OPENING WEEKEND FIXTURES :
(Irish KO times):
Saturday 20th March
San Diego Legion v Rugby United New York – Cashman Field – 10pm
Los Angeles Giltinis v New England Free Jacks – Memorial Coliseum – 10:30pm
Rugby Atlanta v Toronto Arrows – Lupo Family Field – 11pm
Houston Sabercats v Seattle Seawolves – Aveva Stadium – Midnight
Austin Gilgronis v Utah Warriors – Bold Stadium – Midnight
Sunday 21st March
New Orleans Gold v Old Glory DC – The Gold Mine – 8pm
All games available for free on The Rugby Network website and app.
12 teams, two conferences of 6. Top 2 in each playoff for the conference championship, two winners advance to league final on August 1st.
PREVIOUS WINNERS :
SEATTLE SEAWOLVES (2018 & 2019)
(2020 season was cancelled due to pandemic)
RULE CHANGES BEING TRIALLED THIS SEASON :
• Kickers will have 60 seconds as opposed 90 seconds for any kick (conversion/penalty) and will have a kick clock to help guide them. • Seven points will be automatically awarded for any try scored directly under the posts and no conversion will be necessary. • Referees will work with stricter protocols that will limit the number of scrums to two per incident – the original plus one reset for a collapse, penalty, or freekick. • The offside line will be the feed line/channel of the scrum to allow for unimpeded access to the ball at the back of the scrum for the attacking team. • No longer will a red card mean a team plays a man down for the remainder of the match. Under the new law a red card would lead to a player being sent off and the team goes down to 14 players for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, the player can be replaced with another player on the bench. The red carded players cannot return to the field in any event and will go through subsequent disciplinary procedures.
TEAM-BY-TEAM PROFILES :
Head Coach: Sam Harris
Captain: Zinzan Elan-Puttick
Stadium: Bold Stadium (5,000) Austin, Texas
Irish interest: Ned Hodson (centre)
What’s a Gilgroni you ask? Well, I asked the same question and it turns out the answer is… well… nothing. The club were only formed in 2017 and were initially the Austin Elite before a name change to the Austin Herd at the end of the 2019 season and when the club was bought over last year by an Australian consortium led by gym tycoon Adam Gilchrist (not the cricketer) they changed to their current name. The best explanation for the bizarre moniker is that Gilchrist enjoys a Negroni cocktail and put his name in front of it – yea… However, in the world of North American sports where commercialism is king, it maybe shouldn’t come as such a shock.
The hope is that the marketing kick will jolt the club into life after a dismal 2019 season where Austin won precisely zero games out of 16 and struggled to attract four-figure crowds. For a man basically using the team as his own personal branding tool, it would be expected that Gilchrist give something back in terms of investment and, in fairness, he has. Canadian international and former-Ospreys winger Jeff Hassler joins from Seattle while his international teammate Reegan O’Gorman also signed on. South African pair Robbie Coetzee and Sebastian de Chaves arrived from the Lions and London Irish respectively. American international Bryce Campbell also arrived from Irish and Eagles prop Paddy Ryan adds some more local flavour to the team.
Arguably the biggest signing is that of New Zealander lock Isaac Ross who has flown into the Texan capital after a stint in Japan. He will join his fellow All Blacks Frank Halai and Jamie Macintosh at Bold Stadium and, on paper, the Gilgronis look to have a much more competitive squad this season. Their home stadium has also changed as the team will be sharing Bold Stadium with minor league soccer club Austin Bold. The ground sits across the street from the famous Circuit of the Americas and the squad led by former duel-code star Sam Harris – another new addition - will be hoping local crowds won’t have to drink too many cocktails to make them watchable!
Head Coach: Paul Healy
Captain: De Wet Roos
Stadium: Aveva Stadium (3,200) Houston, Texas
Irish interest: Charlie Connolly (Prop)
The Gilgronis’ Texas Cup rivals do not quite have the same star power as their in-state rivals or other clubs around the league but they do have a solid core that will make them difficult to beat in 2021. The club was coached by former Ulster prop Justin Fitzpatrick from 2017-2019 and is now led by Australian Paul Healy who has had a nomadic coaching career that has taken him to Houston via Paris, Swansea, Chile and Germany.
