By Liam Poach
Photo: Judy Teasdale Photography
I was a college freshman in 2013, and I wasn't supposed to start my first rugby game. We were playing the Johnson State Badgers, who are our school 'rivals'. Although, at this point, we're so close with the guys on that team from a personal standpoint it's funny to even say that. St. Anselm on the other hand...whatever, I won't get into it (unlike their players on the field).
Anyway, the morning of the first match comes along, and low and behold, our normal fullback informs us he isn't going to be making it. For anyone who plays in the lower divisions of rugby at smaller schools, you know this kind of thing to happen semi-regularly. It was with that I was informed I would be stepping out onto the field first at number 15, and my instructions were clear. "Don't let anyone past you."
About two minutes into the game, a high floating kick comes my way. Having virtually no experience in the sport or at the position, I wait for it, catch it, and then make my big mistake. Coming from an American Football background, I went to take the usual two-step-and-kick route to send the ball the other way, rather than getting it off quickly. Right as my foot connected with the ball (and with my leg still in the air, a detail not caught by the ref at the time), a Johnson player connected with a beautiful, full sprint form tackle to my mid-section.
I didn't get up for a good five minutes.
After that, the game went on, and thanks to the superb level of play from our wing and scrum (God, I miss that team), I wasn't forced into too many more tough spots. But, even with a stinger like the one I had suffered, I knew playing the backfield at 15 was my preferred spot. Seeing all the action unfold in front of you, shouting what you see to the wings, and the constant level of high anxiety that stays with you from the fist minute to the eightieth just knowing it might fall on you to be the last line of defense for your team.
Even with the immense responsibility that comes with the position, I still feel like my fellow 15's don't get a whole lot of love. To help dispel this notion, I went ahead and hit up a fellow fullback: Houston SaberCat and capped-Eagle Zach Pangelinan, whose versatility as an athlete has allowed him to play both rugby and soccer at the elite levels of national competition. Keep reading below!
Compared with other clubs you've played with, what is the level of intensity like in training with the SaberCats?
Zach: Our preseason has definitely been tough, especially the first 7 weeks of conditioning. I haven't really experienced that kind of intensity in a long time but it feels good to be able to play the game at a higher pace than what I've been used to. Training sessions now are more maintenance and inputting new plays, or tweaking the ones we have to make us better as a club as far as playing goes.
Well, all that training has definitely yielded some good results, seeing as you guys have had a pretty solid pre-MLR season thus far. What is it about Justin Fitzpatrick and his approach to coaching that makes him so effective?
Zach: I think the coaching staff and Fitzy's approach for this season is spot on as far as getting the team together earlier than later. He scheduled a good amount of preseason games to build continuity with the team, and also to get different looks at players in other positions and to see what works and what needs work. He knows his stuff about the game and what a team needs to have to be successful.
Do you find there any similarities in the style of play between OMBAC and The SaberCats?
Zach: Every club is different in how they approach the season, but the one thing that is similar is the attitude from the players at training and wanting to learn and get better as a player and a club. As far as playing, it's different in the styles of play due to the coaching.
I would say Northern and Southern Hemisphere coaching bring different styles of play to the table. Lucky for us, we got the best of both! Fitzy's style is more of a forwards approach as far as set pieces go and always changing things to keep teams guessing. Sam (Windsor- backs coach) who played for Ulster is from Australia, is more of a running rugby type of coach. Once we can put it together, I think we'd definitely be a solid team in the MLR.
Do you think this long pre-season will give you guys a leg up on the competition when it comes to on-field chemistry?
Zach: Of course it has its advantages having a long pre-season. I think building chemistry with your teammates is massive. Just knowing how each other plays and knowing each other’s strengths and weakness can go a long way. Helping each other strengthen those weakness, and working to become a more complete rugby player to better the team.
What are your thoughts on the SaberCats Developmental program? Such as their plans to form U-23 through U-14 squads.
Zach: I think it's great that we have a developmental program. It's the kids that will eventually take our place once our playing days are over. We want to give them a head start to becoming a successful rugby player and hopefully represent their country, and of course, The SaberCats.
