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Major League Rugby is creeping closer to its inaugural season, and we’re beginning to get a glimpse of what it will look like. We think we know the teams, their names, some venues, and several coaches and players who will be involved.
Over the last several months, numerous cities, clubs and entities were rumored to be a part of MLR’s launch, though the list has now apparently whittled to six actual teams – the Utah Warriors, Glendale Raptors, Houston Strikers, Austin Elite, Seattle Seawolves and New Orleans Gold.
The Dallas effort fell apart, despite making one of the biggest splashes in the press release season by naming former Bath and England coach Mike Ford its director of rugby.Original teams were also supposed to come together in Minneapolis and Kansas City.
The Minnesota effort appears to be dead in the water, at least for now, while the Kansas City team, linked with the Blues, who compete in the Midwest’s top club division, is reportedly paid up on its financial commitment to the league but won’t field a team in the inaugural season. Rumors have also emerged surrounding a potential San Diego franchise, but no details are available.
Coach: Justin Fitzpatrick
Venue: Building own stadium
Notable Players: Unlike the rest of the teams in the MLR, Houston is starting from whole cloth, which partially explains why most of the league’s signings we’ve heard about have come from the Strikers – there was no reliable player base waiting in the wings, so they had to build swiftly.
The two Fijian 7s internationals, Osea Kolinisau and Josua Vici, are big signings. Other intriguing internationals are former London Irish scrumhalf Connor Murphy, Worcester lock Charlie Hewitt, Ulster prop Adam Macklin, and former Ulster and Worcester flyhalf Sam Windsor. Capped Americans include fullback Zach Pangelinan, flanker Kyle Sumsion and second row Matt Trouville. A pair of local guys who could flourish in the professional setup are Texas A&M All-Americans Connor Mills and Chris Parker.
Other Notes: Largely because of the player signings, the fact that the team is already training together and plans to play a slate of friendlies before starting the season, as early as this fall, and because they plan to build their own stadium, the Strikers look like they’re spending more money than any other team in the league.
The number of signings has been staggering, but so has the quality. On paper, the Strikers will have a legitimate professional or international player in the front row, second row, back row, at scrumhalf, flyhalf and littered elsewhere throughout the backline.
They warrant comparisons to PRO’s Ohio – there were plenty of internationals and loads of talent on that team, but they had very little prior history with each other and had to develop a culture and chemistry from scratch. That was good enough to make Ohio the best team by the end of the season, but some of the early results prevented the Aviators from winning the league’s only championship. Can the Strikers come together enough between now and the start of the season to avoid a similar fate?
Coach: Tony Healy
Notable Players: It’s reasonably expected that most of what makes up the Seattle Saracens amateur club will also populate the jerseys for the Seawolves, which is perhaps why Seattle has been slow in announcing signings. The initial surprises were the departures of Matt Trouville and Justin Fitzpatrick, both of whom are now with the Strikers. Still tons of talent based in Seattle, though.
Despite the fact that the Seawolves' announced signings are few in numbers, they’re fantastic in quality. Former England 7s star Mat Turner and former Canadian 7s and 15s star Phil Mack are as good a start to the halfback positions as any team in the league has gotten off to. Both could play numerous places in the backline, both have secondary roles within the club, and both will provide top-shelf experience and skills.
Other Notes: Maybe the biggest announcement of the early goings for Seattle has been from the front office, with Brian Jones signing on as the chief commercial officer. While player signings, new logos and venue announcements certainly draw attention, players will always want to play, coaches will want to coach, and graphic designers will always be aplenty. What is going to set the Seawolves apart will be sustainability, and hiring a guy like Jones who’s worked in the front offices of Seattle’s NFL and MLS teams, and putting him in charge of sponsorship and monetizing the venture, is a worthwhile step in that direction.
Seattle has also named a venue, the Starfire Sports complex in Tukwila, Wash. It’s hosted rugby in the past, most notably USA Rugby’s club 7s championships a few years back. If the Seawolves want to bring a championship to those grounds, inking some of the local talent we all expect them to, like Mike Palefau, Shalom Suniula and Miles Craigwell, would be helpful.
Coach: Alain Hyardet
Venue: Stadium ATX
Notable Players: This is easy, because as of print time, the Elite have only inked three – Eagle hooker Peter Malcolm, former Arkansas State All-American Zinzan Elan-Puttick, and former A-State and Lindenwood standout Sione Fangaiuiha. Both Malcolm and Elan-Puttick are very talented players, and they’re probably just the first wave of former Austin Huns who will be soaked up by the Elite. Elan-Puttick is low-key one of the best domestic players in the country, and Malcolm is a big-time player in an important position, so a great start nonetheless. Fangaiuiha has struggled with knee issues, but if healthy, he'll be a serviceable player in the midfield.
