2018 Major League Rugby: Professional Rugby in the United States

Major League Rugby

Major League Rugby is poised to begin its inaugural professional rugby season in April 2018. MLR will consist of seven teams, Austin Elite Rugby, Glendale Raptors, Houston SaberCats, New Orleans Gold, San Diego Legion, Seattle Seawolves, and the Utah Warriors.

In anticipation of the formation of Major League Rugby, an elite-level club competition, the Major Rugby Championship, was played during 2017. This led to Major League Rugby announcing the formation of Major League Rugby in a release May 4, 2017.

Major League Rugby shared its goals of creating a professional league and in growing the sport of rugby. In player releases, players were asked what it meant to be part of a professional league. An attempt has been made to understand the life of a rugby professional. PRO Rugby Interviews of Ohio Aviators coaches and players have begun to address this issue and in the ensuing Major League Rugby season, more interviews are expected.

Clarification about the transition in implementing Major League Rugby is explained below.

Major Rugby Championship

During Spring 2017, an elite-level club competition was created with four teams forming the Major Rugby Championship. This group would play a series of friendlies with home and away matches against each team. The teams included the Austin Huns, Glendale Raptors, New Orleans, and the Rugby Utah Selects. The Austin Huns still competed in the Red River Rugby Conference, along with New Orleans, with the Huns winning the USA Rugby Club 2017 National Division 1 Championship. The Glendale Raptors and the Rugby Utah Selects played an independent schedule.

Both the Austin Huns and the Glendale Raptors had created a professional environment with players being paid. Vic Drover discussed how this competition was not sanctioned by USA Rugby. This was confirmed by USA Rugby Club Department Manager Erik Gelb who indicated that ‘The Major Rugby Championship has not requested sanctioning as a professional nor amateur club competition and is not currently a part of USA Rugby’s National Championship Series pathway.’ Gelb continued indicating that the teams are USA Rugby member clubs and qualify for accident and liability insurance, Club and Individual Participation Program (CIPP).

PRO Rugby

The reason for not declaring that a new professional rugby league initially by Major League Rugby was that PRO Rugby still held an exclusive sanction for conducting professional rugby in the United States. Pro Rugby operated as a professional league in the United States in 2016 with five teams in their inaugural season, the Denver Stampede, Ohio Aviators, Sacramento Express, San Diego Breakers and the San Francisco Rush.

The League did not continue after the first season after disagreements between USA Rugby and owner Donald Schoninger about apparently extending an exclusivity agreement and USA Rugby concerns about players, coaches, referees, venues and vendors not being paid. This was disputed by Schoninger in interviews with Matt McCarthy of Rugby WrapUp on July 1, 2017, and on July 19, 2017. This dispute remains unresolved at this time and is a legal concern between PRO Rugby and USA Rugby.

In a joint statement by Phil Camm, acting as Managing Director for the Griffins, and Austin Huns President Richard Osborn concerning their position, it was indicated that, “Our plan is simply the next step in American rugby. While Doug Schoninger’s PRO Rugby continues to build, the almost overnight introduction of a privately owned and operated new league doesn’t alter the fact that many clubs have been building towards this for years. We want more, quality rugby and don’t see this as a rival to PRO but rather a different approach that stems from the hard work and dedication of the entire rugby community. There have been several statements made by people outside our group claiming that we want to challenge PRO legally or object to the manner in which that league has been implemented. This is not our position! We have had discussions with PRO and are open to continuing that dialog as we are with any rugby organization or stakeholder that wishes to know more. USA Rugby has had a presence at the majority of our meetings and has expressed support and we look forward to working with the existing USA Rugby structure as closely as possible. ”

“The plan started as a way to move the Red River D1 league into a “Premiership” era but given the overwhelming interest from clubs around the country, we are re-examining ways to include a larger geographical area. Our focus is on making rugby a commercial success and our definition of professional is as much about the behind the scenes infrastructure as it is about player salaries. Both are important to growing the league to where we can one day rival those overseas. We aim to implement strict development standards and timelines for any clubs involved but equally, we understand the value of a measured and scalable expansion.”