Do you think there's any reason why your squad has had more trouble against non-American teams, such as the Ravens and Uruguay?
Zach: Not at all, we were flat and started very slow against the first Canadian side that we faced (Ravens), and it hurt us in the end. It was a learning curve for us, and (we) definitely hit the classroom after that and agreed on what hurt us during that game and what we need to do to be successful. I thought we played well against Uruguay and although we lost, there we a lot of positives to take from it. I back my team against any opposition we face and I believe we're more ready now than we were before.
What other MLR team are you most excited to play against?
Zach: To be honest, I am very excited to play all of them. We're ready to face whoever, wherever!
In what way or ways do you think the emergence of the MLR will help the US National team?
Zach: The MLR will bring out some of the best players in America, and it'll give them the chance to properly showcase their skills against very good oppositions, and, hopefully, the USA staff will be able to give them a shot at earning the American jersey.
Thoughts on Gary Gold and his role in the U.S's success in the ARC?
Zach: I've never met him but as far as the results in the ARC so far, he seems to know what he's doing. The ARC team is doing great things for the sport here in US and they are definitely turning heads around the world.
By Liam Poach
Photo: Judy Teasdale Photography
New Orleans: 12
Rugby analysts from across the country weighed in on how they thought this game was going to go, with many (myself included) predicting a Houston win with point totals for both teams being in the low to mid 30’s. Aaron “The StroBro” would like to think he got it the closest (yeah, he kind of did, but I say he cheated by putting out TWO predictions), but in large regard, the final tally didn’t come out the way many thought it would.
Throughout the night, it was a game of copy-cat (no pun intended, well, some pun intended). Both teams exhibited instances of a franticly fast offensive pace that as commentator Grant Cole noted, could set the tone for what the on-field product of the MLR will look like in the months to come. Meanwhile, both squads employed their own variance of the blitz defense, all in an attempt to maintain a game plan that was meant to dial up and keep pressure on the other.
In the end, the difference was made in the fact that Houston’s backline was able to keep possession for a longer average amount of time thanks to some phases that displayed some truly great passing (Like this video HERE). That in turn gave the ‘Cats more scoring opportunities deep in Gold territory.
Connor ‘Quick-Tap’ Murphy, who was my dark horse pick for Man of the Match after the game ended, went above and beyond yesterday as he executed a barrage of quick chip-kicks out of the scrums and rucks throughout the night, constantly keeping the Gold on their back foot and neutralizing their own attempts at the blitz. Houston’s steady improvement in the lineouts is definitely instilling more confidence in players like Murphy, Windsor, and Pangelinan to kick it deep into touch or else for chase.
The attack of the NOLA Gold was touted by a vocal few as having more explosive potential than that of Houston’s, especially with the presence of Fly-Half Taylor Howden. And at times, that seemed plausible, especially when NOLA got the ball into the hands of PRO MVP Sebastian Kalm (8-Man). But, a multitude of penalties (including three leaving the feet penalties within the first five minutes of the match) squandered a ton of momentum building phases for the Gold.
Kalm, I should mention, had himself a great night (other than getting absolutely wrecked by an Elkins stiff arm), especially during the many instances in which it sounded as if NOLA was getting their ass kicked in the scrum. At times when the Gold found themselves getting driven back by the furious front of Macklin, Mullen, and Stevens, Kalm would always somehow manage to get the take and get the ball out to Yungert or Howden. Still, the Gold found themselves more often than not getting driven back by the Saber-Pack, especially late in the second half.
While the game never seemed completely out of reach for NOLA, the SaberCat blitz defense sounded as if it succeed in its effort to suffocate any ball movement after it came out the rucks. Even when the Gold managed to get going, a plethora of mishandled passes and penalties led to the inability to keep possession long enough to even get within a Penalty-Kick’s range to take advantage of the SaberCats own cavalcade of mental lapses (JP Eloff only took one shot at the posts all game, which he missed).
