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Expansion teams aren’t usually burdened by expectation, but when you’re just one season behind the pack, you ink the most decorated player in the entire league, activate half-a-dozen Eagles to make their MLR debut, assemble a roster void of glaring weaknesses, bring on a proven coach and represent Gotham, you can’t avoid it.
Sunday, Rugby United New York takes the field for the first time in earnest. There have been exhibition matches, most recently an intrasquad scrimmage after a planned bout with Toronto went awry thanks to a bus crash, but the RUNY that walks onto the pitch at Torero Stadium has never played together before.
That most-decorated player, Ben Foden, hasn’t even been in country for a week. His first training was Saturday. If anyone can overcome a lack of continuity with a new team, it’s probably the guy with 34 caps for England and more than 200 appearances over 10 years for Sale and Northampton.
Look for Foden in the centers, a couple of numbers away from his usual 15. With former Eagle and Cal great Seamus Kelly lost to a career-ending injury, Foden's the likely choice at 13.
“He gets along with the guys and seems to be having a good time,” said head coach Mike Tolkin of Foden. “I think he’ll just take a little adjustment time to get used to the guys, the playing style, but so far, so good.”
Foden will likely line up next to another imported rookie, Will Leonard. The big, square, chiseled center comes from Shannon RFC in Ireland, the club of Peter Stringer, Anthony Foley and numerous other Munster and Ireland greats. He looks like he can punch holes through brick walls with his face.
RUNY’s roster is littered with talent. Tolkin could potentially start nine Eagles and four overseas mercenaries like Foden, Leonard and former Leinster flyhalf Cathal Marsh, sprinkling in some up-and-comers hunting their first caps, like Matt Hughston and Alex MacDonald.
If there is an area of weakness, it’s the second row. Nate Brakeley is a surefire starter making his MLR debut, but where Tolkin goes with the other shirt is less obvious. MacDonald is a Life product who spent time at Trinity in Ireland like many Americans trying to earn a cap before him – Scott LaValla, Cam Falcon and Tim Maupin, amongst others. Trevor Cassidy is a local product, who broke onto the scene with New York Rugby Club before switching to Old Blue.
Luckily for RUNY, the front row has considerable heft. A rotation of three Irishmen and a Scotsman will likely get most of the reps up front, tighthead Paddy Ryan and hooker Dylan Fawsitt having already earned caps for the USA.
“Time will tell. I think the two props are very good scrummaging props, and they’re smart players,” said Tolkin. “We’re not as tall as we want in the second row, but athletic and good. It’s not an area of weakness for us, I’ll say that for sure, and time will tell if it’s an area of strength.”
If there is an obvious area of strength, it’s the back row. 28-year-old John Quill will likely earn his 30th cap for the USA this spring. Kyle Sumsion has five caps for the Eagles, none since 2014, but at 29, he’s still got good rugby in him. And then you have two guys who could conceivably earn caps in Matt Hughston and Ross Deacon. All of them started regularly in the MLR last season, and you could argue three of them where the best loose forwards on their former teams, Quill at Glendale, Sumsion at Houston and Hughston at New Orleans.
“Back row is definitely an area of strength for us. Kyle and Quill are excellent veteran players,” said Tolkin. “They bring a lot of physicality to their play, and experience. Ross is the same way. Ross is just a hard back-rower. He knows his game. Matt is really fit. He’s a good athlete. He’s tough and hard.”
The outside backs are lethal, too, with three capped 7s Eagles in the mix in Connor Wallace-Sims, Chris Mattina and Luke Hume. Pushing them are bullies from the local club scene, Derek Lipscomb, Michael St. Claire and Seimou Smith, all of whom could have likely started for another MLR club last season.
Foden will draw a lot of focus, as will the mob of Irishmen headlined by Marsh, but one storyline worth watching is the collective comeback of Tolkin and scrumhalf Mike Petri. They’ve earned household-name-status within the American rugby community in their own rights, but in the minds of many, they’ll always be linked at the hip.
Petri cut his teeth with one of the most storied high school programs in the nation in Xavier. He won national championships at the senior level with New York Athletic Club. And he amassed 57 caps for the USA, the most of any Eagle in the league. Holding the clipboard at Xavier and NYAC was Tolkin, who also selected Petri for 31 of those caps as head coach of the national team.
Neither has coached or played on anything resembling this stage since 2015, when Tolkin’s time with the Eagles came to an abrupt, unceremonious end. A winless World Cup to finish out the year was preceded by an ugly public spat between Tolkin and longtime captain Todd Clever, helping poison the culture within the team.
Tolkin was made to re-apply for his job. USA Rugby hired someone else, who never bothered to call the USA's most-capped scrumhalf of all time to see if he wanted to keep playing. The plumber-turned-teacher went back to work, while a cavalcade of debutants earned caps auditioning for his old jersey.
For Tolkin and Petri, this season is about getting to play a part in the maiden voyage for New York’s first professional team. Their hometown team. But it’s also an opportunity for redemption. An opportunity to remind everyone they’re champions.
For RUNY, the season is about trying to keep all those dynamics taped together long enough for results to come in and smooth over any bumps. Can the headlining late arrival jell quickly enough, will the Irish assimilate, can Tolkin steer a team full of stars in the same direction, does the 34-year-old Petri still have it? All those questions really funnel into one – can the league’s most talented team cash in immediately?
That question will be answered in 16 parts, starting Sunday in San Diego when RUNY faces returning semifinalists San Diego Legion.
"We know the opposition. I know my team. But how are we going to perform our first time under really serious pressure ever," ponders Tolkin. "That’s the unknown."