Major League Rugby 2021: Your club-by-club guide
AHEAD OF THE START OF THE NEW MAJOR LEAGUE RUGBY (MLR) SEASON, STARTING ON 20 MARCH, WORLD RUGBY and MLR Commentator Dallen Stanford TAKE A LOOK AT THE 12 COMPETING TEAMS. WRITTEN BY WORLD RUGBY.
Major League Rugby enters its fourth season in 2021 and represents the highest level of professional club rugby in North America.
From a roster of seven teams in its inaugural year in 2018, the competition has grown to 12, and now spans the border between the USA and Canada.
The addition of a second Californian team, LA Giltinis, enables the competition to be split evenly into two Conferences of six teams, with the winner of the Eastern and Western Conferences playing off against each other for the title, last won by Seattle Seawolves in 2019.
Some of the most recognizable names in world rugby have already played Major League Rugby in its short history, such as Rugby World Cup-winning duo Ma’a Nonu and Tendai Mtawarira, and France centre Mathieu Bastareaud. The combination of overseas players and home-grown talent has made for an exciting mix.
Former US Sevens star and current MLR commentator, Dallen Stanford, who has been involved in calling games since its inception, cannot wait to see how the season unfolds after the global coronavirus pandemic saw the 2020 campaign cancelled after just five rounds.
“I’m thrilled to see Season Four set to kick-off after a full year without rugby in America,” said Stanford.
“The development of the game in North America has accelerated tremendously with the establishment of Major League Rugby, and in the next few years we will see the positive effects on the national team, who are aiming to reach the Rugby World Cup knockout rounds for the first time in history.”
“I am very excited to see what the expansion team brings to the League,” he added.
“I know Los Angeles is looking to make a massive splash with an exceptional squad recently assembled.
“This year if all goes according to plan, we will see the champion of both Conferences face off for the first time in the MLR final on 1 August, on CBS primetime television. It will truly be East versus West coast.”
Initially called Austin Elite, and then Austin Herd, the club changed its name to Austin Gilgronis. It is inspired by owner Adam Gilchrist’s love of a Negroni, an alcoholic drink, and a Texas-sized cocktail yet to be released!
Their Cowboy-wearing fans love a party, but they have not had much on-field success to celebrate. After finishing fifth out of seven teams in 2018, they propped up the standings in 2019 and were 11th out of 12 in 2020 when the season was brought to a halt.
2019 Finishing Position: Ninth
Home Ground: Bold Stadium (capacity, 5,000)
Team Colours: Orange and White
Head Coach: Sam Harris
Major 2021 signings: Winger Jeff Hassler, scorer of seven tries in 27 tests for Canada, moves across from defending champions the Seawolves. Tight-head Paddy Ryan, who has seven Eagles caps, will anchor the scrum after transferring from New York.
Main rivals: The AGs compete annually with the Houston SaberCats for the Texas Cup.
After consecutive seventh-place finishes in the first two years of the MLR, the SaberCats were bottom of the overall standings with only one win to their name in the curtailed 2020 season.
The SaberCats boast Major League Rugby’s all-time leading scorer, Sam Windsor, and his partnership with De Wet Roos will be key to their prospects. After strengthening their squad, in terms of depth and ability, the SaberCats will be looking to kick on in 2021.
2019 Finishing Position: Seventh
Home Ground: AVEVA Stadium (3,200 all-seated)
Team Colours: Black and Yellow
Head Coach: Paul Healy
Major 2021 signings: Centre/winger Veramu Dikidikitali’s ball-carrying skills and finishing ability made him a mainstay for the Fiji Warriors since 2018, while Zebre winger Paula Balekana will be looking to get amongst the tries again after a lean spell with the Italian strugglers. Both have the capacity to deliver the x-factor the SaberCats need.
Main rivals: The AGs
Californian rugby fans will be raising a glass to welcome the Giltinis, the League’s newcomers who are named after a Martini-based premium cocktail.
Built around multiple trophy-winning Wallaby forward Dave Dennis, the Giltinis have assembled an impressive roster for their debut season in MLR and should hit the ground running. Ex-England prop Alex Corbisiero joins the coaching staff.
The plan is to play home games out of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where the Trojans US Football team play. With a capacity of 70,000, they are thinking big!