Unfortunately, the clock and score got to a point where 3-point kicks wouldn’t cut the bread anyway, and NOLA would be forced to try and crack the solid SaberCat try-line D. Although, one has to wonder how things might have been different if two held-up tries for NOLA had gone just a tad bit differently.
Eventually, the second half would have only seconds left, and after a flurry of quick, clock killing passes by the SaberCats, Connor Murphy was able to kick for touch and end the game at 30-12. Sam Windsor would come away with Man of the Match honors.
SaberCat Tries: Windsor, Esdale (2), Kolinisau
NOLA Gold Tries: Howard, Jobo
SaberCat Penalties: Windsor (2)
SaberCat Conversions: Windsor (2)
NOLA Gold Conversions: Elof
By Liam Poach
Tomorrow night, the wait for some real MLR action will be at least partially over when the Houston SaberCats take on the New Orleans Gold in the league’s first ever club vs club match. Kickoff will be at 7pm CST from Sugar Land.
There’s a ton of factors to consider in this match, so first let’s take a look at:
NOLA: There’s been plenty of hype this preseason surrounding the effectiveness of Houston’s scrum versus teams like Uruguay and the Capital Selects. But NOLA, who had their own fair share of success in the scrum vs the Selects, didn’t have Hubert Buydens at their disposal in that game. This time around, the Canadian-capped Grizzly Bear will be unleashed in the hopes he displays the same sort of dominance he did during his lone PRO year with the San Diego Breakers.
And it’s not like Buydens is the lone intimidating presence in that frontline, either. Right alongside him will be Canadian-capped Hooker Eric Howard, who already has a developed chemistry with Buydens from their national play, and Eagle #459 Ben Tarr, who himself had a successful championship run with the Denver Stampede during PRO.
Although I could go through and gush over each ‘Golden Scrummie’, one last one I’ll highlight is Vincent Jobo, who could very well be the answer to Houston’s ever explosive Josua Vici. Jobo ended the game vs the Selects with two tries that were the result of a pure physical running style that rendered the attempted arm tackles on him useless.
Should any SaberCat ever find themselves matched up with Jobo while the Gold is on the attack, they better be prepared to execute the most ‘formie’ of form tackles that has ever been…uhm…formed. Plus, the combination of him and Matt Hughston could prove to be as valuable to their defense as Bosa and Ingrham are to the LA Chargers, especially with guys like Sumsion and Garber on the other side.
Houston: The SaberCats have made some changes to the make-up of their scrum ahead of Saturday night’s bout. Usual mainstay at Hooker, and my man from Mystic River, Diego Maquieira will apparently be on the latter half of Coach Fitzpatrick’s usual 50-30 combination for playing time, while engine room specialist Charlie Hewett will also be getting a respite, allowing Fitzpatrick’s fellow countrymen Josh Allen to take his place. Allen is only 20 years old and will be the youngest among the SaberCats’ starters on Saturday.
Macklin and Mullen are two familiar faces at this point to SaberCat fans along with being Fitzy-esqe in their own right, tough Irish bas**rds, that is. Both have played at a high level in respective Irish competitions, with Mullen seeing time with the USA U20 squad. Both will provide a competitive edge to the matchup with a heavy topping of experience in matchups such as this.
The flanking combination of Garber and Sumsion says ‘speed’ more than physicality, which can work in their favor considering the imposing presences of Matt Hughston and Jobo across from them. Jobo’s physicality has already been touched upon, but Hughston is someone who can turn on the gas when needed as well, and Houston’s flanking corps might just be the perfect answer to neutralizing them. If Houston can gain possession more often than not, these two give you options in the middle to go to if NOLA manages to shut it down on the outside. Speaking of which…
NOLA: Whether or not Holden Yungert can hold it down at scrum-half the way he did against the Selects is a question that will have to be answered on the field Saturday, but he will definitely have some help in doing so. Right behind him in the 10 spot and at Captain is Taylor Howden, who throughout his career with clubs such as the Denver Barbarians, Belmont Shore, and the Ohio Aviators has showed off his ability to slice through defenses while displaying excellent timing on tight passes.
