Major League Rugby: Covid, Giltinis, Giteau – and why it’ll be San Diego-New York in the final

Will Hooley of Saracens and the Eagles and American rugby great Dan Lyle answer the Guardian’s questions about the US season which kicks off today

Given the challenges of life under Covid, can Major League Rugby flourish this year?

Will Hooley: I’ve talked to a few boys in various teams and they tell me Covid has been an absolute shitshow for everyone. I think we’ve got to simply applaud that they’re about to kick-off.

Dan Lyle: I think MLR is getting a lot of things right. You know, they had half a million people a year and a half ago watching on CBS for the final, in a good venue, San Diego v Seattle, a great spectacle. They’d started to build on some of those things when Covid hit. So now they simply have to be back.

WH: I just spoke to Scott Lawrence, the general manager at Atlanta, and he knows there’s going to be areas where it’s all going to be a little bit up in the air. They had a game last week as pre-season but it got called off because of Covid.

Squads are not massive, so if positive tests happen there’s a high chance games might not be played. So I think when it comes to the ins and outs in of for instance where are teams going to play – Toronto have relocated to Atlanta, San Diego are somewhere in Las Vegas, New York don’t have a stadium – obviously we want to know that, but it’s just the playing that counts.Advertisementhttps://0f1e4064fb35704c9767ced76924fdcd.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

I’ve experienced the disruption here in the UK and I’m with one of the big teams in European rugby. You just have to compromise. Also, it doesn’t actually make too much of a difference where games are played, because there’s not going to be many fans anyway. There can’t be.

DL: I’m reminded of the 25-year battle that is Bath not being able to develop their ground, you know, in a rugby city. In the US, even the top of the food chain, particularly in big cities, on the coasts where there is not much land, you’re going to have those battles – and those are the most affected areas for Covid too. It’s no coincidence New York and San Diego are having such problems finding a home.

George Killebrew, the MLR commissioner, says simply getting to 1 August and the championship game will constitute success. Is he right?

DL: You know, my first 10 years in England there was probably five or six teams that were in the Premiership that now don’t exist anymore. There’s always attrition. MLR are getting a lot of things right and yes, they just have to get through to August. I can see maybe a player or even a team or two, God forbid, tanking along the way. But the league needs to get there.

WH: I completely agree. But I genuinely believe MLR is the only league in our sport that has got a positive projection. I know the Premiership is getting money coming in from CVC but I don’t really understand where’s the next big growth. I look at MLR and I can only see growth. And for me as a national team member, I just want to see the boys play.

On Thursday, MLR announced a series of law variations meant to speed up the game. Your thoughts?

WH: The seven-point try under the posts is interesting. It might be we see specific plays that aim towards scoring under the posts, and I’m sure wingers will add a few more metres to their GPS as they head inside. Personally, as a kicker, I feel for those who rely on those kicks under the posts to boost their stats and points. That said, the kick clock is another good addition – it’s clearly an area where we can speed the game up.

The MLR law variations.
The MLR law variations. Photograph: MLR

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DL: I like the kick clock – it gives a bit of pressure. But between the posts, maybe make it 30 seconds and a drop goal? You need to kick it.

WH: As a back, I’m all for making scrum resets quicker and more efficient. The ball I’m sure will be ‘in play’ more, hopefully making the games more entertaining.

DL (as a forward): Scrum resets will allow the weaker team to bow out of the scrum. Not sure I like this one at all – it’s such a vital part of the game and the contest. It’s the same on the offside line: having a scrum-half who is a ferret and pestering adds value.

WH: On the 20-minute replacements for red cards, I’d rather see a form of “orange card” that covered the new rule. If there is a red-card offence such as a punch, a deliberate act of foul play, I believe the red card should still be in play. All in all though, hopefully the new law makes sure games are not killed off by teams going down to 14 men for long durations.

DL: The thing about red-card offenses is it is still being worked out. On head shots, does it really put an absolute into the players mind that he must hit in the right places and in the right way? I get that 14 versus 15 early in a game is detrimental, but I think the collision areas need strict penalties.

The LA Giltinis have big signings – Adam Ashley-Cooper, Matt Giteau – and big plans. What will they bring to the league?

DL: Well, they went to Hawaii to train. They’ll be playing in the Coliseum. There’s a lot of things that don’t make common sense. But it seems they’re trying to do it the LA way. They’ve got a really good local television deal with Fox Sports West – that’s a massive deal. They’re going out and they’re trying to win big right from the beginning. That’s one way you can do it.

WH: Having spoken to a few people in that Western Conference, I think it’s almost like LA are the bad guys. It’s great that there’s a few rock stars in there, obviously. I think it really can be great for the profile of our game nationally but also rugby in the world. But I do have my concerns. Surely MLR has got to be about development of American talent.

Seattle attack against San Diego in the 2019 MLR championship game.
Seattle attack against San Diego in the 2019 MLR championship game. Photograph: Connie Hatfield/for Seattle Seawolves

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Are there too many foreign players in MLR?

DL: I think the value of this league is linked to the national team. Take soccer in America – that is one of its biggest flaws. MLS is not producing a better national team, so the media value of soccer is not going up.

MLR has to be really careful to balance the product now versus the value of the sport. If you look at our men’s national team and even down to the fourth- or fifth-best players in kind of the spine of the team, you’re not seeing many Americans. In MLR there is a lot of foreign talent and it is not 18-year-old talent, it’s 35 and over or if it’s not, it’s somebody that’s not going to make a national team. MLR has to find the balance because if they don’t, American rugby is going to hit a steel reinforced ceiling.

