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'People are terrified' - New York rugby boss on life in the red zone and where now for the MLR

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Victor J. Blue/Getty Images)

Trending on RugbyPass

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James Kennedy is just in the door at home in New York following an eye-opening Tuesday morning volunteering in a soup kitchen. More and more, the Irishman’s adopted home city is shutting down, the coronavirus pandemic strangling the usual rhythm to life in the Big Apple. 


It was March 19 when the plug was pulled on the 2020 Major League Rugby season, creating one loose end for the majority owner of the Rugby United New York franchise. 

The gradual lockdown of the metropolis then became another loose end, the Murphy Kennedy Group, his full-service construction company, taking the necessary steps to temporarily silence its machinery and hunker down with its employees. 

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Rugby United New York’s Ben Foden chats to Jim Hamilton in the latest episode of The Lockdown, the RugbyPass pandemic interview series
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Rugby United New York’s Ben Foden chats to Jim Hamilton in the latest episode of The Lockdown, the RugbyPass pandemic interview series

Now this, a volunteer service that just can’t get the necessary number of helpers to properly deliver its all-important service to the neediest people in the area. 

“It’s getting more and more lockdown every day,” said Kennedy to RugbyPass. “I’m just back from the city and it’s post-9/11 lockdown now. It wasn’t really last week because a lot of companies, including my own company, were working, but every day you can see it more and more. 

“There are more cops on the streets than there is anything else but then even the police, they have so many people out sick that they may soon be looking for volunteers. Everything is winding down. It has gone through the cycle of, ‘Oh, let’s plan for every project now’ to ’s***, money is being bled out of this economy so maybe of all those projects we will do half of them’. It’s all relative. 

“I’m in construction and in a good spot. We’re not hand to mouth or anything like that. My employees will be looked after. But I’ll tell you, I haven’t looked at the news – I’ve had nothing on outside of weather forecasts in a day and bit – but I’d say there must have been hundreds of thousands of people laid off in New York City yesterday because almost everybody I know directly or indirectly got laid off on furlough in every industry except healthcare. 


“That will be catastrophic. You have already laid off hundreds of thousands of waiters and waitresses and service industry people, now they have laid off hundreds of thousands of professional services, attorneys, accountants, designers, engineers, architects, etc, etc. The numbers must be staggering. 

“That is going to be pretty scary but listen, we think in two months it will bounce right back. I’m thinking of going out and recruiting, hiring people right now because it is to hard to find talent in New York. On the construction side, if a project manager is available now, I just might hire him and pay him to stay at home for two months because when it comes back it is going to be so busy. Just so busy.

“Then there is the simple things. I volunteer at a soup kitchen – that is where I worked this morning. The soup kitchen has been going since the 80s and it can’t get many volunteers because people are terrified. But you’re going into a commercial kitchen so you’re already wearing hairnets, beard nets and masks, everything, so there is nothing to be scared of. It’s probably the cleanest place you could be, but there are all these little effects that you don’t really think about.”

If there is one thing that has most bugged the rugby fanatic in the ever-evolving situation it’s what has taken place at Central Park. “The shortage of hospital beds is the most serious thing but I was talking to a client yesterday, doing a lot of Zoom calls, and he was, ‘Oh my god, they are putting a field hospital up in Central Park’, and I was like, ‘That is ridiculous’. 


“I have worked healthcare (construction) most of my professional life and I know what a field hospital takes. It takes 24 hours to put a field hospital up any place, but there are so many facilities they haven’t yet fully used. Putting a field hospital in Central Park is just going to terrify the population, but that is definitely political. Someone has said, ‘Let’s put one in Central Park and make a statement’. It’s a terrible statement.”


Life in a sportless world has been curious, to say the least. Instead of gearing up for another busy weekend of Major League Rugby, the tapestry of spring has been disrupted like never before. “There is nothing to mark the weeks, so mostly I don’t know what day it is. I know today is Tuesday because I was volunteering and it was in my calendar, but other than that every day is the same. 

“There is nothing like the game is on Sunday or I must watch the Giants on Saturday or whatever it is. There is nothing to define the days of the week, so it’s strange. I was talking last night to a deputy commissioner, someone who has been in professional sports his whole adult life, and he said ‘I’m watching Korean baseball’. 

“It’s the only live sport available right now and they’re killing it. They are playing in indoor arenas with no fans and it is all in Korean, but baseball in America is all watching Korean right now.”

MLR headed into its own hibernation last month with its head held high. There was no dithering, no waiting to see if the coronavirus threat was genuinely all it was being made out to be. The dozen clubs unanimous agreed to call a halt just five rounds into the 2020 season. Not only that, they decided to pay all player contracts in full, a magnanimous decision they hope will add sheen to their burgeoning reputation as an upstart league going places in the long term.

“We’re a young league and it is not English Premiership salaries you’re talking about. But it was the right thing to do for the players, and on the marketing side to help bring players back (next year). Calling it earlier was very important. I told my players the Monday before (it was announced on the Thursday) that we had to call it. 

“The message was ‘go home and be with your families and if we need you back I’ll pay to fly you back’. But it was the right call and it was unanimous on both sides. The MLR have a good group of owners who are not selfish, which is important. 

“If we had some bigger TV deals it might have been a different story. That is why the European leagues are clinging on and saying they are going to play, to keep those deals current and relevant. But it’s unusual for sure that we stopped so quickly.

“We were also the first sport to switch to virtual. Rugby doesn’t lend itself to entertainment on Twitch but it’s more something to keep the players engaged and just keep stuff in the news cycle. We’re all trying hard to keep our fans entertained, I guess. People want content, they want news, they want something that is not Covid.

“It’s now about building for next season. I know Greg (McWilliams, RUNY coach) is working really hard on recruitment and that gets me really excited. You’ll find some golden nuggets, American players that are literally in the sticks someplace, or you’ll have a high profile player come in on a low wage from overseas who just want the experience.” 

The short-lived 2020 campaign was the MLR’s third season since foundation and Kennedy glimpsed enough in its short few weeks to insist the quality of rugby is going in the right direction. “I was really surprised by how good the three expansion teams were in a positive way. I was especially guffawing at DC and they come out really strong… San Diego were in a class of their own, but New York were quickly catching up. 

“It was shaping up to be a good year with good rugby. A lot of teams still had players to come in who had visa situations, which should be fixed in a couple of months so we don’t have to deal with it again. We got Evan Mintern and Drew Mitchell’s visas two weeks ago, so they would have been in and playing with us along with a few other guys so, but that would have been the same across the league. 

“The quality of the productions across all the teams got a lot better which is important, you can see the quality of coaching has got a lot better and there were more American players playing. I have watched all the games back and there is still a little over-coaching going on. You see it a lot in club rugby in America, it’s ‘I saw the All Blacks’ or ‘I saw Racing do this so let’s do this’. 

“It should be, ‘No, no, no, just do the basics. Don’t worry about stuff that those guys spend thousands of hours perfecting. You’re not Finn Russell, you’re not Simon Zebo and you’re not Teddy Thomas, don’t do that’. There is still a bit of that. I think coaches get nervous and it’s, ‘Oh my god, we’re on national TV, I want to bring some sexy’. But they just need to keep it simple, the sexy can come later. That is just inexperience as well and that will all change over time.”


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