Rugby

Try, try again: Major League Rugby seeks firm US foothold

2018-04-22 16:16

Los Angeles - Major League Rugby, the latest attempt at launching a top-flight rugby union league in the United States, kicked off its inaugural season on Saturday with confidence of a long-lasting impact.

The Glendale Raptors of suburban Denver downed visiting Austin Elite 41-26 and NOLA Gold of New Orleans defeated the host Houston SaberCats 36-25 in the openers of the seven-team circuit's 10-week regular season.

"Following two years of challenging background work to lay the foundation for MLR, we finally get to see the fruits of our labor," Raptors general manager Mark Bullock said in a posting on the MLR website. "It's better than we can imagine."

The San Diego Legion will visit the Seattle Seawolves on Sunday. The Utah Warriors debut next week and a New York expansion team opens in 2019.

"Years from now, people will be looking back on this opening weekend of Major League Rugby as the notable inflection point that would fuel American Rugby's emergence on to the world stage," said Warriors general manager Kimball Kjar, a former USA Eagles scrum half.

"Those may seem like very heady words but the commercial and athletic potentials of the American sports market, as they pertain to rugby, will only be realized with a smart and scalable business approach to professional rugby like the MLR."

MLR uses a single-entity model similar to that of Major League Soccer, teams sharing ownership in the league. Each has a $350,000 salary cap with ESPN and CBS Sports as telecast partners.

"We fully expect the quality of play will be awesome and the excitement will build across the MLR season," SaberCats co-founder Jeremy Turner said.

MLR follows a failed 2016 attempt to establish a US league, with PRO Rugby lasting only one season with five clubs.

"MLR is grateful to PRO, and to anyone else who have invested time and energy to grow the American game," an MLR spokesman told AFP. "Ultimately, MLR believes in its model because it draws on the strength of American rugby and its existing infrastructure in a way those that came before us did not."

The US rugby community and private investors provide an elite home outlet for USA Eagles talent such as Todd Clever, the former US captain who is the most capped American in history.

In 2009, Clever became the first American player in Super Rugby with the South African Lions squad, He also played for the Newcastle Falcons in the 2015-16 English Premiership campaign.

But on Saturday, at age 35, he took the field for Austin and after the game tweeted, "I try, I try and I try again. This game is just too much fun!"

Clever has helped with player recruitment and to boost off-field support for MLR.

"I have really enjoyed the business side of rugby, and I thought my playing days were over, but I do have a rubber arm when it comes to playing," Clever said in a posting on the Elite website. "To be part of Major League Rugby as a player is really special."

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