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Major League Rugby’s second season kicks off in just over five months. Some details are still being ironed out, while others are set, and some seem to be set, but the concrete’s still drying.
There will almost certainly be nine teams. The league office isn’t publicly concerned about the wherewithal of its original seven clubs, though there are murmurs of New Orleans and Austin running lean. So with the first seven back, that means two new ones for 2019.
New York is in for sure. RUNY has announced the signings of general manager James English, head coach Mike Tolkin, assistant coach Kees Lensing, and English fullback Ben Foden, who may or may not be joining the team after all. They’ve also got a deep roster of players they’ll be signing and announcing who suited up for their exhibition season in the spring.
D.C. won’t join until 2020. Los Angeles is likely out for 2019, while Ontario is expected to make the cut. The Arrows would make nine teams. A full double round-robin is possible.
Deputy commissioner Nic Benson wouldn’t confirm or deny that Los Angeles is out and Ontario in, but he did say the schedule is currently in progress and should be released in the next two or three weeks.
The salary cap in year one was $350,000 total, with $250,000 allocated for full-time players, which the league refers to as elite players, and $100,000 set aside for part-time players, which the league refers to as associate players. This season, the salary cap will go up to $450,000 with no delineation between full-time and part-time, but there is a league minimum.
Two more big changes are to the foreigner limit. In year one, it was five foreigners per game-day roster. In 2019, teams can carry 10, and Canadian players will not be counted as foreigners.
The rules for offseason player movement are still ambiguous. Every player is contracted through the league, and there are rules outlined in a player handbook disseminated league-wide in the spring, but those don’t appear to be in play.
If there are rules in place, coaches, players and general managers across the league aren’t on the same page as to what they are.
The ambiguity has caused confusion amongst players. Coming into the inaugural year, teams were operating independently to throw together their rosters. Players eagerly signed on not knowing what everyone else was getting paid or even what they were worth, as there was no historical context from which to draw.
Some guys may have signed smaller deals and proven more valuable. Now, with a season in the rearview and players having talked to one another to learn who made what, they want to be paid what they’ve proven they’re worth.
Associate players make up most of the league. According to the MLR handbook, they should be allowed to move from team-to-team freely, thus creating a free agency market of some kind.
“Teams who have associate players in any given season will retain the rights to that player for the proceeding season only if an Elite Player contract is issued,” reads the handbook. “Failure to offer an Elite Player contract will enable the player to enter the general player pool if they choose.”
The handbook also says that for any player already on a team to talk to another, he has to get permission from both his current team and the league. So if a part-time player with the talent to be a full-time player wants to improve his lot, he has to either sit around and hope a team asks for and attains permission to talk to him, or he has to ask his current employer for permission to talk to a competitor.
“We’re revising almost everything going into year two,” said Benson. “Players will mostly stay with the teams that they’re on. We’re working on some systems so the new teams can get access to the players they need.”
Even so, the handbook is the only set of rules that’s been distributed to the players, so if they’re growing frustrated by the lack of communication or clarity, it’s understandable.
Since the free agency market is essentially nonexistent, some are opting out of the league altogether. Rumor has it Sam Figg, arguably the MLR's best back rower in year one, won’t be back because he and Glendale couldn’t reach an agreement on a salary for year two.
The salary cap is going up – that’s generally good for players – but by just 28-percent, while the foreigner limit has increased by 100%. Given the highest paid players on each team are typically foreign, there may not be any more meat on the bone in year two for the domestic players to share.