A name most Irish rugby fans will recognise is Cats’ out half Sam Windsor. The former Ulster man is the all-time leading scorer in MLR’s fledgling history and leads the Houston backline. He will have Fijian centre Veramu Dikidikilati next to him up the middle and the new arrival has looked impressive in pre-season giving much-needed bite in an otherwise sparse back division.
Up front is where the Sabercats impress and the arrival of Georgian international prop Nikoloz Khatiashvili and second row Kody O’Neil add more steel to an already-monstrous pack. Locks Kyle Breytenbach and Jeremy Lenaerts have opted out of the 2021 season which means the engine room depth chart is slightly bare but the pack will need to be firing on all cylinders if the Sabercats are to make a run on the playoffs. At the very least, they can potentially lay claim to the most picturesque grounds in the charming Aveva Stadium (not quite the same as the Aviva Stadium).
Los Angeles Giltinis
Head Coach: Darren Coleman
Captain: Dave Dennis
Stadium: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (77,500) Los Angeles, California
Irish interest: Sean McNulty (Hooker), Harry McNulty (Flanker), Luke Carty (Out Half)
Surely Adam Gilchrist and co. can only get away with naming one team after his fantasy personalised cocktail, right? Wrong! The arrival in 2021 of the glitzy Los Angeles Giltinis means that one sixth of the league is now owned by the Loyals Rugby group and named after an alcoholic beverage. The fact that MLR waived rules on one ownership group being involved in multiple teams raised a few eyebrows but, regardless, the Giltinis are here and they are as garish and gaudy as you would expect from a new team looking to make their mark in la-la land.
From their baby blue and powder pink colours to the big money signings to the fact they recently announced plans to play in the mammoth Memorial Coliseum, LA are determined to make a big impact. The Australian ownership group can be felt throughout the club with coach Darren Coleman joined on the pitch by two Australian rugby legends Matt Giteau and Adam Ashley-Cooper. While these two are undoubtedly in the autumn – if not winter – of their career, it was a real coup to lure them both to Hollywood.
Fellow Aussie and Exeter Chiefs stalwart Dave Dennis will captain the side while Adam Ashe and Glenn Bryce have both left Glasgow to sign on to Gilchrist’s project. Another man who is well known around Scotstoun who will tog out in LA is Canadian legend DTH van der Merwe. The McNulty brothers Sean and Harry – an Irish 7s international – are also on board as is out half Luke Carty. Carty is the younger brother of Connacht out half Jack and qualifies for the US through his New York-born grandmother and he is certainly one worth watching in this team full of stars.
It’s not all overseas superstars and a couple of American internationals to look out for are back rowers Pago Haini and Langilangi Haupeakui who has been described as a ‘human wrecking ball’. These two will combine with Ashe to form a destructive back row. Former England international-turned pundit-turned coach Alex Corbisiero will be in charge of the scrum in LA and with a mix of an international who’s-who combined with exciting American talent, the Giltinis could be the real deal. It will be enthralling to see either way.
San Diego Legion
Head Coach: Scott Murray & Zack Test
Captain: Joe Pietersen
Stadium: Torero Stadium (6,000) San Diego, California (Playing matches in Las Vegas in 2021)
Irish interest: Cronan Gleeson (Prop), Ben Mitchell (Second Row)
Another side playing their home games outside of their home city this year is the San Diego Legion. This has nothing to do with border restrictions but rather the team announced in January that they would be moving their home away from San Diego due to the high COVID-19 numbers in San Diego County and Southern California as a whole. They have, instead made their home in 2021 at Cashman Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada which they will share with soccer club Las Vegas Lights.
The beaten finalists in 2019 will be hoping that this will not impact them too much and they have made two of the most note-worthy additions of any MLR side this year. Former Harlequins and England captain Chris Robshaw will be togging out in the red and black while arguably the greatest 7s player of all time, South Africa’s Cecil Afrika has also joined Scott Murray and Zack Test’s men and is expected to wear the number 15 jersey. Warning to all other teams – kick loosely against San Diego at your peril!
