Major League Rugby Drafts Part 1: Colorado Raptors

In a three-part series, Doug Coil and Alex Goff are collaborating on articles about the Major League Rugby drafts that will be published on DJCoil Rugby and the Goff Rugby Report.

Doug will be focusing on the dispersal draft of Colorado Raptors players, and the MLR expansion draft taking place in May, while Alex will primarily focus on the Collegiate Draft that is being held on June 13-14, 2020.

On March 12, the league suspended the regular season for 30 days to assess the impact of COVID-19 and then on March 19, canceled the 2020 season. The league continued to be in the public eye by holding a Virtual League season that “was live-streamed on MLR’s Twitch channel with athletes from the MLR teams competing against one another in banter-driven match ups.” The Twitch streams were utilized “to raise money for Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund.”

The MLR drafts are another way to keep the league in the news, as well as to give Dallas and Los Angeles a means to begin building their teams. They will still need to recruit the core of their teams.

Dallas and Los Angeles Joins MLR for 2021

Major League Rugby approved the inclusion of Dallas and Los Angeles for the 2021 season. On May 2, however, the Colorado Raptors, who were inaugural members of Major League Rugby, withdrew from the league. The withdrawal was rumored before the beginning of the 2020 MLR season, but the team and the league proceeded as if this was not an issue during the season. To do otherwise would have been detrimental to the league.

The withdrawal means that MLR has 13 teams for 2021. According to Major League Rugby, the league will play with 13 teams during the 2021 season while maintaining unbalanced Eastern and Western Conferences. The league created conferences to decrease travel costs and was also a player welfare issue.

Last year’s expansion draft was not actively promoted by the league, but it was reported that teams could protect 15 players with the other players available for selection by the expansion teams, the New England Free Jacks, Old Glory DC, and Rugby ATL.

This year, Dallas and Los Angeles will select Colorado Raptors players and then players from the existing 11 league teams. Teams will be able to protect 30 players according to the league.

Part two of this series will examine the remaining 11 teams, their strengths and areas of need, and who might be available to Dallas and Los Angeles in the expansion draft.

How to Sign up for the MLR Collegiate Draft & Rules

Major League Rugby had 200+ players signed up for the Collegiate draft as of April 30. The last day to declare for the draft by filling this enrollment form [LINKED HERE] is on May 17.

  • Must have played US collegiate rugby in the one year preceding the draft (between June 13, 2019, to June 12, 2020); AND
  • Must have completed three years of college OR be at least 21 years of age.
    These criteria allow for athletes who have completed their Junior year to declare for the Draft while continuing to play in Collegiate competition as long as they remain eligible.

The draft was expected to be four rounds and could increase or decrease based on the evaluation of the applicants. Don’t expect that many collegiate rugby players will be ready to make the jump into professional rugby. Many players that sign MLR contracts or Associate contracts, will practice with the teams, play with Academy sides or with club rugby teams. Certainly, based on the list we’ve seen, there are players who could make an impact soon, and there are others that haven’t declared for the draft who could be very useful.

Canadians Are Different

The Toronto Arrows Rugby Football Club has opted out of the Collegiate Draft and indicates that “they support the league and fellow member clubs in the creation of this player identification and development initiative. The Collegiate Draft offers another positive step for MLR as it builds towards its fourth season in 2021.”

Although Canadian collegiate players will not play a part in the 2020 Draft, “they are encouraged to enroll through the same form to signify their interest in playing for an MLR team,” said the club. Canadian student-athletes who are in US colleges could still participate in the draft, as the draft makes no distinction regarding citizenship.

Draft Concerns

Questions have also arisen about the legality of an MLR Collegiate draft in an article by FloRugby’s Alex Rees.

Rees states that there are several “ways in which the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL drafts violate the Sherman Antitrust Act on the grounds of restriction of trade and anti-competitive dealing. Graduating players, or those who leave school early, are not allowed to market their talent and shop around for the best job.”

