Major League Rugby (MLR) could become one of the rugby success stories of 2018.
The new professional competition in the United States is set to kick off in April. The season is ten weeks in length plus finals and features seven teams.
The franchises have signed a host of players as they prepare for their inaugural campaigns. Players such as Osea Kolinisau, who captained the Fiji Sevens side to Olympic gold at Rio, alongside promising US and Canadian talents such as JP Eloff and Hanco Germishuys.
We're proud to announce @XBladesSports as our official on-field apparel partner. Learn more about the exclusive deal, here: https://t.co/8MMZFcxzsE#MajorLeagueRugby #MLRugby pic.twitter.com/DSGieYaFnB
— Major League Rugby (@usmlr) December 20, 2017
Outside observers of American rugby will no doubt watch the developments with apprehension. Particularly given the propensity of US domestic rugby leagues to fail, most notably the Professional Rugby Organisation funded by Doug Schoninger.
The Professional Rugby Organisation had one moderately successful season in 2016 before having to postpone its 2017 season amidst bitter acrimony between Schoninger, the players and the union. This acrimony was largely over disputes concerning owner rights and player payments.
While Schoninger entered the business with good intentions and was prepared to put up several million dollars of his own money, the task of financing a competition entirely from scratch by himself was a step too far. Particularly given the limited time he gave himself to bring the tournament to life.
What the new competition has which Schoninger didn’t is history.
MLR clubs are based on historic rugby communities with pre-existing player bases and support networks in their areas. The Glendale Raptors are based on the Glendale Raptors rugby club, historically one of the most successful clubs in the country. Glendale are the hosts of the RugbyTown 7s event.
#DidYouKnow? Infinity Park was built the same year as the Raptors were formed, and was the first rugby-specific stadium in the United States! #RaptorStrong https://t.co/OHblXjBubu pic.twitter.com/QOtV5l4wFH
— Glendale Raptors (@glendaleraptors) December 13, 2017
The Seattle Seawolves are harnessing the identity of the Seattle Saracens rugby club, part of the Saracens Global Network run by Saracens F.C. in England, and a competitive side in the British Colombia Rugby Union Premier Division.
There is one side which is genuinely preparing to play from scratch, the Houston Sabercats. They already have over 9,800 likes on their Facebook profile, and play their inaugural preseason game against Seattle on the 6th January.
The league has secured a TV rights partnership with CBS Sports, who will broadcast a “Game of the Week” as well as the semi-finals and final.
The existence of a professional league in the United States is good news for a number of Tier-2 nations, particularly Canada.
Several Canadian players have signed contracts to play in MLR, while Ontario is looking to develop a franchise. Ontario would begin to play in the 2019 season, having rebranded their elite squad as the Ontario Arrows.
— Americas Rugby News (@americasrugby) November 12, 2017
Outside of this, the biggest beneficiaries could be other American nations. The MLR teams are allowed to contract five overseas players, although the numbers will likely rise as the league expands. The possibility remains for Uruguayan, Chilean and Brazilian players to earn contracts in MLR through performances in the Americas Rugby Championship.
This should raise the standards of play while no longer having to rely on the goodwill of professional clubs in Britain and France to release players.
MLR has the potential to finally awaken rugby’s sleeping giant.
Author: Hugh Begley