Howden could be exactly what NOLA needs, considering those who have fared the best vs Houston have tended to control the pace at a high rate of speed. Howden’s leadership ability in keeping the backline in check will be tested, and how he fares could say a lot about this team moving forward.
However, if all else fails, the Gold have a stalwart presence at fullback (YAY FULLBACKS!) in JP Eloff, who was perfect on conversions against the Selects last time he took the field with this squad. Eloff’s power on kicks coupled with his ability to tuck and run when the situation calls for is sure to be one safe guard for NOLA heading into this weekend.
Houston: While JP Eloff acts as the last line of defense for the visiting team, the SaberCats are changing it up at Fullback with Osea Kolinisau stepping in for Zach Pangelinan, who ended last week’s game with a sleeve over what sounded like an injured kicking-leg. Whether this change up is the result of that injury or just another factor in Fitzy’s 50-30 split is unknown. However, Kolinisau showed last week vs NYAC that he deserves to be out there when the first kick is off.
As always, Player/Coach Sam Windsor will be holding it down at Fly-Half as he receives passes from the energetic Connor ‘Quick Tap’ Murphy, who Coach Fitzpatrick described to me as a player they were lucky to have come over from England after he seemingly fell through the cracks of a crowded field of young UK athletes. “That’s our benefit” he added, which Murphy up to this point has proven.
One matchup that will be interesting to see (or, uh…hear) is how Alex Elkins matches up against a squad wrought with former Aviator teammates. The powerful ELKins runs more like a nimble bull elephant, and God help you if he gets the ball in space. Plus, whenever he and Mills are on the run together, you bet you can expect to see (or hear, sh**, whatever) some great passing and assisted tries from one to the other. If Houston hopes to apply real pressure to the ‘golden’ back line of NOLA, a ton of responsibility is going to fall on their shoulders. Them, and…
Josua ‘Home Run’ Vici. 7 tries in 5 games. That is all.
So it’s no secret by this point I’m a huge SaberCats guy. Love the team, the staff, I even talked to Fitzy on the phone yesterday (my recording app cut out halfway through because technology) and the guy couldn’t have been nicer. That being said and with all biases aside, I think Houston gets this one in the end.
True, many of NOLA’s players are coming in with fresher legs, but anyone who plays rugby knows fresh legs sometimes mean stiff ones coming out of the gate. My guess is that NOLA will appear to be in control of this one in the first half, keeping it close or even taking the league by a try or two thanks to a scrum that can remain competitive with the ‘Cats.
And though Houston has been known to get slowed up in the second half on occasion (see games vs Ravens and NYAC), the presence of Hewett and Pangelinan on the bench could provide a safety net should things appear to be getting out of hand late in the game. If not, then NOLA will come away with a victory by a margin that won’t tell the whole story of what is sure to be a great game.
Man of the Match: Alex Elkins
One last thought: My guy Kiernan Farmer isn’t suiting up this week! WHY?
Make sure to catch me on Mixlr Saturday morning for my new show "Saturday Morning Team Juice" where I will discuss the games to come!
Like what you read? Hate what you read? Hit me up on Twitter @PoacherTundra
By Liam 'Poach' Madigan-Fried
PHOTO: Judy Tesdale Photography
Houston, Texas: On Saturday afternoon, a few hours before kick-off from Sugarland, I told Grant Cole on his weekly pre-game podcast this was one game that I WISHED was going to be live streamed. Well, anyone who was listening to that broadcast Saturday night can now confirm that sentiment. That. Was. Awesome.
Before the players of NYAC or Houston even took the field, the night began on an exciting note, with the men and women of PHI Med-Evac delivering the game ball by way of a helicopter LANDING ON THE FIELD! Seriously, in the young life of professional rugby in America, how cool is that?
Eventually, after all members of the game day crew had gotten their opportunity to snap a few pics in front of the large mechanical beast, the real action of the night was ready to get underway. And get underway it did.