Other Notes: The Elite’s divorce from the Huns has been weird, but not altogether unsurprising. People are passionate about their clubs, and when outher people with money come in and want to throw it around, strong feelings will bubble to the top. I can’t say for sure that’s what drove the separation, but I’d be shocked if it didn’t play a part. If you’re unaware, the Huns were originally announced as the pro team, but a couple of months ago it was decided the Huns would remain an autonomous amateur club separate from the MLR team, the Elite.
However, the divorce may prove to be a good thing. There are two major clubs in Austin, the Huns and Blacks, and until this year, the Blacks have always been superior on the field. Perhaps the separation of the Huns and Elite will open the door for some really talented guys who’ve been aligned with the Blacks to suit up with the Elite. The hiring of longtime Black Rick Medina as the corporate sales manager might be a good sign of more collaboration to come.
New Orleans Gold
Coach: Nathan Osborne
Notable Players: The MVP from America’s first professional league, PRO, will be suiting up for the Gold in America’s second professional venture, as No. 8 Sebastian Kalm has signed with New Orleans. Hubert Buydens and Eric Howard, capped Canadian front rowers, are also inked. Though it hasn’t been announced, it’s presumed Eagle hooker Cam Falcon will play for the Gold, seeing as his family is at least part of the money behind the franchise. If he were to sign on, the Gold would be off to a great start in the forward pack.
The Gold have also signed Peceli Rinakama, an electric Fijian stepper who’s suited up for clubs across the USA, Moni Tongauiha, an up-and-coming domestic center, and hometown product Bobby Johns. They also announced Monday the signing of Matt Hughston, a heralded club player from East Carolina University and Charlotte RFC who played for the Ohio Aviators in PRO. He is versatile, though typically a back rower.
Additional Notes: New Orleans is an interesting team. New Orleans Rugby Football Club, home of the Falcons and Johns, will surely provide a number of players and fans for the Gold. Head Coach Nathan Osborne, formerly an assistant for the Eagles under Mike Tolkin and a longtime coach at Metropolis, has already brought one player from Minnesota with him in Rinakama. He could pull a couple of more. However, if the Gold want to compete with the firepower already assembled in Houston, Glendale, and what we assume will be assembled in Seattle, they need to make some more splashes with internationals or overseas pros.
Coach: David Williams
Venue: Infinity Park
Notable Players: The Raptors haven’t officially announced any signings, but Glendale has been paying players at least the last year in preparation for the upcoming season. So it’s safe to assume many, if not all, of the guys playing for Glendale’s newly rebranded club side, the Merlins, will also play for the Raptors in the MLR.
If that pans out as expected, they’ll be awash with domestic internationals, like scrumhalf Shaun Davies, flanker John Quill, center Bryce Campbell, lock Ben Landry and flyhalf Will Magie. Former Eagles, such as Zach Fenoglio, Peter Dahl, Seth Halliman and Ata Malifa are also in the mix.
Other Notes: It’s almost hard to believe, but Infinity Park is 10 years old. Glendale looked like it was a bit premature to the professional era in the United States, erecting the first-ever rugby-specific stadium a decade before people were legitimately getting paid to play. So Mike Dunafon and Mark Bullock have been waiting for this moment for a long time. Cheers to them and their vision.
Notable Players: Like Glendale, Utah hasn’t announced any signings. 7s Eagle Don Pati and former Utah All-American John Cullen have been involved in the teams’ photo shoots and would be expected to suit up for the Warriors, though Pati could miss action if called up to the Eagles during the HSBC Sevens World Series.
Utah is a talent-rich rugby region, and certainly some BYU and Utah recent graduates will be in the mix. And some current collegiates could join the Warriors after their teams are eliminated from the postseason in the spring. Namely, guys like Matt Jensen, Chad Gough, Ara Elkington, Gabe Ruflin and the Whippy brothers would all be considerable contributors.
Other Notes: Under the banner of “Rugby Utah Select XV”, this group played the Huns (what we expect to essentially be Austin Elite) and Glendale twice each in the spring. They lost by an average of 42 points a game. So, even with the best that Utah can offer, the Warriors are likely going to need to bring in some outside talent to compete.
I have been impressed with their marketing thus far. Their aesthetic and social media presence is second to no other in MLR to date.