Major League Rugby will kick-off its fifth season this weekend with the addition of a 13th team, the Dallas Jackals, who postponed entry last year due to the Covid pandemic.
Covid cut short the 2020 US season too but MLR came back to go “99 & 0” in 2021, completing every fixture. In the championship game, the LA Giltinis – one of two teams, with the Austin Gilgronis, still named for a cocktail named for their owner – beat Rugby ATL, from Atlanta, for the shield.
This year’s promotional theme is “Rise of Rugby”, based on the growth of a competition which started with seven teams in 2018 and rugby union’s long-hoped for rise to a place in the US mainstream.
USA Rugby, the national union, is bidding to host a men’s World Cup. MLR is thinking big too. Sources say St Louis and Chicago will add 14th and 15th teams next year.
For now, the arrival of Dallas means seven teams in the western conference and six in the east. The competition will run until the end of June and there will be 16 regular-season games each, followed by playoffs. Games will be shown nationally on Fox, on regional platforms and around the world on therugbynetwork.com.
“As we approach our half-decade mark with MLR, I have seen firsthand that there is a global rugby movement within the United States and Canada,” the league commissioner, former Dallas Mavericks executive George Killebrew, said in a statement.
“Thanks to the groundswell of support for the ‘Rise of Rugby’, our league is truly gaining momentum on the national stage. I cannot wait to introduce Major League Rugby to more fans and see continued growth in attendance numbers, broadcast ratings and global recognition during our fifth season. There’s a place for everyone in our sport.”
There are fewer big global names in MLR this year, though the former England flanker and captain Chris Robshaw will hope for an injury-free second season with the San Diego Legion and Matt Giteau, one of the greatest Australian backs of all time and all of 39 years old, will play one more year in LA.
Intriguingly, Dallas have picked up two backs with vast English Premiership experience: Henry Trinder, once of Gloucester, and Chris Pennell, long of Worcester.
There is still a sense of a league in flux and formation. Rugby ATL, for example, roared to the championship game in their first full season but have hit choppier waters. The Rattlers have seen the death of their majority owner, Marcus Calloway; a takeover by Global Rugby Ventures, a company tied to Errik Anderson of the New England Free Jacks and with Adam Gilchrist of LA and Austin one of two powerful owners on either coast; and the departure of a widely respected head coach, Scott Lawrence. The takeover and the departure, sources said, were not unconnected.
New York have been particularly visible to European eyes, thanks in part to signings like Ben Foden and Matthieu Bastareaud. But their search for a permanent home continues.
In 2019, as Rugby United New York, they played at MCU Park, a baseball stadium in Coney Island, Brooklyn. They have been to St John’s University in Queens but Cochrane Stadium in Jersey City hosted most games last season and this year New York will play in another small Jersey stadium, JFK in Hoboken. They have also dropped the “United”.
On the other coast, the Giltinis still play at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, a huge venue for small rugby crowds but which certainly looks good on TV. Down the coast, Torero Stadium in San Diego hosted the first two championship games but is no longer home to the Legion. Nomadic last year, this year they will play on the SDSU Sports Deck: a field on the roof of a parking garage.
Next year, the Legion will have a more spectacular home: Snapdragon Stadium, a venue being built for San Diego State University. The 35,000-capacity venue, the Legion said on Thursday, “was specifically designed to accommodate the rugged and exciting sport of rugby, whose expansion is inevitable”.
Bold words, in keeping with the league’s bullish outlook. Also in keeping with all things bullish is the presence of crossover athletes from mainstream US sports.
The England and Lions prop turned NBC host Alex Corbisiero is fronting one attempt to find such players, a web series called Cross the Line.
Another operation continues in Glendale, Colorado. The small city near Denver was home to an MLR team until an 2020. It is now where the American Raptors are trying to shape football players, basketball players and wrestlers into pro rugby talent, all the while filming for a series, Rugby Town, shown in the UK on BT Sport.
By email, Patrick Guthrie, producer of the series, said: “David Still is our first Eagle in sevens, and since the end of the second season, 13 American Raptors players have signed, or have been offered and declined to sign, MLR contracts.”
Among those with deals is Tani Tupou, once a defensive end for the University of Washington, Seattle Seahawks, Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals, now a 6ft 2in, 275lbs prop for the Seattle Seawolves, MLR champions in seasons one and two, now looking for a resurgence.
Pono Davis, a big Hawaiian, is with the Houston SaberCats. Once a defensive tackle for Southern Methodist University in Dallas, he is the same height as Tupou but 20lbs heavier. He is also now a prop.
The SaberCats promise an interesting season. Founder members with a purpose-built stadium, a rare and precious thing, they have struggled to make a mark on the field.
For season five, like most teams, they have signed talent from South Africa, the islands and other rugby hotspots. But they have also picked up two American sevens Olympians who should show strongly: Danny Barrett, a particularly bruising back rower, and Matai Leuta, a big wing or centre.