The match began with a few quick possessions by both teams, and we saw an early exchange of kicks between Houston winger Sam Windsor and NYAC’s Jack Fitzpatrick. However, NYAC was able to keep their own attack’s momentum going. A pass from Quentin Pradere to big-man Anthony Parry allowed them to gain some significant ground before they settled for the match’s first points of the night via the leg of Harry Bennett (Captain).
Not wanting to fall behind early to a squad that came within inches of a National Championship last year, Houston stepped up the pace of their attack, but NYAC wasn’t going to budge an inch without a fight. A near try by Josua Vici was saved by Fitzpatrick touching the ball down, a smart rugby play and a clear insinuation of NYAC’s plan to neutralize Vici.
However, an intercepted pass by Esdale, and a few well timed passes from Murphy and Vici later, Sam Windsor was able to break through the NYAC defense for Houston’s first try of the match. But still, NYAC kept coming back strong, and were able to stay in the game early thanks to two Pangelinan misses on penalty kicks (not a good night for the Houston fullback all around, who was also seen with a sleeve on his kicking leg during the second half).
Although there were still hints of work needing to be done within Houston’s lineouts, it sounded as if there had been significant progress made in the area that has hindered this squad the most. On multiple occasions, Hooker Diego Maquieira successfully got the ball out to the back and into the waiting arms of Cecil Garber, who at one point got an amazing jump over Greg Voigt, setting up a phase that ended in a Zach Pangelinan try and subsequent conversion, extending the Houston lead to 14-3.
NYAC would continue to display brilliant physicality on defense while trying to apply pressure through certain phases on both the SaberCat forwards and backs. However, the home team was able to hold the line long enough to get another try by way of Connor “Quick-Tap” Murphy (Seriously, can we make this stick?).
If NYAC had pulled out the victory tonight, the Man of the Match honors would no doubt have gone to Harry Bennett, and that shone through when he was able to get NYAC’s first try of the match. It sounded as if it was an incredible reacher in the corner, as the line judge on the scoring side had to be consulted. But it was meant to be, and the score stood at 14-10.
As the first half wore on, it was more of the same, but luckily that ‘same’ was anything but dull and bland, even by radio broadcast standards, this sounded like some crazy a** sh**. The highlights of which would probably have to go to Josua Vici (who somehow didn’t take home his trillionth man of the match award). Josua would go to put down two more tries before 40 minutes was up, topped by a metaphorical cherry when he was able to reel in his own team’s kick off with an Odell Beckham Jr. style one handed layout.
Luckily for the heart palpitations of fans listening in the Empire State, NYAC would keep the game within reach by netting one more try before the half’s end, executing a beautiful maul that would see Penn State alumni Kirkland Hamilton get the credit. Teams would head into the locker room with the score at 33-17, well within reach for the NYAC men.
Unfortunately for the fans clad in red and white (and one young man in the stands who was even sporting a full on Spartan helmet), you know how this story ends. Well, I’m assuming that, considering you read the title (Or did you? Lazy sh**, either way keep reading, you’re not done yet).
The second half began with the clear intent of both teams to start fast. The SaberCats were out to test the NYAC backs early, but penalties on both sides were responsible for quelling a few potential big breaks. An intense few series came about when Seamus Kelly came within a hair of securing the try after some broken tackles, but was held up in the try zone by a swarming pack of SaberCats (sounds cool when you say it like that, huh?). That resulted in a five meter scrum, which once again resulted in Parry getting held up.
A third attempt at five points would prove more fruitful. NYAC went for a few pick and drives at Houston’s forwards, drawing the home team in just enough for a Walsh to connect with Parry for pay-dirt. With that, NYAC pulled even closer at 33-24.
A kick at the post by Player-Coach Sam Windsor would extend the lead a little, but all semblance of comfort was lost by the ‘Cats when NYAC’s Seamus Kelly was able to finally break through an otherwise rock solid Houston goal line defense for a try to bring the score even closer at 36-31.
