In January, the Utah Warriors of Major League Rugby announced an alliance with Stade Toulousain of France.
Toulouse play at Stade Ernest Wallon, a temple of the world game which holds around 20,000 fans. Champions of Europe five times and France 21 times, they field stars – including Antoine Dupont and Romaine Ntamack – who are set to shine at a home World Cup this year.
The Warriors play at the Zions Bank Stadium, capacity 5,000, in Herriman near Salt Lake City. In four completed MLR seasons they have made the playoffs twice. They employ internationals including the ex-Harlequins centre Paul Lasike but he and the men’s US Eagles will not be at France 2023, having failed to qualify.
Glaring contrasts apart, as MLR kicks off year six this weekend Utah are not alone in thinking big. With US World Cups in 2031 and 2033, World Rugby has skin in the game. Around the oval world, kick-off in San Diego – where the Warriors play the Legion on Saturday – Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas, DC and Seattle will be closely watched.
Utah’s chief executive is Kimball Kjar, once an Eagles scrum-half. Asked about the Toulouse alliance, he pointed to the pressing need to sell rugby in America.
“We’re trying to get outside what I call the rugby echo chamber. And I know that’s kind of weird to say when you’re talking about rugby partnerships with another rugby team, but there’s something to what we’re building that is much more than rugby.
“The idea we’ve presented to Toulouse … is the concept of being able to generate new fans and people that can come to know who Antoine Dupont is, who Romain Ntamack is, and all the other stars they have as well as within French rugby, within top-tier professional rugby.
“So it’s not just a partnership where we’re going to exchange rugby tips and talk about player and coach exchanges … This is creating in our eyes a company that’s going to develop original content, build narrative storytelling, to be able to get 18-, 19- 20-year-old kids interested in what rugby is and why it’s important here in North America.”
The World Rugby chief executive, Alan Gilpin, has discussed why North America is important to rugby. The World Cups were announced in May last year. By November, the US men had failed to get past Portugal for a place in France.
Changes are afoot. At World Rugby, Dominic Hayes, formerly of WWE and once a Premiership executive working on staging English club games on the east coast, is now general manager, USA. He did not respond to a request for comment but USA Rugby did publish a letter to members.
After detailing the considerable challenges arising from bankruptcy in 2020, the union said: “Hosting these Rugby World Cups is a game-changer for USA Rugby’s future … there will be no financial obligations or risk for USA Rugby, but an opportunity to obtain significant outside investment for the growth of the game in the United States over the next eight to 10 years, and to create financial sustainability for the union thereafter.”
World Rugby, the US union said, will review “the basis for investment of resources leading up to 2031 and 2033” in March, then present that plan for approval by the World Rugby Council in May.
By May, MLR will be approaching the business end of its season. The stakes are always high for fledgling leagues in fringe sports but this year they may seem higher. Many in MLR point out that its first duty is to itself as a business, not to the men’s national team. Many in the world game counter that the US team’s failure may reflect on the league which employs most of its players. MLR has something to prove.
Rugby New York won the title in 2022, beating Seattle Seawolves at Red Bull Arena in a cracking ad for rugby, albeit in front of a small game-day crowd. New York now have a new name, the Ironworkers, and a new stadium, in Mount Vernon in Westchester county.
In MLR, change is a constant. Name tweaks and stadium switches are the least of the deal. Late last season, the league disqualified the LA Giltinis and Austin Gilgronis, two teams owned by and named for one Australian entrepreneur. The entrepreneur, Adam Gilchrist, filed suit. All looked grim.
But all went quiet on the legal front and Austin and LA will not play this year. A change of commissioner is imminent though not yet announced. A new team, the Chicago Hounds, includes players formerly with LA or Austin. A 13th team, the Miami Sharks, has been announced for 2024.
There is a wild card too, out in the wild wild west. Out of Glendale, Colorado, the American Raptors will play in Superliga Americana de Rugby, the competition which fueled the Uruguay and Chile teams who proved too good for the Eagles. The Raptors were a founding MLR team but withdrew in 2020, charging that the mission, to produce American talent, had been mislaid. They now focus on crossover athletes but have struggled against MLR opposition in preseason.
Kjar said: “Glendale is going to do what they’re going to do … they’ve kind of pivoted from being a North American team to being kind of a hemispheric team. And, you know, that’s fine.
“We have been able to go through what I think is one of the more interesting periods of a league’s maturation – of having the partnership tested by an internal partner [Gilchrist] that was opting to colour outside the lines. And we came through that, I think, in the right way, though maybe it wasn’t communicated the way it should have been.
“So we lost two teams who were successful – good, strong teams with good players – but we can now bring in Chicago, which has a great ownership group, and Miami.
“The tide is rising. And I think it bodes well for the future.”