Rugby caused a bit of an unlikely Twitterstorm this week, when Americas Rugby News writer Paul Tait attempted to drop a hint as to which player had most recently signed a contract with an American Major League Rugby Franchise.
Tait tweeted that “An extremely famous rugby player known by all rugby supporters the world over will be confirmed for MLR DC Glory,” and then further went on to tweet that he was a player who had, in his time, beaten the All Blacks, leaving fans speculating over who it could be.
Yesterday it was announced to be South African prop and World Cup winner Tendai Mtawarira. Mtawarira, or the ‘Beast’ will join a host of international rugby stars who have signed contracts in the MLR.
The MLR is a league made up of 12 franchises across the United States. Like in NBA and NFL, these franchises are divided into Eastern and Western Conferences. The teams play each other in a round-robin within their conferences, have play-offs and finals to decide their conference champions and then the winner from each division plays to win The Americas Rugby Shield.
Mtawarira’s move is not a shocking one. A fair few players, dubbed to be in what everyone seems to call the ‘twilight’ of their careers, have already made the move across the Atlantic – or Pacific… depends where you’re coming from – as the MLR embarks on its third season in the states.
Ma’a Nonu has signed for last year’s finalists San Diego Legion, Colorado Raptors have secure both ex-All Black Rene Ranger and Australian Centre Digbe Ioane, while Ben Foden and Matthieu Bastareaud have set their sights on the East Coast to play for Rugby United New York.
Franchise sport has often been successful at attracting players who are unable to compete at the level they once could. Think Chris Gayle in the IPL, David Beckham in the MLS: it gives them a bit more time with the game they love whilst often being able to pick up a big pay cheque at the end of it.
Interestingly, however, money does not seem to be the pulling factor. Players are limited to a $500 000 salary – and whilst this is still an incredible amount – it is not to the level, say, of what their cross-codes companion Sonny Bill Williams is earning for Toronto Wolfpack.
Furthermore, there is not the allure of fame that America provides for other sports. The average crowds at MLR games were about 4000 last year, with many teams playing on, and unable to fill, Minor League Baseball fields.
The allure must lie in the fact that this is genuinely a new frontier. With the World Cup in Japan this year and now the growing awareness of MLR, there is a definite sense that rugby is slowly being shifted on its axis.
Whilst Australian rugby is embroiled in court cases and television deals, and English rugby faces a bit of a salary problem as players will inevitably start looking for more money, one gets a sense that the Northern/Southern Hemisphere delineation may no longer be fit for purpose.
Time will tell how this season of MLR pans out, but if 2020’s final is anything like last season’s – a brilliantly disorganised, heart-on-sleeve encounter that included more knock-ons than I could count but then also an 80th minute try to secure a successive championship for the Seattle Seawolves – then I sense America could be a hotbed for the future of the sport.