Going into full protection mode and playing a man down due to a yellow card, you could imagine the sweat pouring down the faces of the Houston faithful, and it wasn’t just that southern humidity. Then there came the defining moment of the night, when Sam Windsor came through for the ‘Cats one more time with a 50+ meter kick to put the score for Houston at 39.
One more try for NYAC by Parry would come after a gap-slicing quick tap, but not with enough time to hope for anything else. The ‘Cats would get the win 39-38. Harry Bennett would end the game perfect on conversions and penalties, which definitely could not be said for Pangelinan (0/3 on conversions, 2/3 penalty kicks).
There were several occasions where the SaberCats could have more or less put the game away, but then a few bad passes, a knock-on here and there, and an ill-timed obstruction call by Vici in the second half especially would drain the sink on it. Same goes for NYAC, in that they could have got this game way closer earlier or even taken the lead at a few points, but a plethora of not releasing penalties saw them lose quite a few possessions.
If Houston hopes to make this two game stretch into an official win streak against NOLA next week (the first all-MLR matchup EVER), then the needless penalties are going to have to be cut down upon. Even players like Josua Vici could learn a thing or two from some time in the film room, especially when it comes to timing the passes with when gaps are appearing. Or when you’re, you know, actually behind the ball instead of five meters ahead of it, slow down just a bit ‘kehd.
Culture, Money, Patience: Tim Egan of Toronto WolfPack's Last Tackle TV Talks the Rise of Professional Rugby
By Liam Madigan-Fried
For the last four and a half years (yeah, don’t change your major halfway through kids), I’ve had the pleasure of attending Lyndon State College in the North-East region of Vermont, as well as to play rugby here as a Hornet. On the off-chance you’ve heard of our school, it probably had something to with our fantastic Electronic Journalism Arts Department, which has turned out more small market anchors and television meteorologists than I can count.
Now, at this point you’re probably thinking- “Cool Liam, just use this article to hype up your own department some more.” Well, this might come as a surprise to some regular readers (or not surprising at all), but I’m not a Journalism Major of any kind. I’m a Film Studies Major who has had to watch more hours of Alfred Hitchcock than a Studio Censor screening Psycho in 1960.
That being said, yeah, I’m still kind of using this article to hype up my department, if not my school (please have your kids apply here, we seriously need them). Because, for the last few years and unbeknownst to me, Timothy Egan, a Sports Business and Cinema Production Professor at my school and an executive producer at Moody Street TV, was a man directly involved with Canada’s ascending League 1 Champions, The Toronto Wolfpack.
For those familiar with the world of Rugby League, you might know the Wolfpack as one of the most stable professional rugby organizations on the North American continent. Tim’s handwriting is visible on the walls of that success, with his work in producing the web-series Last Tackle: Inside the Toronto Wolfpack playing the part of catalyst in the team’s ever expanding exposure. So, taking my chance to get some real professional perspective, I contacted Tim through our school’s handy-dandy email directory to get his take on the direction of professional rugby here in the United States and in Canada.
Liam: Do you see the trajectory of professional rugby to be on an upward trend in the United States and North America?
Tim: I think it’s tremendously on an upward trend. It started for me four or five years ago when I had heard that the All Blacks played in Chicago against the US National Team, and I was amazed that that it had sold out a year in advance. Because I [had only known rugby previously] from friends that played rugby in college. But now, these college aged rugby players from the 1970’s and 1980’s are becoming aging baby boomers. [And as a result you see] Rugby having more youth leagues, which helps the sport become more like soccer in that it grows with [kids as they age].
Liam: The Toronto Wolfpack have experienced the developmental and marketing benefits of competing with teams from England and France, do you see the influx of foreign markets and their fans being something that can help grow professional rugby in North America?
Tim: I think it’s important that fan-bases in France and England… can draw foreign fans who love to travel to the United States and North America, and when they do they say “Oh, we can travel around the [United States and Canada] and tie it into when my team [is playing]… By tapping into foreign fans, it gives visibility, but it also gives legitimacy when fans in foreign countries where rugby is played at the top levels say “Wow, this is a team we have to pay attention to.” And that’s what any sports team wants. That the competition watches them.
