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(Evan Lappen contributed to this story)

PRO Rugby has announced the signing of 103 players amongst its five teams. 28 come from international clubs or professional teams, seven come from college teams or are unattached, and the remaining 68 come from the domestic club game, the level most affected by the creation of the new competition.

31 players come from DI clubs across the country – Life West (8), Austin Blacks (3), Columbus (3), Sacramento Blackhawks (3), Chicago Lions (2), Metropolis (2), Dallas Reds (2), Santa Rosa (2), East Palo Alto Razorbacks (1), East Palo Alto Bulldogs (1), Kansas City Blues (1), Mystic River (1), New Orleans (1), and Potomac Exiles (1).

Four come from DII clubs – Detroit Tradesmen, Tempe, Charlotte and the Sacramento Capitals. Seven come from the Seattle Saracens, who compete in a Canadian league. And only three come from American Rugby Premiership clubs – Life (2) and Old Blue (1).

While the hit taken by DI heavyweights Life West and the Austin Blacks will likely impact those playoffs this spring, no competition took a more substantial blow in terms of player attrition than the Pacific Rugby Premiership, widely considered the top club competition in the United States. The ARP is its East Coast counterpart, but few of its top players opted to move across the country to compete in the pilot pro league.

The PRP’s seven clubs lost a total of 23 players to PRO Rugby’s first wave of signings, with Glendale taking the largest hit of eight, followed by the Denver Barbarians (5), Santa Monica (4), San Francisco Golden Gate and Belmont Shore (2), and OMBAC and Olympic Club (1). These numbers are all based off the announcements made by PRO Rugby itself, club affiliations included. It’s likely several more PRP players will wind up playing PRO Rugby this season.

PRO Rugby’s contracts are broken down into tiers. International players kind of belong on a shelf of their own. Tier 1 domestic players make $35,000 a year, and Tier 2 players make $20,000. Tier 3 players are paid on a match-by-match basis. Tier 1 and 2 domestic players are prohibited from playing with their clubs. Tier 3 players potentially could if they’re not playing on a given weekend.  

Denver, San Francisco and San Diego are three PRO Rugby cities with PRP clubs – OMBAC in San Diego, SFGG and Olympic Club in San Francisco and the Denver Barbarians and Glendale in Denver. Denver has 23 players announced, most of which come from the PRP, as do Sacramento and Ohio, while San Diego has only 16 and San Francisco 18. Coincidentally, San Diego and San Francisco PRP clubs have least amount of their players announced to play PRO Rugby.

From those clubs some relatively big names are missing. Zach Pangelinan, Brian Doyle and Tai Tuisamoa of OMBAC aren’t listed as playing for San Diego. From SFGG, guys like Tai Enosa, Mile Pulu, Volney Rouse and Jack Halalilo aren’t named. Olympic Club has the likes of Alec Gletzer, Jake Anderson and Colin Hawley. All are capped in 7s or 15s and living in a city where there’s a pro team.

“There’s a lot of guys with full-time jobs, and it’s not for them, and that’s okay,” PRO Rugby director of rugby Steve Lewis told Rugby Today. “So there’s a bunch of guys we offered on those teams, and they said no. I don’t know their motivation, and that’s fine.”

Surely, some of the aforementioned guys will pick up games as Tier 3 guys or eventually sign contracts. But others may be simply be choosing club over cash. And some may not like the tier into which they were slotted. At least one Eagle with double-digit caps was offered a second-tier contract.

From the beginning, Lewis and PRO Rugby owner Doug Schoninger have expressed a desire to work with domestic clubs. That tune hasn’t changed, and Lewis says there’s not a rub between the PRP and PRO Rugby.

“No, we can’t have that,” he said. “We need a robust club game, so we need the clubs to play.”

However, that sentiment may not be shared across the club divide.