Americas Rugby News elaborates that PRO Rugby “remains sanctioned as the exclusive professional domestic 15-a-side competition despite currently having no players or coaches on contract and no immediate plans for a 2017 season. PRO’s three-year license agreement with USA Rugby expires in April of 2018, with a 180-day notice of non-renewal clause available to USAR should it choose not to extend the permit.” Rugby Wrap Up is credited with investigating the agreement.

Despite the uncertainty of PRO Rugby, as a one owner league, plans continued to progress on the formation of a new professional league, Major League Rugby. This League is slated to begin in April 2018.

Being a Rugby Professional

What is it like to be a rugby professional? During the 2016 PRO Rugby season, interviews were conducted with Ohio Aviators coaches and players and are available on the DJCoil Rugby Web Page under Videos, Professional Rugby Interviews, as well as on the DJCoil Rugby YouTube Channel.

The June 29, 2016, article entitled, “Glimpse at PRO Rugby in the U.S. From Ohio Aviators Coaches & Players,” as well other Ohio Aviators interviews, will help to understand the demands of professional rugby. The other interviews in the series included coaches, Paul Holmes and Eamonn Hogan, as well as players, Shaun Davies, Jamie MacKintosh, Ryan McTiernan, Taylor Howden, J.P. Eloff and Aaron ‘Spike’ Davis.

With the formation of another professional league in the United States, Major League Rugby, additional interviews are planned to examine the League and being a rugby professional.

Major League Rugby Initial Projection of Teams

For the first year, there were to be nine participating clubs (and management entities) is as follows:

Austin Huns (Huns Rugby Management)
Chicago Lions (Chicago Lions Professional Rugby)
Dallas Griffins (DFW Major Rugby)
Glendale Raptors (1924 Rugby)
Houston Strikers
Kansas City Blues (Blues Rugby Management)
New Orleans RFC (NOLA Rugby Enterprises)
Rugby Utah (Rugby Utah Ventures)
Seattle Saracens (Seattle Rugby LLC)

Major League Rugby was designed differently from PRO Rugby. It included ownership by participating members within the framework of Major League Rugby and it’s goals. This was different than PRO Rugby, which operated under single ownership.

Major League Rugby official announcement of a new professional league was made on on May 4, 2017. The release indicated that “Beginning in 2018, Major League Rugby (MLR) will launch a new professional rugby competition in North America. MLR will be the premier rugby competition in the United States. By drawing on the best domestic talent MLR will create an intense, fast-paced competition and a top-tier media product. MLR will introduce rugby to the American sports mainstream, provide a focal point for millions of existing fans and bring even more new supporters to the game. MLR will launch with members in Glendale, CO; Kansas City, MO; Dallas, TX; Houston, TX; Austin, TX; New Orleans, LA; Seattle, WA; Minneapolis, MN; and Salt Lake City, UT. MLR will announce a final team and venue list, player contract information, and 2018 schedule, in the coming months. Beyond 2018, MLR will expand to more cities with an emphasis on finding the right partners, markets, and venues.”

The goal of MLR is to “reinvigorate the American rugby development pathway.” The League plans on doing this by creating outreach programs to bring new players to the sport and by providing high-performance pathways for athletes. “Growing the game of rugby is at the core of the MLR model.” MLR team locations will provide opportunities for rugby fans and families to view high-quality levels of the game.

The Major League Rugby model was intended to create involvement from the professional team in cooperation with the amateur club and filtering down to establishing youth rugby in the community. This outreach work would be in the form of combines, clinics, partnerships with colleges and high schools, and the development of Academies to serve the community.

As a result, MLR would help to grow the sport of rugby, with young men and women participating in the game and learning the core rugby values of teamwork, respect, enjoyment, discipline, and sportsmanship.

