Big news came out of the USA today as Major League Rugby announced the format for the 2020 season, with new teams and a brand new format.
Season 3 of the USA’s professional league sees the total number of teams in the competition increased to 12, with 3 new expansion teams: the New England Free Jacks (Boston), Old Glory DC (Washington D.C.) and Rugby ATL (Atlanta).
The expansion has lead to a change in format, as the league splits into 2 conferences. The Western Conference will be home to Austin Elite Rugby, Houston Sabercats, Glendale Raptors, San Diego Legion, Seattle Seawolves and Utah Warriors. The Eastern Conference comprises the 3 new franchises along with NOLA Gold, Rugby United New York and Toronto Arrows.
Starting in mid-February, each team will play home and away against the other 5 teams in their conference and 6 games against teams in the other conference (3 home, 3 away). Once the regular season is over, the top 3 teams from each conference will enter the playoffs, where (like in the Pro14) 2ⁿᵈ and 3ʳᵈ will play each other with the winner taking on 1ˢᵗ to be declared the Conference Champion. June 28ᵗʰ will see the Conference Champions face off in the MLR Final.
First off, I’m really happy and excited to see the league continuing to grow and bring in more expansion teams. I really hope that rugby takes off in the USA and becomes its next big sport, so to see the MLR go from strength to strength after the way PRO Rugby fell apart is great to see. It’s also great to see the spread of the franchises over the country (and also spreading into Canada).
I’m not the biggest fan of a conference format but in the circumstance of such a new league that is still expanding and finding its feet, I think that this is a smart idea as it makes it easy to add new expansion teams without dramatically altering the league. I do however have some gripes with the timing of the competition as a February start means that some teams will still be struggling with cold weather for the first half of the season, while teams will also be losing players to their international teams during the Americas Rugby Championship.
Though I do have some issues, I am largely positive about how things are going in the league. The quality of rugby appears to be improving from what I have seen and having players of the calibre of Ben Foden out there will only be helping the league and USA rugby in general. With the next season starting after the World Cup, I will be interested to see if any players retire from international rugby and move over to give the MLR a go, which could push the league forward to the next level.
Suffice to say, I will be watching on with great interest.
On Friday, it was announced that Utah Warriors captain Paul Lasike would be joining Harlequins for the upcoming season. A former NFL player with the Arizona Cardinals and Chicago Bears, Lasika is the newest star of USA rugby and has so far earned 6 caps during the Eagles unbeaten run this year. However, being so new to the sport and with the MLR having recently set up, is this the right move for him?
First off, I do not doubt that he has the ability. He clearly has the physical aspect from playing fullback in the NFL (a very different position to the rugby variant of the position) and when I have watched him play for the USA he has looked impressive. However, so far he has not had many tests against top quality opposition in the same way that he will playing in the Premiership and in Europe. It is a big step up and for every Samu Manoa and Chris Wyles who go on to forge strong careers in the Premiership, there will also be other players who are unable to make the cut. Danny Barrett and Seamus Kelly are both talented players, yet were unable to make the Gloucester squad following a 1-month trial at the start of the 2014/15 season. And it’s not as if Quins are light in the midfield, with Francis Saili, Ben Tapuai and Joe Marchant already competing with him and James Lang – now a Scottish international – also able to feature at centre. That’s a lot of quality competition for regular minutes.
Playing in the Premiership may also limit his availability for the national team. The Eagles will no always field their big stars based in Europe due to the timing of their matches falling outside the usual international windows. With just over a year until the World Cup, Lasike can surely not be guaranteed of a spot in the national team and if other players come in and impress, he could be at risk of missing out.
As for the MLR, with the league being so new, they will not want to lose any of their big stars as their top players – especially USA internationals – as they will be a huge draw when trying to entice fans in. Lasike was not only Utah’s captain, but as a USA international and former NFL player he was instantly marketable for the franchise. As great as it will be to see the top USA players getting offers from more prestigious leagues, I would hate it if the MLR began to struggle as a result.
That said, even if Lasike only plays a limited number of minutes this season and chooses to return to the MLR in time for next season, the chance to train regularly alongside experienced internationals like Mike Brown, Tim Visser, James Horwill and Chris Robshaw could be of great benefit to Lasike moving forwards in his career. There are some top quality coaches at the Stoop and if Lasike takes the chances available to learn from them, it could develop him so much as a player and in turn help him to develop his fellow Americans when training with the national team or if he does return to the MLR.
Is this the right move for him? It may limit him in the short-term, but I would say that centre is not one of the Eagles’ deepest positions currently, which will probably help his chances of World Cup selection even if the move to London doesn’t work out. But in the long-term, this could be just the move that he needs to take his game to the next level and thrive on the biggest stages. As a fan of USA rugby, I hope this works out for him and look forward to seeing him in the Premiership this season.
