italy. The rest of the team was made up of players from the top division of Uruguay’s club rugby system. Now, the MLR has opened more doors for Uruguayan players to play professional rugby. MLR currently has 11 players on an MLR roster and with a few Uruguayans playing professionally overseas, Los Teros will more than triple the amount professional players their 2105 RWC squad has for the upcoming RWC. Major League Rugby has opened a door for Uruguayan players that had not previously existed.
Gaston Mieres and Leandro Leivas are two of the 11 Uruguayans currently in MLR and are both playing for the Toronto Arrows. Mieres is a fullback for the Los Teros and has accumulated 67 caps for the national team. Leivas plays wing and has 74 caps for Los Teros. Leivas has scored the 2nd most test tries in Uruguayan history. His 24 tries trails only the legendary Diego Ormaechea’s mark of 33 tries. With 33 tries, Ormaechea holds the record for most test tries scored by a forward. Mieres isn’t too far behind himself and has 13 test tries which puts him in a tie for 4th in Uruguay. MLR is the 3rd professional league that Mieres has played in. He has previously played in Italy for Valpolicella and in England for Coventry RFC. His Uruguayan club is Lobos. MLR is the first professional experience for Leivas who has spent most of his rugby career playing for Old Christians in Montevideo.
Mieres and Leivas arrived at the Toronto Arrows after taking part in the Americas Combine in Glendale last November. The goal of the Americas Combine was to earn South American players MLR contracts. Many MLR coaches attended the combine and Mieres earned himself a contract with the Toronto Arrows. For Leivas it came down to two clubs, but he signed with the Arrows to be able to play with a close friend in Mieres. In coming to Toronto Leivas says he “was much happier because this guy is a really good friend for me. Living here and playing with him is great”. Mieres and Leivas have played together since they were 20 and they both believe that having a friend on the team has helped them adjust to life in Canada. “Obviously it’s a big change for us. Coming to a new country and a different language sometimes it’s hard to communicate or get things sorted. So, when you have a friend that can speak the same language and we know each other it’s much better” said Mieres who was delighted when he found out that Leivas would be joining him in Toronto.
Leivas and Mieres both recognize that playing in Major League Rugby will help make them better players. It will also make the other Uruguayans in MLR better, which in turn, will make their national team better as they head into the Rugby World Cup. In Uruguay, a rugby team may consist of 36-40 players. Of those, 40 players 15 will have a contract. However, still won’t be enough and they all work other jobs. The other 25 players don’t get paid at all. “Some guys have contracts but they still have to work, still have to study like every normal person”, said Leivas. Prior to joining MLR, Leivas spent the last 3 years working for Baltic Control dealing with the trading and quality control of crops. As a company, Baltic Control was supportive of Leivas’ pursuit of rugby and they supported his decision to dedicate all his time to rugby. Without the opportunity to play professionally, other aspects of life could get in the way of becoming a better rugby player. “Before we were used to study or work back home. We didn’t have that much rest and recovery. We couldn’t train a lot. It was a difficult and tougher environment” added Mieres. Leivas, Mieres, and the other Uruguayans would often train as hard and dedicate the same amount of time to training as full-time athletes. They would do this while balancing their other full-time job or school. However, MLR is beginning to change that.
“Coming to an MLR team is an excellent opportunity to live 100% rugby” said Leivas. They know that having more Uruguayans able to dedicate themselves to rugby with no other distractions will only make Los Teros a better team. “The whole purpose of this is to be better with the national team” believes Leivas. The more Uruguayans that are in MLR and playing professionally will individually make them better players. It’s exactly what they want as they head into the RWC. In qualification for the Rugby World Cup, Uruguay defeated Canada 38-29 on January 27th, 2018 and 32-31 on February 3rd, 2018 to earn a spot in the Rugby World Cup on their first opportunity in a historical moment for Uruguayan rugby. Leivas scored the 2nd Los Teros try in the first match. Those two matches took place before MLR played their first season. In that 2-game series, Los Teros had 7 different try scorers on 9 tries. As of now 6 of those try scores now have professional contracts.