A not-insignificant subtraction from the Legion was that of Ma’a Nonu. The legendary former All Blacks centre played all of two games in his first and only MLR season last year before the season was cancelled and he has since returned to his former club Toulon. Despite their temporary relocation from surfing country to the desert, the Legion are hotly tipped to go far this year and on paper you can see why.
Rugby is, of course, not played on paper but the squad list is packed with international talent from Italy’s Joshua Furno; Argentina’s Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias; Canada’s Josh Thiel; South Africa’s Bjorn Basson and a whole host of American internationals plus the afore-mentioned Robshaw and Afrika.
San Diego will be hoping that new signing from the Waratahs, Cam Clark can help fill Nonu’s sizeable gap in midfield while captain and out half Joe Pietersen is a key cog in their machine. Up front, experienced US internationals Chris Baumann and Tevita Tameilau are joined by Furno and Robshaw while Afrika is not the only reduced numbers star as Fijian Jasa Veremalua will be a dangerous ball-playing back rower in the Leone Nakarawa mold.
If Legion can get used to their new surroundings, they will be a tough team to beat this season.
Head Coach: Kees Lensing
Captain: Riekert Hattingh
Stadium: Starfire Sports (3,800) Tukwila, Washington
Irish interest: Kieran Joyce (Centre), David Busby (Wing)
The 2019 champion Seattle Seawolves – not to be confused with their NFL cousins the Seahawks - are still the team to beat. There will be plenty who will be gunning for their crown this year and Kees Lensing’s men will have a big target on their back. A lot of teams have recruited heavily and spent vast sums but the Seawolves’ motto seems to have been “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. They have made some astute signings including former Malone and Connacht centre Kieran Joyce who joins from Birmingham Mosely and he will join former Ulster winger David Busby who signed last year so will be hoping to get a full season under his belt and is dangerous out wide.
One to watch is centre Joey Iosefa who was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2015 NFL draft and played for the New England Patriots before deciding to switch to rugby in 2018. He is sure to be a hard-running and dangerous ball carrier. Also in the backline is 41-test USA Eagle Shalom Suniula who will bring all of his experience to the table.
Up front, there is also plenty of experience and talent guided by No.8 and captain, South African Riekert Hattingh and his countryman second row Rhyno Herbst has joined this off-season from the Lions. US international Andrew Durutalo joins Hattingh in the back row while up front the scrum is anchored by two experienced Canadian internationals in Jake Ilnicki and Djustice Sears-Duru who have almost 100 caps between them. Between them in the scrum will be a new arrival in Namibian international hooker Obert Nortje. All of this makes for a seriously intimidating pack who will provide a platform to the backline that contains the above-mentioned players plus some exciting names such as former Bristol and England 7s man Matthew Turner and New Zealand-born USA scrum half Devereaux Ferris who made the journey up the west coast from San Diego to the Pacific Northwest.
It’s clear to see that it will be a real wrestling match to take the Major League Rugby trophy away from the Emerald City this year.
Head Coach: Shawn Pittman
Captain: Bailey Wilson
Stadium: Zions Bank Stadium (5,000) Herriman, Utah
Irish interest: Matthew Dalton (Second Row), Paul Mullen (Prop)
The Utah Warriors were founding members of MLR but it is fair to say they haven’t quite made their mark in the competition yet and in the last full season completed in 2019, they won just two of their 16 games – both against Austin. This year, they will be hoping that will change and with a new head coach in former USA international Shawn Pittman they will be hoping for a fresh start.
Former Ulster second row Matthew Dalton has joined along with Namibian out half Cliven Loubser from Leeds who will compete for the 10 shirt with German international Hagen Schulte. Arguably the two biggest additions both came from San Diego Legion in USA internationals Mike Te’o and Paul Mullen. The latter of those two was born in the Aran Islands and played rugby at Glenstal Abbey and King’s College and represented Munster at age grade level before moving to study at Texas A&M University.
Other American internationals include Mullen’s front row colleagues Olive Kilifi and Angus MacLellan, second row Matt Jensen and in the backs Te’o and Josh Whippy who came through the ranks at local university Brigham Young. There is plenty of home-country experience and a dash of international flavour with exciting Samoan centre Rodney Iona, former Western Province back rower Jurie van Vuuren and captain, Australian Bailey Wilson.
