Pro Rugby Digs Its Cleats

No pads, no helmets, no timeouts


“No other country does sports like America,” says James Semple, Head Coach of the New York Ironworkers, a professional rugby team.

Semple is an import from New Zealand, the south pacific island nation where sheep outnumber people and rugby is intertwined with the country’s cultural identity.

A coach and former professional rugby player, Semple joined the Ironworkers this season to guide the team’s continued success on the field and in the process, help raise the game’s profile in a crowded sporting landscape.

One of a dozen teams that form Major League Rugby (MLR), the Ironworkers won their first championship title in 2022, defeating the Seattle Seawolves 30-15.

The team plays their home games at the newly-rebuilt Memorial Field in Mount Vernon, N.Y.

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MLR is the latest iteration of a professional rugby organization in the U.S. trying to plant roots and build a steadfast following.

The timing is prescient, since North America will be hosting the men’s Rugby World Cup in 2031 and the women’s two years later in 2033.

Sustainability along with scalability is key for rugby’s success in America as the sport is littered with teams and leagues that took off but quickly folded due to lack of sponsors, fan apathy, or internal disputes.

PRO Rugby, a 5-team league that sprouted in 2016 and fizzled less than a year later, was the last incarnation of such an example.

But MLR appears to be on a promising trajectory. Founded in 2017 with its first playing season in 2018, it was the first time that any sporting league had inked a multi-year national TV deal before launch (CBS Sports Network).

Select matches are also available for live streaming on The Rugby Network, as are all major international matches for global fans.

Borrowing its business playbook from Major League Soccer, MLR was careful to avoid the pitfalls that sent its predecessors early into the grave.

Dean Howes, MLR’s first Commissioner and the former CEO of Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake, was hired with a wealth of ‘what-to-do-and-not-to-do’ experience.

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Player salaries are capped and while each team is owned by the league, the franchise operators own a piece of the league itself. As of 2019, the franchise buy-in fee was $4 million.

Though not sanctioned by the NCAA, rugby is already a familiar club sport on college campuses and high school fields. MLR is investing in grass roots development of home-grown players through academies and youth participation.

Foreign players are brought in to raise the game’s caliber, but not in overwhelming numbers as to crowd out talented Americans, or alienate local fans. The league implemented its first collegiate draft in 2020.

A cousin of American football, rugby is physical, strategic, and fast-paced. Technique and safety are prioritized from a young age since players don’t wear helmets, or padding.

Despite its brutal nature, the sport is ingrained with an ethos of camaraderie that isn’t found in American gridiron.

“You’re trying to kill each other on the field for 80 minutes, but then afterwards you shake hands and go have a beer,” explains Semple. “Whatever happens on the field, stays on the field.”

Rugby isn’t alien to American shores. In the early 20th century, rugby and football tussled for supremacy as the leading contact sport among American universities.

In the end, rugby lost out but it remained a student-run activity not driven by coaches, or inter-collegiate bodies.

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Historians agree that the game between McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and Harvard University in 1874 marked the beginning of rugby football in North America.

But the real development of rugby union football took place in the West rather than the elite universities of the Northeast, according to Professor John Nauright, a sports historian and author of several books on the subject.

By the 1880s, Walter Camp, the ‘Father of American Football’, was already transforming the game from its rugby roots. With the introduction of the forward pass in 1906 as a reaction to football’s roughness, the split was now complete.

Though, by virtue of their geographic isolation from the Northeast and closer ties with the universities in British Columbia where rugby ruled, the western schools went their own way.

Stanford, Berkeley, USC, the University of Nevada, St. Mary’s, and Santa Clara, in addition to some high schools around San Francisco, all opted for rugby over football.

Additionally, California was part of a Pacific rugby connection with touring teams from New Zealand and Australia playing exhibition games in stopovers on their way to and from Europe.

But within a decade, college football’s growing popularity, its commercialization, and the pressure to compete with their Eastern peers led Berkley to abandon rugby for football in 1915. Stanford followed in 1919.

Still, the game remained a separate student pursuit and the U.S. even fielded a rugby team at the 1920 and 1924 Olympics, winning gold on both occasions after twice upsetting France.

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1924 was the last time rugby was contested at the Olympics in its traditional 15 player format. The victorious American squad was the Stanford team, which also toured Europe that year.

Despite the proliferation of rugby clubs across the country, the American national team didn’t return to the global stage until 1976, a year after USA Rugby was founded.

Currently ranked 18th in the world, the historically underperforming Eagles failed to qualify for the 2023 Rugby World Cup scheduled to be played during the months of September and October in France.

However, similar to the dichotomy that exists between the American men’s and women’s achievements on the soccer field, the U.S. women’s rugby team won the inaugural Cup in 1991 and were 2 times runner-up (1994, 1998).

At home, against the entrenched juggernauts of football, baseball, basketball and hockey, Semple agrees that it will take some time for professional rugby to penetrate the American market and develop a substantial fan base.

For one thing, drawing top flight athletes will remain a challenge as long as the league can’t match the sky-high salaries offered by organizations such as the NFL.

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Still, compared to football, he sees the dynamics of the game as being potentially more enticing for young participants and viewers in general.

“The average time of ball play in American football is about 10 seconds and maybe not even. In rugby, it’s about 1 minute 30 seconds, so you need more aerobic intensity and endurance.”

Next to the American game, rugby players also bring a wider diversity of skills to the field. Their athleticism is more complete and less hampered by position specialties.

“Rugby is very multifaceted, so you are always switching from attack to defense, to kicking, to passing. The best teams are able to do those transitions really quickly.”

Given the special place that sports occupy in American culture, Semple is optimistic about the direction of professional rugby.

“In terms of the brand they are putting out, MLR is doing a good job of placing Rugby on the map.”



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