The Warren Gatland era is nearing an end for Wales. We now know for certain that his tenure with the national team will come to an end after the 2019 Rugby World Cup. I may not be a fan of his and feel that some of Wales and the British and Irish Lions success over the last few years has been despite his presence, but his tenure has brought Wales 3 6 Nations titles, including 2 Grand Slams, and they were only 1 long-range penalty miss and a Sam Warburton red card away from making the final of the 2011 World Cup. The focus on fitness and solid defence int he early years, along with the adoption of “Warrenball” and a number of big ball carriers paved the way for competition for a number of years, but I don’t think he has done enough since then to adapt as the game has caught up and passed his tactics, often sticking with tried and tested players rather than give chances to people who many would argue should walk into the team.
There will be a big change coming at the end of next year though as he is replaced by countryman Wayne Pivac. Pivac has been a huge part of the development of the Scarlets, first as an assistant coach to Simon Easterby, then as Head Coach following Easterby’s move to Ireland. Over the last couple of years, the Scarlets have consistently thrilled fans with their tendency to play exciting attacking rugby and have tied this in with getting the results, becoming the last Pro12 Champions and making the final in the first season of the Pro14, while also bringing through an number of players into the national squads -not just for Wales, John Barclay has become a regular in the Scotland squad and Tadhg Beirne is surely set to do the same for Ireland now that he has moved to Munster. Personally, despite being an Englishman, I am so excited to see how the Welsh team plays once Pivac takes over and think rugby fans are in for a real treat.
One player who will not be involved moving forward, though, is Sam Warburton. The Cardiff Blues flanker announced his retirement from rugby aged 29 as he felt that his body was unable to allow him to play to the level he wanted. It is a sad way for his playing career to end as he has been sidelined since the final Lions Test, whereas a player of his quality deserved the chance to bow out on the big stage at the World Cup. Despite such an early retirement, he was still able to amass 74 Wales caps (49 as captain), captain 2 Lions Tours (a win in Australia and a draw in New Zealand) and play in 5 Lions Test matches. He learned from the best behind Martyn Williams but arguably surpassed his mentor and became a star. Much like Gatland, I have not always been a fan of him and think that he has been at his best in recent years playing at 6, allowing him to focus on his tireless tackling while nabbing the turnovers when the chance comes. However, I’m sure that he won’t be done with rugby as his knowledge of the game is so good I expect him to be a regular pundit if not going into coaching. The good news for Wales right now is that he has retired at a time when the national team in enviably deep at flanker. Ross Moriarty could feature at 6 but has so far been considered an 8, but that still leaves new Cardiff Blues captain Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Aaron Shingler and James Davies to name just a few. Hell, Thomas Young has been a star for Wasps and can’t even get near the squad! While it is a shame to see Warbuton’s career on the pitch come to a premature end, it will be great to see how the young Welsh back row develops ahead of the World Cup.
An American Tale
The inaugural season of Major League Rugby came to an end this month with Seattle Seawolves and Glendale Raptors meeting in the final. Despite coming out second best both times these teams met during the season, the Seawolves came away winners with a 19-23 victory.
I’d been really excited for the season and stupidly didn’t realise until just before the playoffs that the matches were all available to watch back on YouTube – needless to say I’m subscribed for the next year! From what I have seen though from watching match highlights and the full video of the final, things are looking very promising for the league and rugby in the USA in general. As much as I liked what I saw of PRO Rugby, when I compare to the MLR, the 2 competitions are poles apart. Despite being new, the teams feel established, probably helped by the kits from XBlades that blew the old Champion System kits out the water. The MLR also didn’t feel like it was relying on marquee names and instead focused on the teams as a whole, while teams still managed to bring in experienced players to help build the quality in the competition like 7s stars Osea Kolinisau and Mat Turner. The league season may have been short – 8 matches per team over 10 weeks, 2 semi-finals and the final – but that is in keeping with the American sporting formats and as Ben Foden pointed out recently, the players may actually benefit from a short season as they do not get burned out in the same way players might in the longer leagues that we are used to over here in Europe.
Will the league suffer a sophomore slump? I don’t think so. The league will surely grow in quality as the players get used to the competition, while Rugby United New York are set to join the league and boast a couple of experienced USA internationals, not to mention Foden! There are also plenty of other teams interested in joining over the coming seasons. It looks like this is a league and a sport that is set to take off and that is great news for USA rugby and the sport in general. I’m already looking forward to next season.
A step too far
Sponsors on kits… a difficult balance. Rugby obviously doesn’t have the money that football does and needs to get money wherever it can, but I must admit that some wonderful kits are brought down by the sheer number of sponsors. My own team, Gloucester, have arguably gone a bit sponsor-heavy at times to the detriment of some lovely kits, while the Scarlets’ new home kit reminds me of a Formula 1 driver’s overalls, there are that many sponsors on there!
While sponsors are important and can be done right (full credit to Mitsubishi who allowed Gloucester to use a different version of their logo to improve the look of their kits after their first season as main sponsor) but some decisions on the kits are horribly wrong.
Enter Racing 92, who this season have tried to fit so many sponsors into visible spots, they have now relegated the club badge to just above the waistline. Nope, I’m not joking! Call me old fashioned, but I think that the club crest should always be somewhere on the chest in ride of place. Putting the badge down by the waist seems just 1 step away from taking it off the shirt altogether and not respecting the history of the club itself. I really hope the powers that be at Racing realise their mistake and put the badge back where it belongs next season, and I really hope that this idea doesn’t catch on with other teams.