“The reason, however, that this has survived legal challenges (eg Maurice Clarett) is that these respective leagues have players unions that come to a collective bargaining agreement with the owners that waives their rights to fair trade.”

The article raises some germane points, but the league is forging ahead with the draft. The Collegiate draft is not expected to produce many surprises, as most players will need greater high-performance seasoning to vie for the regular season playing time.

Part 1: Colorado Raptors Pre-Expansion Draft

The Colorado Raptors announced on April 9, 2020, that the team will be withdrawing from the league effective May 2. Glendale, Colorado Mayor Mike Dunafon also elaborated more about the team’s withdrawal. This set up the issue of how to disperse players signed to MLR contracts.

Links for player background articles have been included for each Colorado Raptors player.

The Colorado Raptors lists 32 players on their roster on their web page. Australian international Digby Ioane was signed by the team, but his visa was not received and is not on the dispersal list.

The Raptors roster is evenly divided with 16 forwards and 16 backs. The forwards include a mix of 12 players that are from the U.S. or who are considered to be U.S. eligible. The backs include 11 players in the U.S. category.

In looking at age ranges, there are four players 30 or over (Sakaria Taulafo 37, Ata Malifa 34, Rene Ranger 33, and Chad London 31), thirteen players ages 20-25 (Marco Fepulea’i, Blake Rogers, Sean Yacoubian, & Tomas Quinlan are 25, Kelepi Fifita, Mason Emerson and Seth Halliman are 24, Carlo de Nysschen 23, Sam Slade 22, Mika Kruse and Campbell Johnstone 21, and Ryan James and Mateo Gadsden 20), with the remaining fifteen players 26-29.

Dallas and Los Angeles will have a choice of players between the ages of 20-37. How they choose to build their teams are careful decisions with key positions in the tight five, scrumhalf, flyhalf, and fullback prime targets to acquire experienced players. They can examine the 2020 five-match season, prior rugby experience, player ties to the area, …

Size and height issues are also factors for set pieces. Locks tend to be key jumpers in lineouts and teams look for players 6’5″ or taller. Vertical leap tests are also a factor. Props are ideally at least 6’0″. With this in mind, I have included captain Luke White, who is 6’3″, as a possible loosehead prop with an expansion team. He played lock the last two years based on team needs. Returning to prop could renew his consideration for inclusion on the USA National Team for the U.S. eligible player from Australia.

Loosehead props include 37-year-old Sakaria Taulafo, who has 34 caps for Samoa, played Mitre 10 Cup for the Tasman Makos, English premiership for the London Wasps, and Top 14 Rugby for Sate Francais. He also started all five matches for the Raptors. Xendy Tatibouet who is U.S. eligible is from France and played there, as well as in South Africa, Australia, and Arkansas RFC. He was the reserve loosehead for the five matches and can also play hooker. Other loosehead props include Blake Rogers, who was a key contributor for the team in the first two MLR seasons and Canadian international Noah Barker, who did not play during the 2020 season. Barker can also play hooker.

Tighthead props include New Zealand’s Marco Fepulea’i, who started all five matches in 2020. He played for Auckland in the Mitre 10 Cup, for Ponsonby, and the Samoa U20s. Kelepi Fifita is an emerging talent who played in four matches as a reserve and made a start at loosehead. He has played for the USA Selects and has been in Glendale since 2017.

Hookers include Chad Gough, who started all 5 matches this season and last season had a 100-meter try, a record for a hooker. The former Collegiate All-American and Scholz Award finalist from the University of Utah will be a sought-after player. Jay Finau played previously for Life West, as well as the San Francisco Rush, and closed out all matches as a reserve.

Based on height, the Colorado Raptors did not have a lock they used who stands over 6’4″. Luke White was 6’3″, Dakota O’Neil 6’4″, while Brendan Daly 6’4″ and Connor Cook 6’4″ are capable of moving from the back row to lock. Only Michael Curry 6’5″, a flanker, has previous experience at lock.