“At this rate, PRO Rugby will kill the club game as [there is] no formal plan to help clubs train and identify the next crop of young players,” said PRP operations director and OMBAC representative Geno Mazza. “The clubs are the ones doing all the training and getting the players with nothing in return. A plan needs to be put in place where PRO rugby gives back by sending players to the clubs to fill the gaps.”

Steve Lewis said Mazza’s club and SFGG, who combined have lost just three players to PRO Rugby thus far, were the most outspoken in early discussions.

“San Fran and OMBAC were initially very concerned, probably the most vocal opponents, but we don’t want that to be the case,” he said. “We don’t want that to be the relationship. We want to work with everyone. We want everyone to be happy. So if guys don’t want to play for us this year, that’s fine. There’s no animosity. There’s no issues on my part.”

The firepower the San Diego pro team may be missing out on from OMBAC players could be made up for by those contracted with the USA 7s team at the nearby Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. Head coach Mike Friday plans to make some guys who need more playing time, think Steven Tomasin, ConRoy Smith and Chris Turori, available on a Tier 3 basis.

“Players need to play rugby, right, so if they can get a game for us, it suits us and it suits him,” said Lewis. “We want to make it whatever’s easy for the player.”

The PRP will finish out its third season this spring, as scheduled, with only the playoffs clashing with the PRO Rugby slate. The ARP has agreed to move to a fall-only schedule, which makes sense seasonality wise for teams on the East Coast, as well as agrees with the PRO Rugby schedule. The PRP is considering making a similar move, but no final decision has yet been made. 

Comments

8 Seattle Saracens taken mid season. We fight for our playoff lives and get what from PRO? Nothing. To say this is working with the clubs is ingenious at best. We are being used as a feeder system with no upside for the clubs who are the very lifeblood of US rugby. USA Rugby should have been looking out for us, should have said no to a private and new set up. Just like in England and France,if someone wanted to go professional they should have used some of the existing club network and then the entire package of community, volunteer and professional workers could have been used. If the owner didn't want to do it that way, USA Rugby could have waited until it found one who would, but it sanctioned this, to the detriment of US Clubs it represents. Remember the US Football League? It folded after 3 years. Leagues fold if not properly done and properly funded. It would never be easy to make this work, and without bolstering the existing club network it makes it far more difficult. To say the clubs are not organized and too hard to work with before it was tried is nonsense. It will probably be the way this finally succeeds.
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Players "taken"? Where did Seattle get their players? From the perspective of clubs that have lost players to Seattle those clubs might think their players were "taken". What did Seattle give the other clubs as compensation for taking their players? The top clubs always recruit from the other clubs. It is interesting now to see PRP clubs whinging about losing players to a better managed and better funded set of clubs that has come to the US. A competitive market is a good thing. Clubs should celebrate moving players to the next level including nation teams and professional teams.
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I agree that this wasn't the way to do it...weaken teams that have invested a lot in players and development during the regular season and into playoffs... Not sure what was wrong with the old way of identifying talent by having a REP season at the end of the regular season... form a state based team (CA, TX, CO etc)... or go straight to regional or conference teams (Westerns etc) and let them play a 4 week round robin or host a tournament where all talent is on display at the same venue. Good for selectors to be in one place and a festival of rugby to finish out the year. This would give players something to aim for and form can be viewed by all. I am not going to make a trek to another state to watch one of these pro games but if there was a weekend where all the talent was on display over 2 days then it would be a good festival for rugby and worth it? Might even get some TV to pick it up. You can play the players that make it if you like to raise the stakes and call it PRO rugby ....but really a tier 2 player makes $384.61/week in the current set up... (paid over 52 weeks not the season) so I don't know how you expect them to leave a decent job if they have one.... life after rugby counts too. This would mean the players can stay loyal to their clubs and the clubs can actually help them with the representative honors (fundraising for travel expenses etc) as it reflects well on the club.
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I've written extensively on what pro rugby means for grassroots clubs. https://medium.com/@vicdrover/what-does-professional-rugby-union-look-like-in-america-190b253419bf
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