Major League Rugby 2018 Team Changes

Several changes have occurred for Major League Rugby being a nine-team league for 2018. The Chicago Lions Professional Rugby was to be one of the original nine MLR teams, but after being mentioned, the team shifted its focus to 2019. The Dallas Griffins also postponed their entry into MLR until 2019. Little is known about the Kansas City Blues and the Minneapolis team, but teams did need to meet the due date for the financial bond required for the MLR partnership of clubs for the 2018 season.

Chicago Lions Professional Rugby

The Chicago Lions are one of the premier rugby clubs in the country, since their founding in 1964. While the reasons for not participating in MLR in 2018 are not known, it may have to do with the development of the Lions for Hope Complex being developed. The team has been mentioned in the news for 2019, but at this point, it is under the rumor category.

“This project’s mission under the Chicago Lions Charitable Association is to construct a world-class sports complex that will provide kids a safe venue for sports. This complex will support inner-city kids achieve an active and healthy lifestyle while enhancing personal development in a challenging environment. This complex will become an integral part of the redevelopment of Chicago’s near west side neighborhoods and help mitigate violence in the area through sports.”

Dallas Griffins

In an article by the Dallas Business Journal, “The Griffins were founded in 2008 by Phil Camm, Bill Bingham, Lee McCurrach and Jeff Walton (Camm and Bingham are still partners today) and have played semi-pro rugby since 2010 in Dallas – Fort Worth. Camm hopes inclusion in this new professional league, Major League Rugby, will appeal to high-level corporations for sponsorships.”

In speaking with Phil Camm, he indicated that in addition to Bingham and him, that a leading sports figure in Dallas that wished to remain unnamed at the present time, has an interest in the team. The team has delayed entry into MLR until 2019 as the planned development timetable of the construction of a new multipurpose sports and entertainment facility by city of Allen cannot be completed in time for the 2018 season. The team plans to work with local clubs, colleges and youth rugby teams in the Dallas-Fort Worth greater area. Clinics have already been led by Mike Ford and an Academy is planned.

The Dallas Griffins announced in June 2017 that Mike Ford, the former head coach of Toulon, Bath Rugby, and Saracens, as well as a Defensive Coach for England, Ireland and the British & Irish Lions, would join the Griffins. He was tasked with overseeing “all the rugby development, coaching, and player recruitment, building a team of local and internationally experienced staff that can provide a world-class experience for players.”

The Dallas Griffins also signed Jon Mills as a player-coach. Mills is in a similar role with the London Scottish. His presence in Europe is also invaluable as the team assesses rugby talent.

The Griffins have completed a training facility in the Den and have developed a partnership with the University of North Texas in sports performance and sports management, as well as assessing the latest techniques in sports management, marketing, and physiology.

Kansas City Blues Professional

Very little news has been available for the Kansas City Blues Professional team other than what appears on their Facebook page.

Minneapolis

Major League Rugby reported on the inclusion of a team in Minnesota for 2018 on May 4, 2017. In an article by KVUE-TV that team was identified as Tornadoes Rugby LLC – Minneapolis.

2018 Major League Rugby & Their Seven Teams

There will be seven teams for the inaugural 2018 Major League Rugby season. The teams are Austin Elite Rugby, Glendale Raptors, Houston SaberCats, New Orleans Gold, San Diego Legion, Seattle Seawolves, and the Utah Warriors.

Major League Rugby (MLR) and CBS Sports Network today announced an exclusive, multi-year television partnership. CBS Sports Network will televise the inaugural season of the new start-up league beginning in April 2018, marking the first national television partnership in the history of American professional rugby.”

“CBS Sports Network will televise a 13-game package with 10 weeks of regular season coverage – highlighted by a Major League Rugby Game of the Week – and two weeks of postseason coverage in 2018, including the semifinals and the first MLR Championship Game.”

Tickets are available to all Major League Rugby teams matches. The 2018 MLR schedule was released on November 30, 2017.

