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'He carries harder than anything I've seen in the Premiership' - two expats give an insight into Major League Rugby

The San Diego Legion are hoping for a big inaugural season in the MLR

The latest attempt to establish a professional competition in the United States will come to fruition next week with the dawn of Major League Rugby (MLR).

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Seven teams from across the country – Austin Elite, Glendale Raptors, Houston SaberCats, New Orleans Gold, San Diego Legion, Seattle Seawolves and Utah Warriors – will compete for the inaugural title and the attention of the sports-mad American public over the following three months.

The play-offs will culminate in a ‘Championship Game’ that will take place at the 6,000-capacity Torero Stadium in San Diego and among those hoping that the hosts grace that stage is the man leading the Legion’s charge – head coach Rob Hoadley.

The former Wasps and London Irish favourite was lured to the ‘land of opportunity’ for the one-season wonder that was PRO Rugby, and while that dream may have sadly died, Hoadley remains committed to growing the game in the USA – but in a different guise.

“Like many, I was intrigued by the potential of the American rugby landscape,” said Hoadley, reflecting on his original decision to switch to the States, “and having spoken to a few people in the game I felt the opportunity to expand my horizons could be something that would really pay dividends in the long term.”

A Premiership and European Cup winner during his playing career, Hoadley was also excited by the chance to build something from the very beginning with the Legion.

“The European rugby landscape is amazing, I love it,” said Hoadley, who began his coaching journey at Wasps under the guidance of Shaun Edwards and who remains a mentor. “I look back on some big Premiership games and European games which were incredible, but essentially you are doing the same thing over and over again.

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“Here it is a whole new landscape. You can pick and choose what you think are the best elements from around the world and create your own vision of how you want to do it and then apply that to the American sporting landscape that is completely unique in itself.”

Hoadley has just 15 full time professionals to work with along with 12 ‘associates’ who will juggle work or study with training. However, the team’s proximity to US Olympic training centre in Chula Vista brings with it an added bonus.

“We also have a deal with USA 7s and head coach Mike Friday where we have access to their players when they are not competing in the World Series,” he explained.

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Someone else who is no stranger to the Sevens Series is Legion forwards and breakdown coach – and former England 7s star – Chris Cracknell.

“It’s just like being in Fiji and trying to create a dream that a lot of people haven’t been able to build over here yet,” said Cracknell, who helped steer Fiji to Olympic gold in 2016 as an assistant to head coach Ben Ryan.

With league regulations stipulating a maximum five overseas players in a match day 23, the pressure is on to identify and develop home grown players.

“We want to stay true to our values in terms of developing American talent,” said Cracknell. “We are blessed to have eight US Eagles with us including the captain Nate Augspurger, Cam Dolan and Ben Cima, the guy who has been doing the rounds on social media recently with his flick kick.”

“We’ve also got young, up and coming talent like Gil Covey and a guy called Sione Tu’ihalamaka who has played Division 1 College Football.

“He’s transitioning from American Football into rugby and he’s an unbelievable athlete, talk about raw power, he carries harder than anything I have seen in the Premiership and Super Rugby.

“His angles and understanding and way of learning is something I don’t think rugby has quite caught up to yet, because he is coming from an American Football background. He is used to a play book five inches thick and so if I give him two or three lineouts to learn he’s like ‘cool’!

“We have got a real mix but again that is exciting for us as a coaching group and we are determined to get them all on the same page as quickly as possible and make this team successful,” concluded Cracknell.

The Legion also benefit from access to the EXOS ‘human performance centre’ in San Diego that Hoadley firmly believes is one of the best training facilities in the world.

“It’s cutting edge, they are training the best athletes in the world,” explained Hoadley. “They have got a depth of knowledge that isn’t available in Europe, it’s different, now we must just apply their knowledge to rugby.”

Hoadley is honest in his assessment of the likely standard of the competition but adamant as to where it will be in the near future.

“The start may be possibly equivalent to National League 1 in England and it is up to us to build it up. The biggest thing you will notice when you compare it to top flight rugby elsewhere is that the speed is not there at this stage.

“The real challenge for the players is to execute skills at a pace above what they are used to.

“For us at the moment in training, we are pushing and exceeding the limits of the players. Skill acquisition is only useful if you can execute under intense pressure.

The Utah Warriors are one of the MLR’s 6 new teams PHOTO CREDIT: Davey Wilson

“A big thing for us is to build that capability and it will take time but now the guys are in a full-time environment there is no excuse for not implementing that.”

But Hoadley knows that his side’s success is just one essential part of the bigger picture that includes the USA Eagles, USA 7s and every other MLR franchise.

“We need to create a great product and really to get eyes on it and engage the American public,” he explained. “At the Legion we need to grow and be competitive but we need the other teams to grow as well so that the product brings people in.

“Gary Gold has already had a great impact on the USA team, they just went back-to-back in the Americas Rugby Championship, and the same weekend Mike Friday’s USA 7s team won the Las Vegas title.

“It’s incredibly encouraging and we want to create a dream pathway for our players that they can play professional rugby and then go on and represent the USA.

“That vision is something that guys can get behind and we’ll start attracting more and more of the best athletes which should help create success for the Legion, success for American rugby a great product that people around the world want to be involved with.”

Watch episode one the RugbyPass Original: ‘Rugby Explorer’ with Jim Hamilton

Ex-Scotland international, Jim Hamilton, travels to Singapore to explore the city and find out more about the rugby scene in the Southeast Asian country. He meets up with the national team captain and several local players.

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