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Major League Rugby’s second season kicks off Jan. 26. Many of the stars from the league’s first rendition are gone. Utah’s Paul Lasike and Glendale’s Sam Figg, Bryce Campbell and Ben Landry, amongst others, won't be back.
Below are four newcomers picked by head writer Pat Clifton and contributor Jake Frechette on the latest episode of the Giant’s Conscience podcast to help fill the star void in year two. You can listen to the full analysis of each selection, as well as other MLR topics and much more, on the full episode.
This category is intended for Americans making their MLR debut in 2019. In this instance, we have two Eagles, one young coming over from 7s, and one old dusting off the boots.
The former is Glendale’s Malon Al-Jiboori, recently a guest on the RUGBY PatCast. Technically, he is an MLR veteran, having played a single match for the San Diego Legion in 2018, but we’ll look past that.
“I think Malon Al-Jiboori is likely to have a lot of rampaging runs and big hits, and I am very excited to watch him play,” Frechette said.
Al-Jiboori has hit every rung of USA Rugby’s age-grade system, playing second row for the U20s, but he projects as a weakside flanker for the Raptors.
The latter is New York scrumhalf Mike Petri. With 57 caps and three World Cup appearances to his name, the 34-year-old isn’t short on experience. But other than limited time in a few RUNY exhibition matches, Petri hasn’t played high-level rugby in earnest since the 2015 RWC.
“From what I hear, the old warhorse still has a little bit in him,” said Clifton. “He was the best scrumhalf in America at one time, and who knows, maybe he still is. Let’s find out.”
Petri will be pushed for playing time by the much younger Marcus Walsh. The Irishman came to the States to play at Life, he’s suited up for Old Blue, and last season he started on loan for the Austin Elite.
There were a lot of worthy candidates for this designation, as a $100,000 boost to the salary cap, doubling the allotment of foreign players, and allowing Canadians to not count as foreigners has seen more than 30 new foreign players with professional or international experience sign MLR contracts, and that’s without Utah announcing a single player, yet, and teams aren't done with additions.
The picks were made largely for positional reasons, as Santiago Arata will bring competition to the scrumhalf spot for the Houston Sabercats, and Paddy Ryan brings a ton of high-level experience to San Diego’s front row.
Arata has 28 caps for Uruguay, and he’ll challenge incumbent starter Connor Murphy for the No. 9 jersey.
“Scrumhalf is an area that actually let Houston down last year,” said Frechette. “I think that he’s going to make everybody around him better, but in a way that highlights his own flare.”
Ryan, not to be confused for the capped Eagle with the same name on RUNY's roster, boasts more than 50 caps in Super Rugby for the Waratahs, one for the Wallabies and one for the Barbarians. The 30-year-old tighthead will not only provide help on the field, but likely also in developing some of the American talent on the roster.
“The Legion, especially at the beginning of last year, their Achilles heel was their forward pack, and particularly their scrum. This guy is a huge addition,” said Clifton.
“Here’s another reason why I’m excited, because Aaron Mitchell, the enormous former Fresno State defensive tackle who played prop for them last year, the American domestic guy who I think has a massive ceiling, could really use some help from somebody who has 50 caps in Super Rugby.”
This category was a little more subjective than the other two, as you could argue both selections had already made their names. Nonetheless, the two MLR veterans picked to have a big year are Seattle’s Peter Tiberio and Houston’s Alex Elkins.
Tiberio should be a recognizable name for any fan of American rugby. He was an All-American at Arizona, the darling of the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship, and he spent several seasons with the 7s Eagles. However, he has just one cap to his name in 15s, and it came two years ago. As well, he missed out on an All-MLR selection last year.
“I thought that he seemed to be having so much fun, and he had just a bunch of good, strong attacking runs, but also, he seems to be busting his butt at every opportunity, and he looked good in the preseason match they played up in Canada,” said Frechette of Tiberio.
“I think he might end up being the league try leader. I think he might be the guy all of Seattle falls in love with.”
Elkins, despite having five inches and 60 pounds on Tiberio, has played the same position as him his entire pro career. He debuted on the wing with the Ohio Aviators in 2016, and after a stint in residency with the 7s Eagles, he played on the edge for the Sabercats last season, too.
This preseason, he’s been playing in the back row, a more fitting position for the 6’4”, 240-pound former Oklahoma State linebacker. Could this finally be the season he cashes in on all that athleticism?
“People expect a lot out of him, because he’s a giant human being and he’s got a great athletic pedigree,” said Clifton. “I think it’s the put-up or shut-up moment for him, and I’m going to put my money on hip to put-up.”