I spent 30 years working for daily newspapers, and I don’t think I wrote a single story about rugby during my entire career. In fact, the only times I even used the word was contextually – as in explaining how the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union merged with the Western Interprovincial Football Union to form the Canadian Football League.
However, I’ve become a pretty big fan of the game since my retirement, and thanks to NBC Sports Network’s coverage of Premiership Rugby and Six Nations competition, I’ve gotten up to speed on its rules and a bit of its history.
But being a guy tucked away in the southeastern portion of the United States, I kinda wanted to have a circuit rooted closer to home.
With Major League Rugby, which began its inaugural season last Saturday, now I do.
And I like it a lot.
I watched the debut match on CBS Sports Network, an exciting contest that saw the Glendale (Colorado) Raptors beat Austin Elite, 41-26. And throughout the weekend I tracked the other two games (there are seven active clubs this season, including the Seattle Seawolves, New Orleans Gold, Houston SaberCats, San Diego Legion and Utah Warriors. New York and Dallas entries are expected to join in 2019).
I’m hardly an expert, and I’m sure those who follow rugby closely had some nits to pick, but I was impressed. I thought there was quality across the board and it made me want to put it in my regular sports-watching rotation.
I even decided the NOLA Gold would be my favorite team this year because, well, why not?
I won’t bore your with a rules breakdown; if you’re interested, you can fire up the ol’ Google Machine and find them for yourself. But my favorite sports are association football and American football, and it combines the best elements of both.
I like the fast-pace of the games and how rugby successfully balances brute physicality with great skill.
So why hasn’t pro rugby ever caught on here before?
Although the game itself has been around since the 19th century, it didn’t spawn professional leagues until the 1990s.
So to that end, it’s still in its infancy.
But while it enjoys a strong following throughout much of the rest of the world, it has seemingly been stuck in neutral in the U.S.
Before MLR, a league called PRO Rugby tried to gain a foothold back in 2016. However, that five-team organization lasted just one season.
MLR – which has a single entity structure – has placed flagship franchises in hotbeds of the sport, and is attempting to build on the strong amateur rugby infrastructure of its communities.
The Gold, for example, is spawned from the New Orleans Rugby Football Club, which was formed in 1973 and has won several amateur championships during its existence.
And while there are some international players dotting the rosters (each team is allowed five), there are many more who have come up through the ranks of elite American-based clubs.
The result is a league that is serious about making pro rugby in the United States stick, and I hope MLR has found a recipe for success.
It’s certainly off to ambitious start; landing a TV contract right out of the gate was no small feat.
I plan to watch the Glendale vs. Seattle match on CBSSN this Saturday. In fact, I’m going to try to watch as many contests as I can going forward, because it’s worth my time and interest.
You might discover it’s worth your time and interest, too, if you give it a shot.
It’s a great sport with great players, and perhaps one day it’ll have even more franchises scattered across North America.
In the meantime, Geaux Gold.