2019 Finishing Position: N/A – new expansion for 2021 season.
Home Ground: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Team Colours: Light Blue and Pink
Head Coach: Darren Coleman
2021 signings: The League’s newcomers will look to ex-Wallaby Dave Dennis, a Premiership and Heineken Champions Cup winner with Exeter Chiefs, for leadership. DTH van der Merwe, Canada’s record try-scorer and a veteran of four Rugby World Cups, is another standout name.
Main rivals: San Diego Legion
SAN DIEGO LEGION
As the only unbeaten team after five rounds in 2020, the Legion were looking in good shape to go one better than the previous year when beaten to the MLR Shield in heart-breaking fashion by the Seattle Seawolves.
The pain of losing in the last minute, 26-23, is still keenly felt amongst Legionnaires – the name of the club’s fans – and they’ll be hoping the addition of Chris Robshaw and the input of current England head coach, Eddie Jones, who has been helping out on a consultancy basis, will tip the balance their way.
Ma’a Nonu has left for France but Cecil Afrika, the Blitzbok Sevens star, is another exciting new signing.
2019 Finishing Position: Runners-up
Home Ground: Las Vegas (relocating for the season due to pandemic)
Team Colours: Red and Black
Head Coach: Zack Test/Scott Murray
Major 2021 signings: Chris Robshaw. England’s captain at Rugby World Cup 2015 begins a new adventure after spending all his club career with the world-renowned harlequins club in London. Blitzbokke Sevens star Cecil Afrika is another box-office name.
Main rivals: Step aside, the Seawolves, Legion have a new rival in the LA Giltinis.
The dominant force in Major League Rugby, with back-to-back titles in 2018 and 2019. But the Seawolves were struggling in a lowly 10th position when the 2020 season was cut short as a new-look squad took time to bed in. The need for stability this year perhaps best explains their low-level recruitment during the current off-season.
Seawolves fans are among the best in the business. The Starfire Stadium has been filled a number of times and an army of fans regularly travel to away matches to give their vocal backing.
2019 Finishing Position: Champions
Home Ground: Starfire Stadium (4,500)
Team Colours: Navy Blue, Lime Green, Light Grey and White
Head Coach: Kees Lensing
Major 2021 signings: Ross Neal, a strong-running centre, who has English Premiership experience with Wasps and London Irish, should make a big impression.
Main rivals: San Diego Legion and Toronto Arrows.
Wallaby legend Chris Latham recently resigned his position as head coach and the Warriors go into the new campaign led by former Eagles prop, Shawn Pittman.
Warriors reached the semi-finals in the first MLR season, but they have a record of just four wins from 21 matches across the last two campaigns. Pittman has vowed to shore up a porous defence and make them more difficult to beat.
As for their fans, the Warriors still hold the highest single-match attendance record of 9,186, which was set in 2018 during their first-ever home match. With the Warriors capturing the imagination of the local public, despite the disappointing results, plans for a new 10,000-capacity stadium have been submitted.
2019 Finishing Position: Eighth
Home Ground: Zions Bank Stadium (5,000)
Team Colours: Black and Crimson
Head Coach: Shawn Pittman
Major 2021 signing: Paul Mullen. The US Eagles prop joins from San Diego, where he played all five matches in 2020. Meanwhile, Namibia’s Rugby World Cup 2019 fly-half Cliven Loubser will look to put the team in the right areas and points on the board.
NEW ENGLAND FREE JACKS
Won their first-ever MLR fixture last year, which happened to be against rivals Rugby United New York.
The Free Jacks have not played a home match yet in MLR as the coronavirus pandemic struck just before they were due to host the SaberCats in Weymouth, so fans from the nearby six New England states will be eager to support their team this season
New head coach from New Zealand, Ryan Martin, brings experience from coaching in Super Rugby and Mitre 10 Cup. He has also recruited a host of talented international players, some who qualify for the USA, and with better luck with injuries, they should do well.
2019 Finishing Position: N/A – expansion team for 2020 season.
Home Ground: Union Point Sports Complex, Massachusetts
Team Colours: Red and Blue
Head Coach: Ryan Martin
Major 2021 signings: Tera Mtembu, Pieter Jansen and Xandre Vos come in from South Africa, bringing Super Rugby and Currie Cup experience, along with tough-as-teak Samoan back-row international Jack Ram, while Scotland Sevens standout Dougie Fife will cut a dash out wide.
Main rivals: Rugby United New York
The New Orleans-based team has made steady progress in three years, moving up from sixth in its first year to fifth in 2019, and was handily placed in fourth when the 2020 campaign came to an end.