O’Neil, who also played for the Seattle Saracens, Ponsonby, and Oregon State, started three matches at lock and played in two as a reserve. Daly has captained San Francisco Golden Gate, played for Cal, the USA Selects, and has two caps for the Eagles. Before joining Glendale in 2016, Cook played for Arkansas State and Waimea RFC in Hawaii. Curry is from American Samoa and played in the Mitre 10 Cup competition for the Tasman Mako.

Rounding out the forwards at No.8 or flanker are Sam SladeMichael Stewart, and Aladdin Schirmer. Slade started all five matches at No. 8. He along with openside flanker Stewart, who started three matches with one as a reserve, is from New Zealand. Sam Slade is an emerging player at 22, while Stewart has had extensive professional experience in New Zealand, Italy, and Romania. Schirmer has played for the USA National Team twice, the Falcons in Sevens, and the Seattle Saracens. He captained the Collegiate All Americans while at Central Washington.

At scrumhalf, both Carlo De Nysschen and Nik Boyer split time as starters with Sean Yacoubian playing one match as a reserve. De Nysschen is from South Africa and played at the University of Free State. Boyer, at 6’3″ very tall for a scrumhalf, is an asset at scrumhalf and wing. He has one cap for the Eagles and also played for the San Diego Legion; before that he was an All American at Cal and played for the USA U20s. Yacoubian is 5’9″ and played at St. Mary’s of California, Glasgow Hawks, and Scotland U20s.

Ireland’s Tomas Quinlan made three starts are flyhalf with Ata Malifa also starting there, as well as at center. Quinlan played for Cork Constitution and RC Narbonne. Born in American Samoa, Malifa has been capped for the USA in 15s and 7s. He has extensive playing and coaching experience but has ties to the Denver area. Perhaps the promise of a dual player-coach position may entice him to relocate. Several years ago he did play for Belmont Shore and Los Angeles could be a match.

Chad London is another player with ties to the Denver area where he played with Glendale since 2013 and has established a chiropractic practice. He has six caps for the Eagles and also played with the Denver Stampede.

South African Robbie Petzer can play flyhalf, but has been utilized at inside center and has been the primary goalkicker. He played in all five matches, four as a starter, and also has Currie Cup experience. Rene Ranger, an All Black with six caps, as well as Super Rugby, Mitre 10 Cup, and Top 14 Rugby experience was a leading signing for the team in 2020.

In the back three, John Ryberg has been among the MLR try-scoring leaders and has proven himself to be a powerful runner. Mika Kruse is a developing talent, who played for the USA Selects and the USA National Team against the Maori All Blacks in a non-test match. The wing/center is originally from Fresno, Calif. Mason Emerson started four matches at fullback and played age-grade rugby in New Zealand and Mitre 10 Cup for Hawke’s Bay.

Rounding out the back three is Seth Halliman, who missed the 2019 MLR season after playing with the Raptors in 2018. The former All-American with Central Washington University played with the USA and the Falcons in 7s. During the abbreviated 2020 season, he started one match at fullback. Ryan James, a former High School All-American from San Diego, played age-grade rugby for the USA and played in two matches as a reserve.

Nick Johnson has been with the Raptors since 2017 but did not see any regular-season action at wing in 2020. Neither did 20-year-old Mateo Gadsden from Oceanside, Calif, another former USA age-grade player. He got his minutes with the Glendale Merlins.

The Raptors finished the abbreviated 2020 season with a 2-3 record, which had them in 8th place in a 12 team league. Glendale has earned its reputation as RugbytownUSA and its sad to see Infinity Park at Glendale without a professional team. The team has many talented players and should provide a good beginning for the players selected by Dallas and Los Angeles in the dispersal draft.

Other Articles

DJCoil Rugby articles by Doug Coil are also available on Facebook. Other Social Media sites to follow or subscribe include TwitterInstagram, and YouTube for interviews.

Goff Rugby Report articles are also available on Facebook and Twitter.

About Author

North American Rugby News With A USA Slant