Pittman will be hoping he can implement his ideas and the team responds. If that is the case, there is room for optimism in the Beehive state.
New Orleans (NOLA) Gold
Head Coach: Nathan Osborne
Captain: Kyle Baillie
Stadium: The Gold Mine (10,000) Metairie, Louisiana
Irish Interest: Pat O’Toole (Hooker)
In a land famous for Mardi Gras, gumbo, jazz music and the bayous lurks NOLA Gold rugby and they have been waiting since June 2019 to right the wrongs of their campaign that year. After a strong start, the side collapsed, losing their last four games by an average of just seven points and ended up missing the playoffs. Another side coached by an Australian and Nathan Osborne’s squad is largely American talent with a sprinkling of Southern Hemisphere flair thrown in.
NOLA did not go crazy in the recruiting front this year and have largely the same core from the 2020 season that never happened. One addition that rugby fans on Ireland’s west coast may be familiar with is that of Pat O’Toole. The Mayo-born front rower has since gone on to represent the American Eagles but it was with the eagles of Connacht that he made his first breakthrough. O’Toole learned his trade at Westport RFC and represented Ireland U19 before leaving Connacht in 2018 to join San Diego Legion and this will be his third MLR club after representing Houston in 2019 before returning to Ireland to briefly play for Garryowen.
The side is captained by Canadian second rower Kyle Baillie and he is joined in the engine room by Samoan international veteran Kane Thompson – a grizzly pairing if ever you saw one! The pack is rounded off by another experienced campaigner in American international No.8 Cam Dolan.
It’s not just up front where NOLA look dangerous as former Australia 7s international Robbie Coleman will marshall a backline that contains Argentinian outside backs Juan Cappiello and Julian Dominguez. Much of the rest of the club’s recruitment this off-season came from American universities and colleges but with not much by way of exits, the hope is that the stability of the squad can push them into the playoffs and erase the memory of 2019. Will the lack of big names be a help or hindrance? Only time will tell.
New England Free Jacks
Head Coach: Ryan Martin
Captain: Josh Larsen
Stadium: Union Point Stadium (2,000) Weymouth, Massachusetts
Irish Interest: Conor Kindregan (Second Row), Ronan McCusker (Second Row), John Poland (Scrum Half)
Unsurprisingly for a team from New England, the Free Jacks have strong links with Ireland. They joined Major League Rugby in time for the 2020 season so this will be, all being well, their first full season in the league but in 2019 they played a number of exhibition games against Irish sides. Defeats against all four provincial second strings came in March and April of that year before a victory against a touring Lansdowne side capped off their year. That game and the one against Munster A were played at the Irish Cultural Centre GAA field in the suburbs of Boston.
Irish links aside, it could be a tough start to the year for the Jacks. There has been a large overhaul of players and coaching staff with new head coach Ryan Martin arriving from Otago and bringing a raft of fresh faces with him. Centre Aleki Morris-Lomer and out half Harrison Boyle followed him from the south island and the latter of the two will be sure to have American fans and selectors watching. The 6”4’ 21 year old is US qualified and will be looking to impress. Another US qualified player arriving from overseas is Harry Barlow from Harlequins. He has represented England at age grade rugby but with a San Francisco-born father, he has his sights set on international honours stateside.
Two more impressive additions are that of Scottish international winger Dougie Fife and Sharks captain Tera Mtembu so not all is lost for New England but with their schedule giving them a lot of tough away games to begin the season and a squad potentially taking time to gel, it could be a difficult year.
One story to come out of the club is that of former out half and Galway’s own Tadgh Leader. The US-capped out half took to kicking American Footballs during last season’s shutdown and has taken a sabbatical from rugby to pursue it full time and we all wish him well in this endeavour!
Old Glory DC
Head Coach: Andrew Douglas
Captain: Mason Mungo & Thretton Palamo
Stadium: Segra Field (5,000) Leesburg, Virginia
Irish Interest: Jamie Dever (Prop)
The first thing to know about the club from the nation’s capital that may sway your opinion one way or another is that the Scottish Rugby Union owns a minority interest in the team. So, if you’re still reading I can tell you all about the most patriotic-looking team in the league with their stars and stripes emblazoned shirts. They can also lay claim to, in my humble opinion, the best-named player in the league in prop Hannibal Vaivao.
