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Rugby United New York has announced three signings in recent weeks – that of general manager James English, English star Ben Foden, and head coach Mike Tolkin. English is on the job, though unreachable for interview, and he and Tolkin are trying to assemble a team.
Foden, though, is embroiled in controversy, and it’s unclear if or when he’ll end up joining RUNY. News broke recently of an extramarital affair, which has resulted in separation for the fullback and his singer wife. The breakup, which has made the rounds in European rags and tabloids, reportedly occurred just days before the couple and their two kids were supposed to move to New York. Foden didn’t make the move.
Reports have been mixed about his intentions, and no one at RUNY was available for comment on his situation. One report says the understanding is Foden will move to America as planned, while another speculates he’ll be staying in England for the time being.
With or without Foden, RUNY figures to be a contender in their inaugural MLR season. Capped Eagles like Mike Petri and Seamus Kelly are expected to be in the fold, as they were during RUNY’s exhibition season in the spring. The hastily assembled team of mostly NYAC and Old Blue guys went 3-0 in their new team strip, twice beating a Boston side and once beating the Ontario Arrows, who are expected to join the MLR in 2019 or 2020.
The exhibition team, much like RUNY’s player base is expected to be, was largely local. The two teams who did the best in the MLR’s inaugural season, champion Seattle and runner-up Glendale, relied heavily on strong local and regional player bases, giving them much greater depth than the rest of the league.
“There will be a majority of those players involved,” said Tolkin of the guys who suited up for RUNY in the spring.
“Foremost, because there’s a lot of quality players there. Secondly, it makes life easy having them local and being able to play. And third fitting under the salary cap, that’s important as well, and it enables us to do that.”
The foreigners who played for RUNY in the spring were already in New York. But evidenced by the Foden signing and bolstered by an expected higher limit on foreign players, there will likely be an infusion of overseas talent. RUNY, just a short direct flight from basically all of Europe, is in a good place to cash in.
“I think it is a natural spot. It’s a great city. It’s a short jump away. I think it makes sense for guys, but it has to be the right guy with the right attitude, and it has to be a guy who knows what he’s getting into and he’s not just coming over for a jolly,” said Tolkin. “We have to look out for that. Big cities offer that opportunity at the end of your career, so it is a landing spot, but we have to be careful about it.”
Tolkin led RUNY in the spring, and while he knew he might still be the guy for the club’s maiden MLR voyage, it wasn’t always a guarantee. Still, he watched the games as though it was.
“I’d say I watched 90-percent of the games, and each week I did my rankings and adjusted them knowing this was definitely a possibility and I was eventually going to have to be prepared,” Tolkin said.
Born at Manhattan’s New York Infirmary and educated at Xavier High School in the same borough and St. John’s University in Queens, Tolkin led Xavier and New York Athletic Club, which plays its ball on Travers Island in New Rochelle, both to national championships. It doesn’t get more New York than Tolkin, who will always have the title as head coach of New York’s first-ever professional rugby team on his Wikipedia page.
“It’s an honor to be able to do that, and I hope it’s a lot of fun. I expect it to be that,” he said. “I’m really fortunate to be in this position, and I want to make the most of it.”
While some teams are getting ready to assemble in the coming weeks, RUNY will wait until after the heft of the fall club season and assemble in November. So domestic players will roll from playing with their club to a couple of months with RUNY, likely with a couple of preseason games sprinkled in, straight into a January start to the MLR season.
New York won’t likely host its home opener until March, when the season is more than a month old, so as to avoid the frigid temperatures typical of winters in the Big Apple. But it still snows in March, sometimes in April, and occasionally in April.
“March in New York is a crap shoot. You could have some nice days and you could have some snow. March is totally up in the air,” said Tolkin. “We played a few games last year in March, and they were chilly. We dodged a few snow storms, and we had a few nice practices. We had some canceled, too. It’s a tough time of year.”
For the first year, New York is likely to be the only team in the eastern time zone. Seattle, San Diego and Los Angeles, if it comes online for 2019, will have to traverse four time zones for an away game against RUNY, Glendale and Utah three, and Austin, Houston and New Orleans two.
“I always hate traveling from West to East. If it’s an advantage, great, we’ll take it,” says Tolkin.
RUNY has played three games, but MLR RUNY none thus far, so it might be too early to describe the club’s personality. Off the field, the team’s been aggressive, signing the biggest name in league history in Foden, bringing in a former national team coach, trying to carve out a plot of land in the crowded sports scene of a crowded city. Tolkin wants the play on the field to match.
“As a team we want to be aggressive. We want our culture to be kind of how I always believe I’ve had a culture of being tight, being disciplined, but playing for each other, just having a really strong team aspect,” he said.
“On the field we want to be aggressive and play aggressive. We want to play pressure ball on both sides of the ball, and we think we have some talented players. We think we have character, and we want to continue to be aggressive coming into the league.
“I think at our games what I’d hope for is to get some of that New York atmosphere and make the games a party, a good event for a lot of people to go to and have a lot of fun. I think like every other team in the league, that’s what they want, and we’d like to do it in our own unique New York way.”