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None of these guys have done this before. There is plenty of college, club and international rugby experience sprinkled throughout the movers and shakers of Major League Rugby, and even some veteran professional players and coaches, but not a single CEO, general manager, director of rugby or head coach of an MLR franchise has ever assembled a professional team from scratch to play in a league starting from scratch.
Off the field, there are few limits. When it comes to coaches’ salaries, size of coaching staffs, the makeup of front offices, venues, marketing strategies and budgets, the gloves are off. Some teams have one head coach, and any assistants are player/coaches. In Austin, they’ve got a full staff of dedicated coaches. In Glendale, part of the coaching and front office salaries is paid by the professional venture’s ownership group, while part is paid by the City, which owns and operates the team’s facilities.
New Orleans is going to play in a high school football stadium, while Seattle plays in a soccer complex. Glendale has its own rugby-dedicated stadium, and Houston is trying to replicate the same thing. In Austin, a club ground has been built out to look like a proper professional venue, but plans for a new multi-purpose stadium have just been announced.
These imbalances are pros for some teams and cons for others.
When it comes to the on-the-field product, the league office has put parameters in place which will help shape the makeup of the original seven teams, but it’s up to the teams themselves to build rosters which are sustainable, affordable and competitive. For this reason alone, the prelude to MLR’s inaugural season has been fascinating to follow.
All seven teams are coming from a different starting point. Some, like the San Diego Legion, got a later start than others. We still know very little about the makeup of that franchise, as its clandestine ownership group is holding its cards close to the vest.
“In San Diego, we’ve tried as best we can to really go about our process. We haven’t really felt like we need to scream and shout from the top of the hill that we exist,” said Matt Hawkins, the former USA 7s player and coach who is involved in the team’s administration. His role, exactly, is a secret, much like many of the Legion’s details.
“I will be involved and engaged on the field, but also engaged operationally. For year one, we’ll try and run things very lean and mean, with the understanding from year one to year two to year three, there’s going to be a lot that happens, and there are a lot of different people we want as a part of what we’re doing, and that works into how it plays out,” he added.
Hawkins says that though they haven’t made any announcements indicating so, they have a head coach, they have players, and they have a place to play.
Utah didn’t wait as long as San Diego to start unveiling details, but the Warriors were later than Glendale, Austin and Houston. Still, CEO and general manager Kimball Kjar says they’re not behind schedule. The fact that a Rugby Utah Select XV played the likes of Glendale and the Austin Huns last spring in a mock season leading up to the creation of the MLR, helps.
“We’re kind of where I thought we’d be, if I’m being candid. A lot of the guys we knew were going to be coming from the collegiate ranks and the men’s division stuff,” he said.
“The players we used last year for the Select XVs team was kind of a composite of some local guys with some of the men’s division guys. It was part of the identity that we’ll see with this Utah Warriors team in year one, but there’s going to be some new additions and some other players that will get announced here soon.”
Since talking with Kjar, some of those announcements have been made. Kenny Scott, the longtime wing for the Kansas City Blues in both 15s and the nationally competitive 7s side, has signed on. So have a bunch of dudes with significant gridiron experience.
Paul Lasike was the first Utah signee announced. The former BYU rugby All-American famously walked onto the football Cougars and played in the NFL with the Chicago Bears. John Cullen was a starting offensive tackle for the rival Utes before failing to break into the NFL and returning to the University of Utah to become a rugby All-American and eventually an Eagle. Alexander Tucci, listed as the rare prop/flanker hybrid, played football at Colorado State and West Texas A&M.
These won’t be the only football guys playing rugby for the Warriors.
“There’s a number of guys here in the state who are ex-collegiate football players, some that have played in the NFL who just finished up their playing days, who are kind of like Paul [Lasike], that they want to go back to their roots,” Kjar said. One such player is Lance Williams, a former University of Hawaii linebacker yet to be announced.
“His work rate’s very high, he’s got a good work ethic off the field, really nice personality off the field,” said Kjar. “If you put him in the proper environment, good daily training environment with good leadership, and wrap it around an appropriate pathway where they can progress, they can be seen for who they are, what they are by national team scouts and coaches, those guys are going to start coming out of the woodwork.”
Much of Utah’s roster will be recognizable to the savvy rugby fan. They’ll know the names Lasike, Cullen and Scott. More former BYU and Utah studs are going to be signed. But the thing you’ve always heard about Utah is that for every Don Pati or Matt Jensen walking around, there are five guys you’ve never heard of who are just as good. Kjar confirms their existence.
“Most definitely. I think there’s a couple players that have a bright future that just need to have the correct pathway to be able to get themselves pushing in that direction. In the past, we just haven’t had that here in the state of Utah. That’s been part of my goal starting here from day one, to provide that pinnacle for these guys to shoot for.”
While physical prowess seems to be a big piece of the pie in Utah, in Austin the Elite are taking a different approach.
