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With the start of the second season just about four months away, news seems to be hurtling out of Major League Rugby at record pace. The two biggest recent developments include the reported confirmation of the Ontario Arrows for the 2019 season and the inclusion of teams in Atlanta and New England for 2020.
The Arrows news hasn’t been confirmed by a Major League Rugby announcement, but it’s been long expected, and Ontario’s official inclusion has been one of the major delays in releasing the 2019 schedule. The inclusion of Ontario sees the league with nine teams for its second season.
The Arrows played a smattering of exhibition games last season, and they defeated Glendale earlier this month in another exhibition. So the team won’t be scrambling to assemble its roster, and there’s every reason to expect the Arrows will be competitive from the outset.
Joining the following year are a yet-to-be-branded team from Atlanta and the New England Free Jacks. The Atlanta team appears to be headed up by those behind Tiger Rugby, and it was a relatively late comer in the expansion race. USA Rugby’s Alex Magleby is rumored to be involved with the New England club, long thought of as a group that would get over the line.
MLR commissioner Dean Howes and deputy commissioner Nic Benson have both said publicly the league plans to expand to 12 teams before taking a break. With nine teams in for 2019 and New England and Atlanta confirmed for 2020, that leaves one vacant spot before hitting the unofficial cap.
Washington, D.C. originally announced itself in May as entering the MLR no later than 2020. We now know 2019 is off the table, and MLR itself hasn’t made an official announcement confirming that D.C. will be a go in 2020. The other team to make some noise on its own, which remains unconfirmed by MLR itself, is Los Angeles.
In 2020, the MLR will now have three teams on the east coast, three teams in the south in Texas and Louisiana, two teams along the Rockies in Denver and Utah, and three on the west coast. The Midwest is the blaring omission.
Rugby United New York has been the most active for obvious reasons. Seamus Kelly, Nate Brakeley and Dylan Fawsitt have all been announced, and all of them played for RUNY in exhibition games in the spring, so no surprises. Ben Foden appears to be actually in the fold now, giving RUNY the biggest name in the league.
The most impactful signings, though, appeared out of nowhere. One is Cathal Marsh, the former Leinster and Ireland U20 flyhalf. With Foden at fullback, RUNY has bonafide pros at two key positions. If Mike Petri signs as has been expected, they’ll have three overseas pros in their playmaking positions.
The other most impactful signing came off the field. Former Stade Francais boss Pierre Arnald has come on board with a reported $1 million investment, and he’ll serve as the team’s CEO. With a professional rugby heavyweight in the front office, RUNY is looking like it might be the franchise to beat on and off the field.
In Seattle, the Seawolves re-signed player/coach Phil Mack. No surprise there. No player was more vital to his team’s success than Mack in the inaugural season.
Austin has signed Uruguayan inside center Andres Vilaseca. He’s the first Uruguayan signee of the offseason, but he won’t be the last. That’s the good news for Elite fans. The bad news is their best forward from the inaugural season, Hanco Germishuys, is reportedly not returning for the second season. It’s unclear if he will be the next in line to sign overseas, or if he’ll up in a different MLR jersey.
Houston’s lone announced re-signing is that of flanker Cecil Garber IV. With captain Kyle Sumsion departing to become assistant coach at Army, the Sabercats were wise to shore up their back row. The Sabercats made another big signing in backs coach Paul Emerick.
The former Eagle great will be the head coach of the West Houston Lions, the club acting as the Sabercats’ de facto farm team. Justin Fitzpatrick did most of the coaching on his own in year one, with help from Sam Windsor. Houston should improve with more coaches on board, and Emerick likely won’t be the last addition to the staff.
So far, 10 players from the inaugural MLR season have signed overseas contracts. The latest are Utah’s Kurt Morath and San Diego’s Cam Dolan. Both signed to play in England’s second-tier pro competition, Morath with Doncaster and Dolan with Nottingham.