While most rugby fans are likely focusing on the ongoing Six Nations or the imminent return of Super Rugby Pacific, this weekend also marks the kick-off of the 2023 season of Major League Rugby. And there have been some changes from last season. The LA Giltinis and Austin Gilgronis are both gone following their suspensions last season, while new franchise the Chicago Hounds joins the league, taking heavy advantage of the timing to pick up a number of the Austin and LA stars in the dispersal draft.
Regular readers will probably be used to me previewing a new season of a tournament by looking at some of the players joining new teams who I think you should look out for (a maximum of 1 per team). And after this year’s Super Rugby Pacific edition included a player from the MLR for the first time, I am now bringing this series to the North American club competition, with 6 names to watch out for. Who would be your picks? Let me know in the comments!
Of course one of Chicago’s players was going to feature on this list with the quality of players they picked up from the Giltinis and Gilgronis during the dispersal draft. And I will admit that maybe there was a little Gloucester bias coming through, but it shows how highly I rate Meakes for him to beat out the USA captain Bryce Campbell and a young international fly half in Luke Carty. With over 100 Premiership and Super Rugby appearances to his name, the Australian can consider himself unlucky to have never been capped by the Wallabies (he did make the wider squad a couple of times and played a non-capped match against the Barbarians) before making the move to LA. Able to perform at either 12 or 13, he also did a great job filling in at flanker when required by the Glitinis, with his blend of pace, power and handling skills seeing him win back-to-back MLR Back of the Year awards.
In my opinion one of the more notable star names in the MLR, the South African-born back row has been somewhat of a journeyman in the American professional game, having played for Denver Stampede in the sole season of PRO Rugby and played in the MLR for Austin Elite Rugby, Glendale Raptors, RUNY and most recently the Giltinis. Now at the Houston SaberCats via the dispersal draft, expect to see the 26-year old USA Eagle pitch in with his trademark hard carrying.
The prodigal son returns! Having previously played for San Diego Breakers in the ill-fated PRO Rugby, Mike Te’o started his MLR career by captaining San Diego in their inaugural MLR game, but left for Utah Warriors ahead of the 2021 season, which saw him earn MLR Player of the Year honors. Now he finds himself returning to the Legion, with second row Jonah Dietenberger moving the opposite way. Capable of playing wing or fullback, he’s a dynamic attacker who will happily exploit any space given to him.
A player who will go down in history as the first pick in the MLR’s first ever collegiate, Mooneyham only entered the league in the 2021 season but has already found himself on the books of a number of MLR franchises. Originally drafted by the Dallas Jackals, the Jackals’ decision to defer their entry by a season saw him picked up in the dispersal draft by the Austin Gilgronis. Finding himself in yet another dispersal draft during this offseason, courtesy of the loss of the Gilgronis, he was selected by Rugby ATL, only for the Seattle Seawolves to obtain his signing rights in exchange for 2023 salary cap considerations, as well as for the Seawolves’ 2023 third-round selection for the 2023 Collegiate Draft. Champions in the first 2 MLR seasons, the Seawolves dipped in the abandoned 2020 and the 2021 seasons but made it back to the final in 2022. Could the addition of Mooneyham (8 tries in 23 appearances for the Gilgronis over 2 seasons) help propel them to their third title?
A number of stars from the 7s circuit have found success through these early years of the MLR. Well the next man up is Kurt Baker, who makes the move from New Zealand 7s to Old Glory DC, where he will take on the role of player/coach. While most of his recent career has been in the abbreviated form of the game, 10 Super Rugby appearances for the Highlanders and 7 caps for the Māori All Blacks highlight his quality in the back 3 in 15s. But more than that, his experience of a winning team—being part of the NZ7s team that won 5 World Sevens Series (and a further top 3 finishes), 2 Rugby World Cups Sevens (losing another in the final), 2 Commonwealth Games gold medals and 1 Olympic Silver medal—will hopefully help to bring a winning mentality both on and off the pitch to a team who only won 3 of their 16 games last season.
And last but not least is 1-cap Irish international Noel Reid, who has moved from London Irish to Toronto Arrows. Capable of covering fly half or centre, Reid earned 120 appearances for Leinster (no mean feat given their depth and quality through the last decade) before spells with Leicester Tigers, Agen and London Irish. At this point in the league’s development, that level of quality and experience in midfield will prove crucial for any side, especially one looking for their first playoff appearance since their debit season.
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