Austin Elite Rugby

The Austin Huns and Huns Rugby Management initially assumed responsibility for the participation in the Major Rugby Championship and for the inaugural Major League Rugby 2018 season. That changed in August 2017 with team announcements by the Huns Rugby Management and then the Austin Elite Rugby Management.

The Huns and the HRM announced that they had “ceased all partnerships in regard to general rugby operations and will not be participating in MLR. The Huns will continue to field teams in Men’s USA Rugby XVs Divisions 1,2 and 3 as well as Club 7s and Huns Youth Rugby.”

The Austin Elite Rugby Management opted to create its own team/brand, Austin Elite Rugby, to compete in the inaugural Major League Rugby season.

Elite Rugby Management has been created by the owners of Huns Rugby Management, Christopher Bugge, Richard Osborn, Thierry Daupin, and former USA Eagles Captain Todd Clever; ERM is pleased to welcome Austinite Christophe Lavigne to the list of owners.”

The team will play at Stadium ATX that can accommodate at least 3,000-3,500 fans with seating and additional fans with standing room. Plans are in place to also expand the stadium with additional seating in the future.

The Austin Huns were established in 1972 and won the 2017 USA Rugby Club Nationals Division 1 Championship, as well as many others. A close connection between Austin Elite Rugby and the Austin Huns will continue to exist.

In March 2016 the Austin Huns announced a partnership with Racing 92, a Top 14 France team. The team signed Timothée Guillimin as a result, and he has continued in year two with Austin Elite Rugby. Austin Elite Rugby also signed Alan Hyardet, a Top 14 coach, as their head coach for the 2017-2018 season.

Austin Elite Rugby has announced many player signings since the Summer, 2017 and will continue to do so in the coming weeks. Notables include USA Rugby Men’s Eagles Peter Malcolm and Paddy Ryan at hooker and tighthead prop, respectively. Pakisonasi Afu is a powerful center, who has played for the Tongan National Team. Other signings include accomplished players.

The team has also been a the cutting edge of fan engagement and player welfare. Mike Ablett, Marketing Director, indicated that partnership has been developed with Umbel, Exaduo Sport, and Mac-Lloyd Sport to use technology to bring sport to the next level in player performance and safety, as well as to increase fan engagement to enhance the experience.

Glendale Raptors

The Glendale Raptors have elected to keep team’s brand for the professional team, while their amateur teams were rebranded as the Glendale Merlins in 2017. “The Glendale Raptors Rugby Football Club was established in 2007, accompanied by the creation of Infinity Park.”

The Glendale Merlins are owned by the city of Glendale, a suburb of Denver, Colorado and it is not clear if there are additional investors for the Raptors.

The Glendale Merlins have a Men’s Elite team, which is expected to form the core of the Glendale Raptors professional team. The Men also have a Division 1, 2 and U20 team. The Women field a Women’s Elite team that is part of the Women’s Premier League. The team was the 2017 WPL Runners-Up to the New York Rugby Club after a narrow 27-26 loss. The team also has a Division 1 Women’s side.

The Team also has the Glendale Raptors Rugby Academy. It is “designed for youth between the ages of 5 and 18, The Academy curriculum works not only to instill rugby’s values of inclusion, teamwork, and character but alongside the rest of Glendale’s substantial organization, offers a developmental pathway that can lead from kindergarten all the way to the pros. It’s what we call Raptors Life.”

All Glendale teams will continue to play at Infinity Park, with its 5,000 seating capacity or for the Glendale Merlins, in the additional pitch in the open space. Infinity Park was established in 2007 as a multi-use complex with a world-class rugby stadium, an event center, a sports center, and open spaces. It is home to the Glendale Raptors, Glendale Merlins, the Raptors Academy, and the Rugbytown 7s.

