Going into its fourth season, Major League Rugby has expanded yearly since its inception, and its existence is helping to professional rugby in the United States.
USA Eagles head coach Gary Gold believes it will have a significant effect on the national team’s development.
Gold, who joined the Eagles at the end of 2017, believes the existence of the league offers a chance for players to learn alongside some of the game’s strongest talents while expanding the sport internally.
“Now that you’ve got a situation where guys are able to join a national camp off a season of six, seven or eight months of rigorous training and playing MLR, and living in training environments where they’re honing their skills, it’s huge,” said Gold.
“I’m very excited about the advent of MLR, and there are some really good teams with very good coaching staff, so that’s going to make a significant difference across the board.
“The game wouldn’t be able to improve at national level unless you got [the league] right.
“Thankfully now, we’re getting into a situation where we’re not only reliant on the players, or not so significantly reliant, on the players playing in Europe because of their experience, but because we’re now getting players who are going to ply their trade in the MLR competition.”
Since it began, Major League Rugby has seen several high-profile players joining its ranks, and recent additions include Tendai Mtawarira, Chris Robshaw, Rene Ranger, and Ma’a Nonu. The existence of such experience in the league is something its players will benefit from, says Gold.
“It’s very important that those players do come across to the States and ply their trade, offer their experience.”
“But there’s also a balance that needs to be struck. You don’t necessarily want foreign players coming into the league at the expense of developing your own players.
“As long as it’s a Ma’a Nonu or Tendai Mtawarira, or in this case a Chris Robshaw, they’re all individuals who are genuinely passionate about seeing younger guys develop, and they’re the type of individuals who can share that experience and have a significant effect on players improving.
“Playing with a guy who’s played 103 test matches for the All Blacks, there’s no substitute for that. There’s nothing a coach can do to impart that kind of knowledge and experience.”
While players coming to the United States is a significant asset, Gold also noted how valuable it is to still have national team players overseas, such as AJ MacGinty at Sale Sharks and Titi Lamositele, currently with Montpellier.
The existence of Major League Rugby, however, has reduced the United States’ dependency on Europe to better its players, as the country now has its own development pathway. However, at the same time, the league still cannot offer the same experience of competitions outside the country.
The next stage, Gold thinks, is for Major League Rugby to establish a stopping point, to assess its position and consolidate its teams, to ensure the league is sustainable and can produce players capable of playing for the country.
“I could see it getting to 18 or 20 as a ceiling, and then I think whether that’s a Western Conference of 10 and an Eastern Conference of 10, then really look to try and establish those clubs to being major forces.
“They need to leave it at about 18 teams, and then leave it for four or five years, let the competition and the teams establish themselves and the academies within the organisations start producing homegrown talent.
“To just allow it to grow exponentially at this moment in time, I don’t think there’s enough of an appetite to get to 24 or 28 teams yet.
“Growing it within the American bona fide players, there’s a big portion of people playing the game but quite a large portion of that is foreigners who are based in America.
“That’s a big challenge, in terms of getting USA qualified players playing the game more often.
“That’s where we’re sitting at the moment, it’s almost as if we’ve broken the back on getting MLR up and running now and [the MLR board] have done an outstanding job.”
That might not be quite the challenge that external observers may think, as Gold noted that rugby was more widespread than he had anticipated upon his arrival, remarking he was pleasantly surprised and encouraged with what he saw.
And Gold’s observations make sense; from August to September of 2019, there were nearly 10,000 new senior men’s registrations and almost 3000 new women’s registrations.
“The States is such a massive country, and with the amount of rugby that does actually take place, people don’t really understand how much rugby is played at college and high school level.”
“In a lot of areas, the level of the game could probably do with a little bit of improvement, but it certainly is widespread and there are certain states that take to rugby more, and in those states, the game is played in high schools and that creates the hype.”
The states Gold is referencing include California, New York and Texas who have 16,344, 7148 and 5884 combined men’s and women’s players respectively. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the Dakotas with a combined total of 231 registered players. However, growing the game comes with its own challenges.
“Coaching education, exposure to decent levels of rugby and coaching, it always going to be an ongoing challenge for the states.”
“When [the country] is so far spread out, it’s more difficult to do coach education and player education and development programmes for players to fast-track their skill levels.
“One of the things we are looking at at the moment is that we need a coach education programme to be put into place, to actually see a strategy that gets rolled out.”
Going forward, there’s hope that Major League Rugby clubs can work with the national set-up to implement coaching programmes and player pathways, to reduce the burden on both parties while producing results.
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