Liam: Right now, the estimated salary cap of MLR is about 250k. How long do you think it’s going to be until North America has a professional league with a pay-scale competitive enough to bring in more elite talent?
Tim: That’s hard. That’s the model of MLS and (NWSL), which is “how much can we afford to pay the US players, and how little can we get away with playing the foreign players that are the marquee, and still make money running a franchise?” And I think it’s only going to happen over time with three things: If they can increase audience, and that puts more butts in seats and you can charge for sponsorship in the arena, if you create more success on the field just by pushing the squad, which will create more visibility on television because good teams will draw viewers, and then you can charge for advertisers.
But, I think at some point, the third one is sort of the cultural acceptance of the sport…and then financial supporters will want to be around it. That’s happened for Major League Soccer in the United States…Rugby has to get to the point where there’s enough national interest financially and enough interest globally that investors want to be a part of the team so they can afford big foreign contracts…so they can get a guy from New Zealand, or they can get a guy from Australia, and it makes their team have more marquee value, and as we saw with the Wolfpack, they built a team that won a championship. While they spent pocketbook wise more than they wanted to, they had to get out of the gate. So in the end, it’s going to take time, culture change, and money, just like we saw in this country with soccer.
Note: Not long after this interview was conducted, it was announced that the New Zealand-based Canterbury Rugby Union in conjunction with the Super Rugby team The Crusaders had purchased a minority ownership in the Seattle Seawolves.
Liam: So it seems like the Wolfpack’s plan is essentially “Spend the money to make the money”, signing players who are going to immediately affect the on-field level of play, whereas Major League Rugby clubs, who have signed a few big names here and there, are taking a more homegrown approach, holding combines all around the country in order to construct their rosters from more domestic talent rather than relying on signing a ton of foreign marquee players. Do you see one approach as being more beneficial than the other?
Tim: I almost want to say that the Major League Rugby plan is more beneficial. Because it’s the culture that I was talking about. They’re creating a mindset of the team as clumps, you know? It has a minor league team, U-23, U-17, they’re community active. That gets the culture changing. That means “Oh, I don’t have to play football I can play rugby, I don’t have to play soccer, I can play rugby.”
When it’s forced down from the top…it’s a little different in Toronto because it’s an international city and it was easily accepted, and culturally maybe a little bit more people knew what rugby was, so you kind of had to put a bunch of international stars on the field to get people to come out. Where in the U.S, you can put a bunch of stars on the field, but if people didn’t know who they are, or didn’t really know about the sport, then it’s not going to matter. They’re not going to know what a good try is and what isn’t. So I think what they wanted to do, smartly, is they’re creating a culture. And that’s actually going to help other leagues.
In [places like] St. Louis, Houston, and other smaller cities, it’s almost like why in small towns, college football or college basketball is so successful. Everybody loves the sport, and the collegiate level is the best level that shows up. If you can have a quality rugby squad in the city and the culture around it is rugby immersed, kids will go see ‘the pros’. That’s a little bit where the Major League Lacrosse model is now. There’s enough lacrosse now in high school leagues and in college leagues, and now, the league is small but people are coming to it. That’s what I see as having to be done [with rugby] in the U.S, which is build that youth culture that will want to go to games to see the pro’s.
Liam: So you touched on an important subject there, which is that not everyone lives in a place where getting to see a professional game live is feasible, especially with MLR not expanding to the East Coast until next season with RUNY. That being said, the MLR just secured a deal with CBS to broadcast at least one game a week along with playoffs and a championship, but in the short term do you see a potential rise in independent programming through platforms such as FLO Sports or your own Last Tackle TV?