“With Austin, we are not looking for who is the biggest guy, who is the fastest guy. We are looking at rugby IQ and how we can bring a game that can be attractive for the public,” said GM Thierry Daupin.
“We are very specific. There are a few players who really wanted to come with us, but we said no, because they don’t have the rugby IQ, and that’s what we are looking at.”
With a French owner and GM, a French head coach and former French age-grade scrumhalf, Timothee Gullimin, figuring into the mix, alongside savvy playmakers like former Arkansas State All-Americans Zac Mizell and Zinzan Elan-Puttick, the Elite are building a team that can pass, create and attack space.
In Austin, home of the Huns and Blacks, two long-time rivals in the DI club space, the Elite have had to navigate club politics to some degree. Several professional players, like Michael Reid, Peter Malcolm, Hanco Germishuys and Elan-Puttick helped the Huns win the club title last year, and the Elite were always meant to look a lot like the Huns. But after splitting from the amateur organization, they’ve gotten the Blacks involved, too, which is where Mizell came from.
“We want to capitalize off what we did last year, using the same core group, and now that we are working as an independent group, we were able to work with all the teams, and we are working closely with all the groups,” Daupin said.
Germishuys and Elan-Puttick didn’t emerge from nowhere. They came from the Glendale setup. They’re not the only former Raptors to relocate to a new MLR home. Prop Ben Tarr has signed on with NOLA. Other Glendale guys were contacted by other teams, too, which makes sense considering the arsenal the Raptors were able to assemble over the years.
“Part of what should happen is the general manager of the Utah Warriors should contact us and say, ‘we’d like to talk to Shaun Davies’, which they did, and we said, ‘yeah that’s fine, you can talk to him,’” said Glendale director of rugby Mark Bullock. “That’s the same with some other players.”
Luckily for the Raptors, Davies, who starred at BYU under Kjar, decided to stay in Denver. He’s not the only player with deep ties to Utah who will oppose the Warriors. Houston has two, in Kyle Sumsion and Dan Paul, both BYU alums. Houston also managed to pull Matt Trouville and coach Justin Fitzpatrick away from Seattle, where they were entrenched with the Saracens, and Zach Pangelinan from San Diego, a longtime OMBAC man.
If you put an astute American rugby fan in a time capsule in, say 2015, woke them up yesterday and told them there was a professional rugby competition with teams in Utah and San Diego, they’d probably assume Pangelinan was the poster boy for the Legion and Davies and Sumsion were suiting up for the Warriors.
Pre-existing ties have played a big part in player acquisition, though maybe not for every team. Seattle Seawolves head coach Tony Healy recently led the BC Bears to the Canadian Rugby Championship title, and he’s brought some Bears with him to Seattle in Phil Mack, George Barton and Brock Staller.
They, along with every announced member of the Seawolves except the South African No. 8, have at least some level of international experience representing either Canada or the USA. The first two signings announced were former rivals on the 7s World Series, Mack and Shalom Suniula, who will make a lightning halfback duo for Seattle.
“I giggle sometimes when I see the quality of players we’re having come onto the squad,” said Healy. “You’re right to underline the importance of people like Phil or Shalom, but also throughout the squad there are game breakers and game changers, so those two players will also have a cast around them to give them an opportunity to shine even brighter.”
Seattle has built its team almost exactly as you’d expect to date – a mix of guys crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca and those already based in Washington. But, perhaps unlike you’d expect, the Seawolves aren’t going to play many minutes together before the beginning of the season.
“We’ll be looking to have a game or two,” said Healy. “The style of game we’re going to be playing doesn’t necessarily require that we have a huge amount of time together before the season starts. So there will be a lot of game stuff that we do in training before we get to the field. Hopefully we’ll be pretty clean by the time we take off against the San Diego Legion.”
Taking the opposite approach are the Houston Sabercats, who are in the middle of five pre-Christmas scrimmages against local Texas clubs. After the holidays they jump into a slate of nine matches leading straight into the regular season, including one against the Uruguayan national team.
“I’m a great believer in you only get better at rugby if you play rugby,” said Houston coach Justin Fitzpatrick.
It makes sense for the Sabercats to be playing as many games as possible together, given their playing base literally never has, unlike Austin, Glendale, and chunks of Seattle, NOLA and Utah. Much of the team has been assembled and training since September, but there’s already been one casualty, with hooker Codi Jones tearing his ACL.
Houston hasn’t fielded a nationally relevant DI club side anywhere near recently, unlike every other MLR city, save Utah, home to the high school program with more national titles than any other and a college program with more titles than anyone not named Cal. So it didn’t seem, on the face, like Houston would be able to compete with a team full of locals.
They flew in two Fijian stars, a few European professionals and signed the likes of Trouville, Sumsion and Pangelinan. But they’ve also found some diamonds in the rough of South Texas.