Another club who will be hoping 2021 will be their first full season in Major League Rugby after joining prior to the ill-fated 2020 season. They actually started last season very well with four wins from five including one against the previous year’s champions Seattle so they will be looking to build on that this year.
Kiwi coach Andrew Douglas is in charge so it is no surprise that the squad is a mix of locals and southern hemisphere stars. Up front, co-captain and former Scotland 7s international Mason Mungo provides bite in the back row and former Harlequins second row Stan South is an experienced campaigner. The retirement of Tendai ‘the beast’ Mtawarira without even getting a full season in Washington DC was a blow but that opens a gap for Westport’s Jamie Dever as the former Connacht prop has signed on from San Diego Legion.
Any team that are going to go through the middle of Old Glory are going to have to earn it with Canadian international veteran Ciaran Hearn and the other co-captain Thretton Palamo in the centre. The pair make for a big-hitting, hard-carrying duo and will make look to make space for the tricky Renata Roberts-Tenana at full back.
The club will be hoping their move to nearby Virginia will bring them success this year as they have formed a link with MLS side DC United (Segra Field is the home of DC United’s minor league affiliate Louden United). In a competitive division, Douglas and co. will hope that their experience can take them far.
Head Coach: Scott Lawrence
Captain: Matt Heaton & Ryan Nell
Stadium: Lupo Family Field (2,500) Marietta, Georgia
Irish interest: Sean Coughlan (Centre)
The boys from the Deep South will be hoping that 2021 can be their year after a mixed bag in the shortened 2020 season. As previously mentioned, they will be ground-sharing with the Arrows this year but the hope is that that is where the generosity ends. A narrow win in pre-season against the Utah Warriors suggests there is room for optimism this year but with very little else to go on and with very little recruitment outside of American colleges, it’s quite difficult to gauge where ATL will be by the end of the season.
The club is known as the ‘snake pit’ and their fans ‘the rattlers’ so at the very least they probably have the best nickname in the league. One name that did stand out in their recruitment – and not just because of the length of it - is that of Dutch-born prop Jonas Petrakopoulos. The 21-year old was released by RUNY and was snapped up quickly by Atlanta. His signing is seen as a shrewd under-the-radar addition and he is also US-qualified so eyes will definitely be on him this year.
ATL are another side with co-captains and former-Western Province centre Ryan Nell and Canadian flanker Matt Heaton form an experienced leadership duo. Heaton grabbed attention at the 2019 World Cup putting in a 14-tackle performance against New Zealand and scoring his first international try against South Africa.
A man who may be starting in the centre alongside Nell is former Blackrock College and Lansdowne man Sean Coughlan. In 2017, he moved to Life University to study which is where Rugby ATL have made their home so he was picked up very quickly and, like many others mentioned, his time out there has allowed him to be US-qualified so if he puts in some big performances this year, he may catch the eye of USA Director of Rugby, Gary Gold.
Argentinian 7s international Bautista Ezcurra has also signed on for more competition in the backline so Atlanta could be a dark horse this year with a lot of surprises up their sleeve.
Rugby United New York
Head Coach: Marty Veale
Captain: Dylan Fawsitt
Stadium: MCU Park (7,000) Brooklyn, New York
Irish interest: Cathal Marsh (outhalf), Dylan Fawsitt (Hooker), James Rochford (Prop), Evan Mintern (No.8), Will Leonard (Centre)
In the city that never sleeps, a new sport has awoken and Rugby United New York are the real deal. While they still have a while to go to match the some of the other sporting behemoths in the Big Apple such as the Knicks, Rangers, Yankees or Mets, RUNY are showing everyone that, while the Giants and Jets of the NFL play across the Hudson River in New Jersey, a hard physical game is being played in the city without the need for pads!