Many of the Glendale players have played together for several years. During the Fall 2017 season, the  Glendale Merlins fielded an Elite team that played an independent schedule. In previous years, players were part of the Glendale Raptors or the Denver Stampede during the 2016 PRO Rugby season. To maintain the elite standards in which Glendale has been associated with, the team has also had an influx of former Collegiate players, as well as other rugby players who have gravitated to the club.

Player and coaching announcements for the Glendale Raptors are anticipated to be made shortly, but many of the players may be surmised by looking at the Fall 2017 Glendale Merlins match rosters. Currently, Dave Williams is the Head Coach of the Glendale Merlins Elite team.

Houston SaberCats

The Houston SaberCats, formerly the Houston Strikers,  have been aggressive in signing players to their team, beginning in April 2017, CEO Jeremy Turner named former Ireland International Justin Fitzpatrick as the Head Coach. Fitzpatrick added former Ulster Rugby flyhalf Sam Windsor as a player-coach and Eagle and former Seattle Saracens player Matt Trouville as Academy Director and back row player.

The Houston SaberCats will home field will be Constellation Field in Sugar Land, home of the Sugar Land Skeeters. The team has signed a strong team with players like Osea Kolinisau, Fiji Olympian, Eagles players Kyle Sumsion, Pagopagohokma Haini, Zach Pangelinan, and Matt Trouville. Premiership Rugby players Connor Murphy and Charlie Hewitt, as well as PRO 14 players Sam Windsor and Adam Macklin.

The SaberCats have been the first team to announce their MLR team roster and have been hard at work in the weight room and in training, as well as interacting in the community with clinics, appearances and conducting combines. In November 2017 the SaberCats expanded their training with scrimmages against the Austin Blacks (Rugby Today recap) and Dallas Rugby.

The Houston SaberCats also have a demanding pre-season match schedule which kicks-off on January 6, 2018, against the Seattle Saracens. Subsequent matches are against the Vancouver Ravens, the Uruguay National Team, James Bay Athletic Club, the Capital Rugby Union Selects, Chicago Lions, New York Athletic Club, New Orleans Gold, and the Ontario Arrows. Click here for tickets.

New Orleans Gold

New Orleans Gold Rugby Club states that they “will bring professional rugby to New Orleans and be the pinnacle of the sport in the American South East. We will develop local, national, and international talent to a world-class level of play and professionalism. We will deliver an exciting on-field product and great fan experience. All while providing an aspirational destination for young rugby athletes and rugby fans.

“Growing the game of rugby is integral to our mission. We will partner with clubs throughout the Deep South in order to lead and expand the work of developing rugby in the region. Through the NOLA Gold Foundation, in cooperation with Louisiana Rugby, will aim to create a partnership that will introduce and develop youth rugby in the region.”

The New Orleans Gold Rugby Club is owned by Tim Falcon. Nate Osborne is the Head Coach, Dr. Todd Fitzgerald, Assistant Coach and Ryan Fitzgerald, General Manager. They will have a front row of two Canadian National team players in Hubert Buydens and Eric Howard at prop and hooker, respectively.  Vincent Jobo, a flanker, played in the Currie Cup with the Free State Cheetahs. The team also has USA Rugby Men’s Eagles players in JP Eloff, a back and Ben Tarr, a prop. Many other signings are accomplished players.

The NOLA Gold will play their matches at a multi-purpose facility at Arch Bishop Shaw High School in Marrero, Louisiana. The bleachers are ready to install and will seat 3,000 people with expandable bleachers bringing the seating capacity to 5,000. The facility is a large one with the standing room available to accommodate large crowds. The stadium is also expected to double in size in the second season. The team’s practice facility is about two miles away in Gretna, LA, which has a clubhouse, lockers and a weight room.

The team has strong ties to New Orleans Rugby Club, founded in 1968, which is currently playing Division 2 rugby, after several years at Division 1. This provides the opportunities for players to impress and to join the Gold should a need arise.

