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Major league Rugby’s highly-anticipated second season kicks off in a couple of weeks. Friday through Sunday, all but one of the league’s nine teams are in preseason action. As week one approaches, watch this space as we examine top storylines, project breakout players and prognosticate the season.
Three big-picture narratives will dominate the MLR’s second go – sustainability, expansion and seasonality. The first column took a dive into sustainability, while the second focuses on expansion.
Two new teams join the fray for 2019; Rugby United New York and the Toronto Arrows. Both took the measured approach, playing exhibition seasons to give themselves a long runway to figure things out. The result is that both clubs are expected to be wildly competitive this year, if not contenders for the title.
How these teams go on and off the pitch this season is important to the league’s viability, as they reside in the top American and Canadian markets, respectively, they’re setting the bar for future expansion clubs, and Saturday they play inside the Buffalo Bills fieldhouse in Orchard Park, N.Y.
The initial signs are positive. New York has secured MCU Park on Coney Island, home of the Mets-affiliated Brooklyn Cyclones. RUNY also landed a huge television deal, with SNY, the television home of the Mets and Jets, beaming nine matches to its eight million viewers throughout the New York City metropolitan area.
The Arrows will split time between two legitimate stadiums this year, playing their first four games at York University’s Alumni Stadium and the latter four at Lamport Stadium, the home of Toronto’s successful, fledgling Rugby League franchise.
Both have inked impressive rosters. Toronto leads the league so far in international caps with 271 spread across 34 players. New York has announced 23 player signings, good for 192 international caps, the third-most in the league.
Bolstering both teams are deep, talented local player pools. Evidenced by the final standings in MLR’s inaugural season, the teams with the best local talent base were the most competitive, and those with fewer nearby resources populated the cellar. Toronto’s lineup might be the most local of the entire league, and New York isn’t short on homegrown talent, either.
In the inaugural season, subpar venues were acceptable, shallow rosters were common, some teams struggled to garner much of a crowd, and most teams employed player/coaches. It was all understandable, being the first year and all.
RUNY and Toronto have good venues, they’ve announced robust staffs, New York’s including Tiff Faaee, the first woman to coach in the league, and quite possibly in men’s professional rugby anywhere. If they draw good crows and end up entering the league as buttoned up as they appear to be, it means the bar has been raised for future expansion teams.
The ongoing subplot throughout the season will be 2020 expansion. The New England Freejacks answered the bell by announcing an exhibition series with the ‘A’ sides of Ireland’s four provinces in March and April. The series will see some of Ireland’s best up-and-comers do battle with New England’s preliminary crew.
Not only is it a homerun in terms of striking a chord with the region’s Irish roots in the effort to drum up some publicity, but it provides the Freejacks a unique scouting opportunity. Like RUNY and Toronto did in 2018, New England can use the exhibitions to evaluate local talent for future contracts, and it gives CEO Alex Magleby and coach Josh Smith a chance to scout potential Irish imports, of which there are many sprinkled throughout the league already.
Eyes will also be on Washington D.C. as the franchise unveils its branding, front office, coaching staff and all the other details, ahead of their 2020 entry. Atlanta and Tiger Rugby are holding a combine next week in Florida, also preparing for launch.
Best to keep tabs on Salt Lake City, too, where the league office resides. Originally, the plan was to expand to 12 teams and freeze, though word is commissioner Dean Howes and deputy Nic Benson may extend the initial number to 14.