Tim: Yeah, I think there has to be. Because, you’re not going to get big, major broadcast deals, so creating packaged programming that goes along with the game [is probably the best thing to do]. We started with the [Wolfpack’s live games] being on the CBC and GameTV in Canada. Moody Street helped them get on to Eleven Sports in the U.S and in some parts of England, and they also had a deal with Premier. Then, we helped them expand to FOX in Australia. So now, you have that network built. And we did that on the guise of the package show to promote the team. And every one of those stations said “Can we get their games too? Because we’re hoping the games are as good as the show.” So, what started out as games first then show, turned into the reverse, which is the show got them the games.
So the team’s been very happy with that, and I think a lot of teams will have to do that. Which is find ways to create YouTube web-series or one-off local cable specials. You know, most sports towns have a cable system, Chicago has one, New England Sports Network, pick a city, they all their own sort of home town channel. And I think that’s where someone’s going to have to invest in a half hour special or something in that market to promote that lower level of sport.
Liam: I see what you’re saying. Leagues like the NBA, NFL, NHL, have become 365-day-a-year sports based on media coverage alone.
Tim: Yeah, and with content. By 2020, 70% of traffic on the internet is going to be video based. So the best way to sort of sell a sport is to create content, even if it’s just player profiles that players do themselves. Things like “Here’s me at practice. Here’s how we screw around after a game, here’s what we do in the community.” All that little content online is cheap, easy, and free. When I say it’s cheap, easy, and free, is that in that it’s cheap to produce, it’s easy because you don’t have to tie in any sponsors, and the web gives you free distribution. Those three things allow a small market team to get the visibility they need to reach a wider audience. You know, a banner ad, or an ad in the program book, or signage, is really specified to that specific audience. You have to go to the games to see that dasher ad on the video screen. Or, you have to buy that program to see that ad, or go to the website to see the banner ad. But if it’s content out onto YouTube and distributed out to other blogs and websites that promote the sport, that video content then creates a viral image, and that’s where I think small teams can help themselves.
Liam: So, all in all, do you think the North American market is big enough or ready enough for both professional Rugby Union and Rugby League organizations?
Tim: I think it will be, like in Europe it is. I think we need to see it build here first. Just like how we see Sevens and Elevens, there’s different types of rugby, Union and League, and I think people have a predisposition to liking one or the other. Remember, the NFL [started out separately] as the AFL and the NFL, and then they merged. The AFL was more of a passing game, while the NFL was more of a ground game, but then the sport merged and that’s how the NFL [that we know today] came about. But I think rugby’s so unique with League and Union that you’ll have separates, but what you might end up with a championship where there’s a generic set of rules, and that’ll sort of be the pride point of what’s better. Rugby League or Union? It’s going to be hard. I think the sport has to build interest, and we’ll see how much stuff can survive…so I think it’s just a matter of time to see what can connect [with fans] and with the culture, is it Union or League? Maybe one leaves a certain impression on the audience over the other? Maybe that will be the decider.
After that, my time with Tim came to an end, as some other student was at that point patiently waiting outside his office door for their own chance to talke (about something much more mundane than rugby though, I’m sure). But, I came away from this interview having learned two key things.
1. Rugby has a long road ahead of it in terms of becoming part of American culture, but it’s definitely on the right track. In fact, rugby is at an advantage in that we are seeing our emergence in an age where gaining exposure is easier than ever thanks to the internet. ALL HAIL THE MIGHTY COMPUTER GNOMES BEHIND MY SCREEN!!!! (Prove to me that’s not how they work)
2. As with everything in this world nowadays, it’s going to take cold, hard cash to truly get the game off the ground. As more and more fans familiarize themselves with the game, they will expect a higher and higher level of on-field play. Which eventually, will necessitate the signing of more marquee players. Jamie Mackintosh round two anyone?
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Penguin Tundra Sports Blog was created in 2016 by a very bored college student who was obsessed with Rugby and Football. That same college student knew how to write pseudo-intelligently, so what better way to show off than to create a blog. Along your journey though the Tundra's domain, you may come across outlandish opinions, horrible spelling errors, and some shit that is just outright wrong. Well then, you should comment, give my blog more attention, and we will have our day in internet court. Otherwise, I hope you enjoy talking about sports as much as I do.
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