With the big city lights, there were sure to be some big names involved and Ben Foden continues to be the marquee man in Brooklyn. Mathieu Basteraud – who put the big in Big Apple – returned to France this year to play for Lyon and in June 2019 the rumour mill went into overdrive when recently-retired Springbok legend Francois Louw was pictured holding the navy and orange jersey with his name and number 7 on it but it turned out he had just visited the club and the social media men just wanted to get a bit more traction on the Twitter page.
Like many MLR clubs, RUNY made a slew of new signings including Fiji 7s star Apenisa Cakaubalavu, Brazilian international prop Wilton Rebolo and another Cork Con man in Evan Mintern. Mintern suffered the same visa-related fate as his fellow Con teammate Jason Higgins (see above) but is now legal and ready to play. However, the two most notable additions are a pair of New Zealanders in former All Black scrum half Andy Ellis and Auckland Blues and Maori back rower Kara Pryor.
The 36 year-old Ellis will marshal a backline that consists of the afore-mentioned Cakaubalavu, Foden and another ex 7s star in New Zealand’s Fa’asui Fuatai. This is sure to light up MCU Park which they share with minor league baseball’s Brooklyn Cyclones (hence the red infield markings on the turf). The stadium is on the famous Coney Island which is known for its funfair as well as hosting the annual Nathan’s hot dog eating competition.
Up front, Irish-born US international Dylan Fawsitt captains the side. Fawsitt was born in Wexford and played AIL for both Greystones and St. Mary’s before moving to the US to study in 2014 and he has not looked back since. The pack also contains those new additions Pryor, Rebolo and Mintern – who will compete for the 8 jersey with US-qualified Argentinian Benjamin Bonasso. Eagles locks Nick Civetta and Nate Brakeley will be in the engine room meaning that the New Yorkers will be in fine fettle across the park to make another run on the playoffs in 2021.
Head Coach: Chris Silverthorn
Captain: Lucas Rumball
Stadium: Lamport Stadium (9,600) Toronto, Ontario (Ground-sharing with Rugby Atlanta in 2021 due to border restrictions between Canada and USA)
Irish interest: Jason Higgins (scrum half)
Canada’s lone representative in MLR might be forgiven for thinking that global warming has hit the usually-frigid Toronto a little harder this year when they play their home games at Lupo Family Field in Georgia! Whether this will have a positive or negative impact on them remains to be seen but like their basketball, football and baseball brethren from the same city, the Arrows will be nomads this year.
Toronto joined the competition prior to the 2019 season and made the play-offs at the first attempt, losing in the semi-finals to eventual champions Seattle. Their bizarre schedule saw them play their 8 away games first followed by their 8 home games to finish the season. The best explanation I can think of for this is that they wanted to avoid the afore-mentioned and infamous Toronto winters as the season started in January that year! Whatever the reason, after alternating wins and losses for their first nine games, they won their last seven to steamroll into the playoffs – quite the contrast to NOLA.
The Arrows are guided by Ontario’s own Chris Silverthorn and he is joined by Canadian rugby legend Aaron Carpenter and former Wales scrum half and coach Rob Howley. Club talisman, Kiwi out half Sam Malcolm has departed to the Kamaishi Seawaves in Japan which is a blow but no fewer than four Argentina internationals were recruited including prop Gaston Cortes from Leicester Tigers and the mercurial full back Joaquin Tuculet from Jaguares
Another of those Argentinian arrivals was Manuel Montero who has a very impressive record of 16 tries in 27 caps for his country and he joins a backline that features Uruguayan Gaston Mieres and a host of Canadian internationals.
County Cork native Jason Higgins will be hoping to crack into this backline. Higgins was due to play for RUNY last year but visa issues combined with the cancellation of the season meant the Cork Constitution scrum half did not get the chance to play in the Big Apple. However, his talents did not go unnoticed and the Arrows snapped him up. His Canadian-born father combined with his obvious ability means that international honours are a real possibility for him – and meant there was no worry of a visa issue this time around!
Another Canadian international Lucas Rumball captains the side from the back row and the pack is not to be messed with either with the afore-mentioned Cortes arriving to an already-formidable forward unit that includes Maple Leaf representatives Cole Keith, Andrew Quattrin and Mike Shepherd as well as his countryman Tomas de la Vega.
The flag-fliers from north of the border certainly look like a force to be reckoned with regardless of where they play their rugby this year.