Good Things Come In Threes: MLR Season 3 Preview
Originally published on The Runner Sports.
This Sunday, most American sports fans will have their TVs tuned to the Super Bowl. But, when the final whistle blows, the pigskin will go back into the shed for the next seven months. It’s time for the other oval ball. Prepare for season three of Major League Rugby, America’s burgeoning professional rugby league.
Let’s Get Ready to Scrummage
Fans saw a significant upgrade in skill and quality between MLR’s first and second seasons. If that is any basis for judgment, this season will feature some class rugby. The truth is, these athletes are still fairly new to the professional rugby setup, which entails more training and more coaching than anything the majority of them are likely to have experienced before. That has pros and cons, but on the plus side, we should expect to see continued significant skill growth in these early years.
In addition to skill growth, season three aptly brings us three more expansion teams. After last year’s introduction of Rugby United New York and the Toronto Arrows, who both made the playoffs, fans will be watching to see if these newcomers can fare as well.
In 2020, the New England Free Jacks, the Old Glory DC and Rugby ATL (Atlanta) enter the fray. Each has been busy in the preseason, fashioning their respective brands of rugger and establishing systems.
The Free Jacks have mostly been beating up on local club sides. Though they did push RUNY to the final whistle in a scrimmage immediately after formulating, the 2020 preseason has seen some lopsided scores dropped on the New England Independents. Led by Tadhg Leader, capped Eagle, at fly-half, and Japanese prop Kensuke Hatakeyama, the Free Jacks bring a respectable pedigree into the season. MLR fans may also recognize Timothee Guillimin, formerly of the former Austin Elite Rugby, who saw some preseason action in the nine shirt after first appearing in MLR as a fly-half. Deion Mikesell, who took man of the match honors against the Independents, also bears watching.
Moving down the I-95 corridor, Old Glory has the sense of a more traditional expansion team, replete with names from all across the MLR landscape. Familiar faces like Jake Turnbull (prop), Api Naikatini (lock), Travis Larsen (loose forward), Thretton Palamo (center) and Dylan Taikato-Simpson (fullback) featured as starters in Old Glory’s scrimmage against Rugby ATL this past weekend. A scrimmage which, by the way, they would win in a second half landslide. As it happens, none of those faces play halfback. Danny Tusitala and Mike Dabulas (who wears number 22… apparently?) started at 9 and 10 respectively this week. Those are more unknown entities and Old Glory will be out to prove that they have the leadership and generalship to fashion these tools into a weapon that can contend in the East. But they do have the benefit of an incredible international signing. More on that later.
Then, continuing down south, Rugby ATL finishes out our list of expansion teams. Unsurprisingly, as they are co-located in Atlanta with one of the most prodigious collegiate rugby programs (Life University), Rugby ATL has a decidedly collegiate feel. Perhaps more so than any other MLR side, their ranks are filled with products of the American college system like front rowers Jamie Ferrante, Chance Wenglewski (Eagle #531) and Alex Maughan (Eagle #508). The hog mollies are joined by Duncan Van Schalkwyk, the standout halfback at Life who is currently listed as a scrum-half. And who could forget the two great Harleys –Harley Davidson from the Colorado Raptors and Harley Wheeler, 2018 Rudy Scholz Award winner (aka the Heisman of collegiate rugby) with Life. Even Ross Deacon, who sees his third team in three seasons, has origins with Life. How their brand of rugby fares against the other MLR sides will be an informative clue towards the state of college rugby in America.
When the signing of Matthieu Bastareaud was announced, it was a big deal. But it turned out to only be the beginning. Since then, marquee international signings have come cascading in.
Ma’a Nonu, a New Zealand All Black center and two time Rugby World Cup winner (2011 and 2015), will join the San Diego Legion this season. Already well-stocked in the backfield, Nonu should be a centerpiece in what is sure to be a formidable attacking side. In his 13 years playing with the All Blacks, Nonu racked up 155 points. That compares very favorable to a Bastareaud, who has 25 points with the French senior national team, and Ben Foden, who has scored 35 for England. Whether or not any MLR defenses have the tools to slow Nonu remains to be seen.