“The level of club competition here, I really wasn’t sure what we were going to get compared to a Chicago, a New York or some of the other bigger cities, but the level of individual here has been very, very promising,” Fitzpatrick said.
350 miles to the east, the Gold have been mixing methods. Local club guys, like Bobby Johns and Cam Falcon, are on the squad. There are a couple of Canadians and a South African flanker. The coach, Nate Osborne, is coming down from Minnesota, where he led Metropolis. He’s brought Derrek Van Klein and Peceli Rinakama with him, as well as Chalie Baleriera to coach the club side. And they’ve brought in numerous members of the Ohio Aviators from the defunct PRO Rugby setup.
“It was just by chance we have a lot of those guys coming down, but I also like the mentality of the Midwest and the mentality of what those guys put out, so that was a selling point for some of our guys to come down, that tough-nosed style of rugby we’re going to play,” said Gold head coach Nate Osborne.
Selling has been a part of this process. Each team is operating with a salary cap of somewhere around $250,000, which they can use to sign as many full-time guys as they see fit. How they divvy up that pie is up to them. They could offer Tendai Mtawarira, the Springbok prop more famously known as “Beast”, who expressed interest to at least one MLR club, $100,000 a year if they wanted, but it would hamstring their ability surround him with quality.
“A team could go, ‘we’re going to go out and sign big-dollar guys and pay them a lot.’ And if they get hurt, your investment might be lost,” explained Bullock. “So the question is, do you spread your payments out so you have more guys that are going to be fully professional, so if you have some injuries it doesn’t kill you, or do you concentrate your salary on a few players?”
Another consideration teams are having to make is how long to sign players for. Some guys are inking one-year deals, while others are signing multi-year deals.
“So here’s the question, do you want to tie the player down for $20,000 over two years, or do you want to go, ‘we’re only going to give you a contract for one year, and we anticipate the salary cap will go up next year, and your value may be more next year.’ So, in effect, you’re looking out for the player,” said Bullock.
“What if you contract a guy for one year, and at the end of the year some team from the Premiership says we’d really like for Shaun Davies to come play for us. We look at that as an opportunity for this player, and at Glendale we’re about opportunities for players.
“Or if he’s under a two-year contract, you could say you can’t because we have you contracted. Or the player salaries have gone up, but you only get $20,00, because we’ve got a contract. So those are the things that are going to start to happen.”
All of the full-time contracts go through the league office in Salt Lake City. In Glendale, Austin and Houston, where they’ve been paying guys outside of the league window, those individual clubs have been paying them separately. But once the contracts are executed, paychecks will come from the league office, cutting down on front office and administrative costs for each team.
And some of the full-time guys have dual roles within their organization. In Houston, for example, in addition to playing, Matt Trouville is running the youth outreach effort as the academy director. So part of his salary is for that role, and it’s not figured into the cap, while the playing portion is. Same thing for Sam Windsor, who is a player/coach. In Seattle, Phil Mack is acting as a player/coach.
This would seem to make for a loophole that can be exploited, allowing for teams to pay more for good players without it counting against the cap, the mechanism in place to assure parity.
“They have to report to the league what salary the people are making, so the league can sanction,” explained Bullock. “One of the things they look at or have in their process is what’s reasonable. The question is, is it reasonable to pay your skills coach $70,000? The answer to that might be no.”
Underneath the full-time guys will be another layer of players collecting a match fee each week. There are separate limits and parameters in place for these types. For most teams, these guys will be local, and they'll make upwards of a few hundred bucks a game. In Houston, the Sabercats were able to help find Sumsion a high-paying full-time job outside of rugby, so he’ll only count as a match-fee player, giving them a capped Eagle at a steep bargain.
Like PRO, everyone’s check will come through the central office. Unlike PRO, though, teams are independently owned and are acquiring their own players and personnel. The holy grail for any league, especially those in their infancy, is capturing an audience, and it’s generally believed competitive games are more captivating than blowouts. But with each team looking for an edge, and loopholes there to exploit, teams are having to operate out of two minds.
“It’s important to win, definitely. But if we are winning 70-0 every game, it’s not very enticing for the public,” said Austin’s Daupin. “The thing you have to understand is we are competitive on the field, but we are all partners behind. If we want it to work well, the owners, we need to work together to create a good show. That is key. But, of course, when we’re on the field, we want to win.”
Soon enough, the teams will take the field and the league’s headlines will switch from player signings to score lines. But, for now, the off-the-field action is intriguing enough.
“As Margaret Thatcher says, ‘we’ve got the equal opportunity to be unequal.’ So the coaches and the owners have some wiggle room to put their mark on it,” said Houston’s Fitzpatrick.
“How it all plays out will be decided the right way on the pitch come league season. There’s a bit of luck, a bit of judgment and a bit of planning involved in all of that, and I think that all adds to the competitive flavor.”