WH: I really do think there’s got to be a balance, but you also have to bring the light to where you are – we must embrace bringing the likes of Giteau or Ben Foden because they will naturally be mentors and teachers for American talent.

I’ve got guys here at Sarries who are like, “Jesus, I think I’d love to get over to San Diego or Boston at some point.” And these are Premiership or even international players. But USA Rugby has to get full value out of the league as well.

DL: We’ve got to pay attention to this. Do we want, say, the third-team Otago No10 who’s no longer in New Zealand, versus nurturing, for example, Ben Cima out of Washington DC? Are we producing good enough athletes? Maybe. We’re definitely not good enough rugby players. It’s a slippery slope – you could be a 25-year-old league like MLS, and you’re not developing American talent.

So which import might play the most important role?

WH: I think about New York, where the head coach Greg McWilliams, bless him, has departed and so a big emphasis will be on Andy Ellis not just as a player but also maybe as a coach as well. He could be very beneficial to this New York team because the forwards are very good but their backs I don’t know as much about. Ellis as a World Cup-winning All Black scrum-half will be influential on and off the field.

DL: I look at LA and with Giteau and Ashley-Cooper, you know they’ll be there or thereabouts. I get a little insight from Alex Corbisiero [LA’s scrum coach], they’re trying to figure out the forwards but with backs like that, you’re putting pressure on people.

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WH: Maybe I’m saying this because he’s a good mate, but I really look forward to seeing what Paul Mullen can do at tighthead prop for Utah. The guy can hold down a scrum. And if there’s one thing I realized, having been part of a Saracens squad who lost to Cornish Pirates, is that you don’t have a set-piece then you’re in the shit.

Utah have brought in a few good players. I’m not saying they’re gonna go all the way. Toronto will be strong as well, by the way. I feel I completely don’t think about the Canadians.

DL: Nobody does.

WH: But fair play, they’ve got a good set up over there. Rob Howley coming in to coach can only be a great thing for Canada.

DL: There’s a lot of people that are really grinding right now because of Covid and I’m interested in that kind of hard-working team, New York. They’re sweeping their own sheds, day after day after day, and they have a talented pack. When Nick Civetta gets back from Oxford they’ll have him and Nate Brakeley in the second row and behind that Hanco Germishuys on the flank. That’s a pretty good pack up there.

WH: I’ve heard some exciting things about this young lad Harrison Boyle, a US-qualified sort of 10-slash-fullback with the New England Free Jacks up in Boston.

I’m also really excited to see Bryce Campbell back in MLR with Austin. He’s a seasoned international centre who went to London Irish. I think he’s really looking forward to taking Austin on. We talked about the LA Giltinis but look at the Gilgronis, the other team named for an imaginary drink. They’ve got some good players there.

DL: Right now, you know, if I pick my US Eagles, there’s only four MLR players in that starting lineup. Just to pick one position, we’re not very deep at wing. There’s Harley Davidson in Atlanta, but Martin Iosefo is now in sevens. Ryan Matyas is in San Diego, he’s playing wing but he can play everywhere. Also, we just haven’t seen anybody for a year and a half – so it will be really interesting to see who comes back, you know, and who doesn’t.

So who wins the east, the west and the overall title?

WH: The east might be tight because you’ve got a lot of organizations who are doing a good job, like New England and DC. New York will always be up there. And we talked about Toronto a little bit as well.

Chris Robshaw trains in Las Vegas.
Chris Robshaw trains in Las Vegas. Photograph: San Diego Legion

In the West, San Diego surely have to be there. When you look at their depth, across the pack and into their backline, it’s a know-how team. You’ve got a lot of good foreigners and Eagles and what I will call know-how MLR players, the likes of a Joe Pietersen, for example. It’s very important to have people like that.

And then I want to say New York because the Butcher – US hooker Dylan Fawsitt – would kill me if I don’t. It’s tough because I think this Toronto team is really quite good. But for me, it’s a New York v San Diego final.

DL: I’m a data-driven guy, so when I look at that three-deep idea, San Diego has the most squad depth by a stretch. They’ve got a good sprinkling of internationals, they’ve got a good ownership group. Their only uncertainty is that they’ve uprooted their cultural structure. They have to figure out playing in Vegas but I think this year they will finally unseat Seattle.

In the East, you’ve got New England, DC and Atlanta that are organised well, they’ve got good people, good structure. What Toronto have, we know. One player we didn’t mention earlier was JP du Plessis, who’s down in New Orleans and who might have been the best midfielder in MLR the last couple of years. But JP Eloff is hurt so the Gold won’t have that one-two punch. They do have a great venue, a great structure.

Bu I’m backing this scrappiness of New York. Just kind of grind it out, you know, find a way to win. So I agree – it’s a New York v San Diego final.

WH: San Diego were unlucky in the final against Seattle in 2019 and now they’ve got Chris Robshaw too. He can bring that pack on. I think the Legion will win the title.

DL: The only thing that throws it in the air is that they’re not sitting there comfortably in Torero Stadium. You know, walking to the beach with the beautiful people…

Finally, do we just have to get used to rugby teams named for imaginary cocktails?

DL: Somebody said to me the other day, ‘Oh, MLR just got a league-wide betting partner, and doesn’t that kind of send a weird message?’ I said, ‘They have two teams named after alcoholic drinks.’ That ship hasn’t just sailed – it’s halfway to Tahiti.

(Article as seen in The Guardian 20/03/21 – produced by Martin Pengelly)

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