But Ma’a Nonu is not the only All Black center crossing the Pacific. Rene Ranger, All Black from 2010-2013, will carry for the Raptors this year. After rumors circulated suggesting Colorado might withdraw from MLR altogether, they did a 180 and announced one of the biggest signings of the offseason. While Ranger didn’t have quite the scoring history of Nonu, he is nonetheless known as an aggressive and talented ball-carrier who will have few peers in the league. It is a timely addition for Colorado, who is looking to rebound from a down 2019.
But the biggest signing of the offseason was the addition of Tendai Mtawarira, known simply as “Beast,” to DC. Beast is a South African international and winner of the 2019 World Cup. He is the fifth most capped prop of all time and by far the most experienced and threatening prop to wear an MLR shirt to date. In a league where good scrummaging teams have exploited poor scrummaging teams, he may prove to be a decisive addition to the expansion Old Glory.
Going into the season, this promises to be the most complex year of MLR yet. Savvy fans will want to track the progress of three key themes as the season advances.
Impact of Expansion
In 2018, MLR began with seven teams. In 2020, that number has exploded to 12. Even last year, when the tally moved up to nine, skeptics insisted that the additional teams would diminish the quality of play as the limited local talent became spread too thin. While that didn’t happen in 2019, it still could in 2020. Another 33% increase in rosters this year will give skeptics even more cause for concern. While their unfounded naysaying last year is keeping a similar sentiment from spreading in 2020, you can bet that they will be watching keenly for enough evidence to bring their case back before the jury.
Traditionally, American sports are separated into regional conferences. It is a sensible decision in a country as large as ours for many reasons. Playing more local teams limits travel costs and increases rivalries. Both of those things are good for business. In 2020, MLR will follow suit, instituting East and West Conferences for the first time. That will conclude with a six-team playoff where seeds #2 and #3 from each conference will face off for a chance to play the conference winner. Then, the winner of that fixture will advance to play the champion of the other conference in the grand finale.
I’m expecting this system to bear fruit immediately. In a league where cash flows look scarce, this was probably the lowest hanging fruit for improving them in the short-term. Any contest between a New York and a New England (cough cough Boston) will almost surely draw more fans and TV eyeballs than New York versus Utah, regardless of the sport being played. And, now that conference championships are a thing, that gives teams another marketing device to employ. With MLR badly in need of marketing, fans will be hoping these developments make a positive economic impact.
After 2018, some domestic MLR stars like Paul Lasike were drawn into overseas contracts and whether or not this was good for the league became a hot debate topic. 2020 sees that question flipped on its head. As internationals arrive on scene, rugby fans will continue evaluating what it means for the future of the sport in America. Will it become a “retirement” league, as Major League Soccer is sometimes called? Or will it become something more diverse, able to draw from a wide pool of players for a wide variety of reasons?
Naturally, the biggest rugby talents reside overseas. When superstars join the league, that should generate excitement. But they are also, presumably, more expensive to recruit than college Americans. And while their experience can be transferred to the local game, their presence could block the rise of local talent. All told, it’s unclear if the investment required will outweigh the benefits of their presence. Teams and supporters alike will continue to judge these issues as the year plays out.
With more storylines than ever before, MLR is not easy to predict. But we’re going to give it a try. I’ve already made my bold predictions for the season, but here are some more classic predictions:
2020 Champion: San Diego Legion. Just too much talent. They fell short last year but the Nonu signing should put them over the edge.
2020 Runner-Up: Toronto Arrows. These guys look dangerous. With a year of MLR experience behind them and a little easier of a travel schedule this time around, I’m not sure anyone in the East can beat them.
2020 Most Improved: Austin Herd. Rebranded and repairing the relationship with the local community, Austin nearly offed Colorado in a preseason fixture. They can’t get much worse than they were in 2019, but I think they’ll get a lot better.
For Major League Rugby 2020.
Highlights from the San Diego Legion hosting the New England Free Jacks
Highlights from Rugby ATL hosting Rugby United New York in week three
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