Leaning on their experiences from further afield, General Manager Ryan Fitzgerald and head coach Nate Osborne have created an environment where players can thrive. The relocation to the north of the Mississippi seems to have gone down well, too.
USA international Cam Dolan scored a hat-trick on the opening day and was on four tries in five appearances when a line was drawn under the 2020 season
2019 Finishing Position: Fifth
Home Ground: The Gold Mine (10,000)
Team Colours: Gold and White
Head Coach: Nate Osborne
Major 2021 signings: Recruitment has mainly focused on the US market but Namibian international scrum-half Damian Stevens should add something different to the mix.
Main rivals: ATL
OLD GLORY DC
After all the fanfare surrounding the signing of Rugby World Cup-winning prop, Tendai ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira, Old Glory have kept things very low key this time around in terms of recruitment.
Re-signing fly-half Jason Robertson is a major plus, however. The New Zealand native was the club’s top point-scorer last season and returns from a spell back home in his native New Zealand.
Old Glory were flying high in 2020 and were only behind San Diego and Toronto in the standings when their debut MLR season finished five rounds in.
2019 Finishing Position: N/A – expansion team for 2020 season.
Home Ground: Sega Field (5,000)
Team Colours: Red, White and Blue
Head Coach: Andrew Douglas
Major 2021 signing: Canadian test centre Dynamic number eight Luke Campbell joins from Toronto Arrows to add further competition to an already well-stacked back-row.
Main rivals: Old Glory play against Austin Giltinis annually for the Cuisine Solutions Cup
Atlanta’s sporting pedigree is on the up and now rugby wants part of the action.
The city recently hosted the Super Bowl and NFL team, the Atlanta Falcons, are a rising force in the game, as are Atlanta United in Major League Soccer.
Now entering their second season, Rugby ATL managed wins against Utah – coming back from a big first-half deficit – and Old Glory, in their five hit-outs in 2020.
A young squad largely made up of locally-based players, laced with South African know-how, will look to kick on this season and do the city proud.
2019 Finishing Position: N/A – expansion team for 2020 season.
Home Ground: Lupo Field, Life University
Team Colours: Black, Silver and Red
Head Coach: Scott Lawrence
Major 2021 signings: College star Ryan Rees may not be a household name but the all-American is rated as one of the brightest scrum-half prospects in the country. Pumas centre/wing Bautista Ezcurra will add a touch of class to the midfield.
Main rivals: NOLA Gold
RUGBY UNITED NEW YORK
Injuries and the non-arrival of several new signings due to visa issues conspired against New York in 2020.
Ably led by captain Dylan Fawsitt, and with former England back Ben Foden an ever-present in the starting line-up, New York still managed three wins despite only having home-field advantage in one of their five fixtures.
The baseball diamond at MCU Park remains their home ground for now, but the club’s ownership has been vocal in his desire to look for alternative venues outside of Brooklyn.
2019 Finishing Position: Fourth
Home Ground: MCU Park
Team Colours: Navy and Orange
Head Coach: Greg McWilliams
Major 2021 signings: In losing one big player, mammoth centre/number eight Mathieu Bastareaud, New York have gained another – former All Blacks and Crusaders scrum-half Andy Ellis. Even at 36, Ellis recently said, “his body has never felt better”.
Main rivals: New England and Toronto regionally. And San Diego who beat NY in the 2019 Championship Series Semi-Finals.
With Dan Moor scoring tries and Sam Malcolm kicking his goals, Toronto Arrows were flying high at the top of the Eastern Conference when their debut season was cut short.
An already impressive squad has been strengthened further, right across the board, with 56-cap Puma Joaquin Tuculet the most notable addition.
Had it not been for the handicap of playing their home matches on neutral territory, you’d have expected them to repeat last season’s fast start. Unfortunately, the current public health situation means they will not be able to kick-off the season in front of their home fans in Toronto, with the club playing out of Rugby ATL’s ground instead.
2019 Finishing Position: Third
Home Ground: Sharing with Rugby ATL
Team Colours: Blue and White
Director of Rugby: Chris Silverthorn
Major 2021 signings: The arrival of coaching consultant Rob Howley captured most headlines. Howley was an integral part of the successful Wales setup under Warren Gatland and also with the British and Irish Lions.
Main rivals: In the West, Seattle Seawolves because it’s the two teams full of Canadian players. In the East, Rugby United New York because they were the other expansion team in 2019.
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