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'I don't understand': Wallaby great opens up about MLR exit

By Finn Morton
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images for LA Giltinis)

Wallabies legend Adam Ashley-Cooper has opened up about the “heartbreak” and “frustration” he felt after the LA Giltinis were sensationally kicked out of Major League Rugby ahead of the 2023 season.

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The North American competition’s governing body confirmed in late October that the Giltinis and Austin Gilgronis will not participate next season to “ensure a successful” campaign.

It was revealed in a statement by MLR that there were “uncertainties surrounding” their “team ownership”, so the decision was made to protect the “growth of the league.”

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Both franchises, who are owned by Australian businessmen Adam Gilchrist, were disqualified from the playoffs earlier this year despite placing first and second in the Western Conference.

The decision to remove both teams from the championship race was a major call for MLR to make, as the Giltinis were looking to win back-to-back championships in just their second season.

As for the Western Conference leading Gilgronis, they were on the cusp of their first playoff appearance after making their debut in the inaugural 2018 season.

Giltinis assistant coach Adam Ashley-Cooper, who also played more than 100 Test matches in Wallaby gold, has spoken about how players and fans alike have been “left scratching their heads” following the decision.

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“As much as I know the dream’s over, so that’s basically where it’s at,” Ashley-Cooper told ESPN.

“It’s hard, it’s a hard one to comment on because we actually really don’t know what’s going on. There’s obviously legal suits happening, whether that’s against the MLR or against ‘Gilly’ (Gilchrist), we don’t know.

“There’s a lot of confusion. There’s a lot of heartbreak, a lot of frustration because of the lack of communication as well because of the lawsuits.

“We haven’t been able to speak publicly; only recently have we only been able to speak publicly about it, which I guess was just a matter of helping the team get through this period, but yeah, it’s been very confusing.

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“I don’t understand how there wasn’t a better result from that, and how we’ve basically been kicked from the competition.

“We’re not the only ones that are mad either; there’s a lot of supporters that had bought into the game and the Giltinis in LA, there’s a lot of local fans, and they’re obviously left scratching their heads as well.

“It’s a shame that it’s over because we had a cracking two years, it felt like we did really well to grow the game, particularly in LA.

“We certainly helped the quality of the competition with obviously the marquee guys coming in and sharing their experiences on that. It’s just a shame really, but it is what it is, it’s hard to kind of comment on it.”

Adam Ashley-Cooper will go down in history as one of the greatest Australian rugby players of all time.

The utility back rose to legendary status during decorated stints with Super Rugby juggernauts the Brumbies and Waratahs, which included a title in 2014.

Ashley-Cooper also played the sport he loves overseas in France and Japan, before heading to America.

As a foundation player with the star-studded Giltinis, Ashley-Cooper played a pivotal part in their championship success during their maiden campaign.

But after announcing his retirement over a year ago, the 38-year-old was set to begin a new chapter in his rugby career as an assistant coach.

While players are clearly frustrated and confused following the decision, Ashley-Cooper said “there’s no anger” towards owner Gilchrist.

“There’s no anger (from the players) towards Gilly at all,’ he added.

“I would say there is probably some frustration towards the MLR, and how it’s all been handled. But that’s what happens I guess when you don’t necessarily have an independent commission.

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“It’s the 12 team owners on the board, they are the MLR, and so obviously Gilly them offside and he’s now paid the price for it.

“I think they certainly need to change the rules around the amount of marquee players that come in, and how much they can spend, because they’re all privately owned teams.

“There’s no reason why you can’t spend a little bit more money on marquee players and get that influence from overseas and around the world.

“I think if they start to change it, if they’ve got that growth mindset, there’s no reason why it can’t work. They’ve got the World Cup in 2031, so they’re obviously growing towards that, but I think there definitely needs to be changes made.”

The United States will not take part in next year’s Rugby World Cup after missing out on qualification in truly agonising circumstances.

Chile filled the vacant Americas 2 slot after beating the Eagles 52-51 across two legs.

But the potential of the rugby in the Land of the Free truly has no limits; supporters only have to look to the NFL and NBA to see how talented American athletes are.

Former LA Giltinis halfback Harrison Goddard, who has returned to Australia with the NSW Waratahs, said that rugby is definitely on the rise in America.

“100 per cent (rugby’s growing in the USA),” Goddard told ESPN. “And the way they do sports over there, I went to a few NBA and NHL games, they do it so well.

“I just think in the next five to 10 years it will take off. They probably just need more people to go over there, a bit more funding and to market it well; in LA it was amazing, we had pretty good crowds most games.

“There were some young players that were actually really good. They’ve obviously come from a football background and they’re just learning the new skills of rugby.

“I think there is definitely a market there. They’ve got the World Cup coming soon and hopefully they can build up the MLR before then.”

The 2023 Major League Rugby season gets underway on February 18 (AEST) with a blockbuster between Rugby ATL and Toronto Arrows.

Expansion team Chicago Hounds will begin their maiden campaign away to Old Glory DC at Segra Field on February 19.

The Hounds have added some genuine star power to their roster so far, including Eagles centre Bryce Campbell and former Melbourne Rebels star Billy Meakes.

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