Of the 11 Uruguayans currently in MLR, only Diego Magno was not in the squad for that series. Juan Echeverria, Rodrigo Silva, Andres Vilaseca, Mateo Sanguinetti, Alejandro Nieto, Santiago Arata, Ignacio Dotti, Leandro Leivas, and Gaston Mieres were all part of that squad and now all find themselves being able to dedicate their time solely to rugby. “This is a better thing for us to prepare for the World Cup” said Leivas knowing that the national team will only get better as more players are able to train professionally. Mieres would add that “Now there is a lot of guys who are fully professional, which helps us a lot to perform which is really good news for us”. Between MLR and a new professional league in South America beginning next year, Leivas and Mieres are hopeful that this will create more opportunities for young Uruguayans to play rugby full-time. “Back in the day when we were 18 or 19 years old, we didn’t have this opportunity. It was much tougher to get a professional contract. You needed to go overseas. Also being from Uruguay, we weren’t as exposed as other big nations of rugby. So, I think this is a great pathway for young players back home. There is going to be a lot of opportunities for them. In the next couple of years there is going to be a lot more Uruguayans playing around” said Mieres. More opportunities for Uruguayans to play professionally will ultimately result in a stronger national team. Hopefully, by the time the next Rugby World Cup rolls around in 2023, the entire Los Teros squad will consist of professional players.
For any rugby player playing in a foreign country, part of the experience of playing in that league is living in a new country. As with any immigrant, you could experience some elements of culture shock. So, I asked Mieres and Leivas what the biggest culture shock was moving from Uruguay and Canada? “Snow”, they both immediate say. Mieres begins to elaborate with “Culturally it’s really good, but the weather has been a big change…” at this point of the conversation Leivas leans into my recorder to yell “weather is shit!” Mieres laughs and goes on to say “it’s been tough. I remember when I first get here it was -25…that was a big change for us”. Beyond the weather, which quite frankly most Canadians would probably agree with them, Leivas and Mieres had nothing but positive things to say about Canada and its people. “The culture of the Arrows is great and the Canadian people have been really kind to us” said Mieres. “The Canadians make us feel at home you know” Leivas would add. Leivas specifically credited two families for making him feel welcome in the great white north. When Leivas and Mieres first arrived, they lived with Scott and Cris Harley and then with Tim and Charlotte Stanley. “Both families were great. Really, really great” said Leivas of the first two families they stayed with. Since then, Mieres and Leivas have moved in with Arrows teammates Guiseppe du Toit, Pat Parfrey, and Theo Sauder.
While being in Toronto, Leivas and Mieres have taken the chance to explore a lot of what the city has to offer. They have visited the CN Tower, Ripley’s Aquarium, the ROM, as well as taking the rest of the local sports scene. “We’ve been to a Raptors game. That was really, really awesome” said Mieres. To follow up, I asked if it was a playoff game to which they laughed and Leivas joked that “we are waiting on the Arrows to invite us” if they were to attend an NBA Finals game. They declared baseball “really, really, really boring”. They have also been to 2 TFC games but “both times they lost so aren’t going anymore” said Leivas. During the bye week, they took a trip to Montreal with Sam Malcolm they really enjoyed that city as well. However, the highlight of their time in Canada so far was the trip up North to Jamie Mackenzie’s cottage. “Personally, the thing I most enjoyed was J-Mac’s cottage. I found I really enjoy the outdoor things” Leivas said. He would go on to add that it was something they wanted to do during their time in Canada, “We talked about going to the forest or skiing or something like that. See some moose or some bears”.
In total 16 Arrows went up to the cottage that weekend. As Leivas and Mieres checked off something on their Canadian bucket list, they took the opportunity to share some of their own culture with the team. “We made them an asado” said Leivas. “It’s really tasty” Mieres quickly added. An asado is essentially an Uruguayan style of BBQ and involves cooking the meat over an open flame. Ultimately, Leivas and Mieres have really enjoyed spending time with their teammates. This goes back to many of the road games the Arrows had to play early in this season. “The thing we enjoyed most is being with the team” Leivas said and he went on to discuss the early bonding that the team had during their road trip. “Traveling with the team, with the boys you get to know each other more”. When asked if there were any fun stories that originated from those trips, they opted for the “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” defence. Although I didn’t get to hear any of the road trip stories, this did lead to a philosophical discussion on how the MLR needs teams in Vegas and Miami. Beyond the time with their own teammates, Leivas and Mieres have also really enjoyed competing against the other Uruguayans in the league and catching up with them over some post-game beers.
Ultimately, Leivas and Mieres have thoroughly enjoyed playing in MLR. Mieres has played overseas in both England and Italy and he says that both of those were good experiences, but the MLR is better than both of them. “This experience has been the best of the three of them. In the sense of the team environment and us being together helped a lot. In my point of view, I’m really enjoying it a lot” Mieres said of his first year in MLR. Leivas would add “This is my dream. I love rugby. I love being here”.
Gaston Mieres, Leandro Leivas, and the rest of the Toronto Arrows will take on the Seattle Seawolves this Sunday in the first playoff game in franchise history. The game kicks off from Starfire Stadium at 9pm Eastern time. You can follow Mieres on instagram and twitter @tonemieres and Leivas on instagram @cololei and twitter @cololeivas.