The New Orleans Gold Rugby Club will convene on January 3, 2018, for training camp. Their pre-season schedule will include a match against the Capital Rugby Union Selects and home/away series against both the Houston SaberCats and the Austin Elite.

San Diego Legion

The San Diego Legion was the last of the seven teams announced that will play in the inaugural 2018 Major League Rugby season.

According to a team official, the ” San Diego Legion owners, team founders, and executive management are local San Diego businessmen and key contributors to the San Diego rugby community with extensive roots in the global rugby market.”

“San Diego Legion is dedicated to fostering an inclusive, family oriented, fun, and entertaining rugby experience. The team will be an organization that will be inclusive of all the rugby groups in our region, including youth, high school, collegiate and Senior Men’s, Women’s, as well as boys and girls.”

“The Legion has evaluated the local community and talent pool and will be leveraging all of that to get the best group of players together to represent San Diego.”

In the near future, both coaches and players signing announcements will be made, as well as where the team will play.

Seattle Seawolves

“The Seawolves organization strives to develop, cultivate and expand the sport of rugby in the US while empowering discipline, duty, respect and a spirit of inclusion both on and off the pitch. The Seattle Seawolves aim to foster a winning culture by enabling its members to meet their true potential while pursuing excellence in the Major League Rugby competition. Community outreach is a key tenant of the Seawolves philosophy, and our organization strives to continually help to enrich and give back to the greater Seattle and Pacific Northwest areas.”

The Seattle Seawolves will play at Starfire Stadium in Tukwila, Washington, with current seating for 4,500 fans. The ownership group is led by Seattle-based entrepreneurs Adrian Balfour and Shane Skinner.

The Coaching staff includes Rugby Development Director Curry Hitchborn, Head Coach Tony Healy, Backs Coach and Canada National team player Phil Mack. Mat Turner is the Director of Operations and a back and former England Sevens National Team player.

The team also has signed Eagles Olive Kilifi, Shalom Suniula, and Aladdin Schirmer. Both of these players were members of the Seattle Saracens, which will have a close relationship with the Seawolves. The team has also signed Canada National Team players Ray Barkwill, George Bartons, and Brock Staller. Riekert Hattingh played with The Super Rugby team Blue Bulls. Other signings are accomplished players.

Utah Warriors

“Rugby Utah Ventures is proud to announce the inclusion of the Utah Warriors to the Major League Rugby competition in 2018. Major League Rugby is America’s newest professional sports league, made up of seven teams across the country and will commence their first season starting Spring 2018.”

“The creation of the Utah Warriors will be key to the growth of the game in Utah and America,” said Utah Warriors CEO and GM Kimball Kjar. “We’re excited to bring the world’s second largest sport and America’s fastest-growing sport in our great state for sports fans from all backgrounds to enjoy.”

The Utah Warriors will establish their base in Salt Lake County while plans for a new stadium and facility are in the works. The Warriors’ 2018 venue plans will also be announced in the coming weeks.”

The team has hired Alf Daniels a former coach with the Waikato Rugby Union in New Zealand, as the Head Coach for the Utah Warriors. The team has also announced three player signings in Paul Lasike, who is a former Bringham Young University rugby and football player. He also played NFL football with the Chicago Bears. John Cullen, an Eagle and former University of Utah football and rugby player and Lote Tuipulotu., Tonga A player in 2015.

On October 28, 2017, the team’s first combine was held at the Regional Athletic Complex and player and coaching announcements will be made in due course. The Utah Warriors preseason games will begin March 2018.

The Utah Warriors will work closely with Rugby Utah in developing rugby in the State, from the Men’s Premier League, Club, College, and Youth levels. Rugby Utah also features a USA Rugby National Development Academy.

The Rugby Utah Men’s Premier Division will partner with the Utah Warriors “to create a ‘minor league’ competition where top talent from the state can develop with high-level competition and the potential of being signed to play professionally for the Utah Warriors squad.” A Warriors Academy will also be an integral component of the club.

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