With the Six Nations, Super Rugby and the Top League in full swing at this early stage of the year, it’s easy to forget that one of the world’s fastest growing domestic competitions is about to kick-off this weekend.
Major League Rugby will enter its third season of existence on Saturday (local time) when six of the tournament’s 12 teams do battle against one another across North America.
The 2020 campaign brings with it an array of headline acts to provide the MLR, which has expanded from the nine teams that took part in 2019, with unprecedented star power compared to the talent on offer in seasons gone by.
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Perhaps the most significant signing of all the new recruits this year is that of World Cup-winning Springboks prop Tendai Mtawarira.
The 34-year-old joins expansion club Old Glory DC – one of the three new teams alongside Rugby ATL and the New England Free Jacks – from the Sharks in Super Rugby to inject 117 tests worth of experience into the Washington DC-based side.
“I really want to thank the whole Old Glory organisation for making this happen,” Mtawarira said.
“I can’t wait to make an impact on and off the field and help to contribute to making Old Glory the best team in this league.”
Rivalling Mtawarira as the biggest acquisition of the off-season is two-time World Cup-winning All Blacks midfielder Ma’a Nonu, who has linked up with last year’s runners-up, the San Diego Legion, from Super Rugby strugglers, the Blues.
Renowned as one of the greatest second-fives to have ever graced the game, the 37-year-old arrives in southern California with 103 test caps to his name and will act as a leader in a Legion outfit eager to go one place better than last season.
“Ma’a is a huge addition for us,” San Diego coach Rob Hoadley said.
“It’s undeniable that he will have a major impact on the MLR this season. He is a world class player who has proven himself to be one of the greats of the game.”
"Your Fodens and all these other players…They kind of disappear into the background whereas this guy absolutely does not.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 2, 2020
Nonu isn’t the only former All Black who has shifted stateside in the last few months.
One-cap wing Frank Halai has been signed by a re-branded Austin Gilgronis side from Top 14 club Pau, while blockbusting utility back Rene Ranger has re-located to Glendale to suit up for the Colorado Raptors after plying his trade for the Sunwolves last year.
Ranger will partner up with former Wallabies speedster Digby Ioane, who has been lured to the Raptors after spending three years with the Panasonic Wild Knights in Japan.
Likewise, Halai will also play alongside a Wallabies veteran as 35-year-old Adam Ashley-Cooper has signed on with Austin after turning out for the Waratahs in last year’s edition of Super Rugby.
Star French midfielder Mathieu Bastareaud, meanwhile, made headlines last June when he announced his move from Toulon to Rugby United New York to play alongside ex-England fullback Ben Foden.
WATCH: Stateside – A RugbyPass Original documentary
Back-to-back reigning champions, the Seattle Seawolves, have added depth to their roster by signing experienced Argentine loose forward Juan Manuel Leguizamon from the Jaguares.
Adding to the influx of foreign talent is 78-test Japanese prop Kensuke Hatakeyama, who was part of Japan’s 2011 and 2015 World Cup sides and started in the Brave Blossoms’ famous upset against South Africa.
He has joined the Boston-based Free Jacks, and could debut in the franchise’s inaugural competition match against Rugby United New York as part of an opening weekend clash in Las Vegas.
Elsewhere, the New Orleans Gold will host Mtawarira and OldGlory DC on Saturday, and the Raptors will travel to Texas to face the Houston SaberCats.
Rugby ATL will open their MLR account against the Utah Warriors in Atlanta, which will be followed by a replay of last season’s final between the Legion and Seawolves at San Diego’s Torero Stadium.
Round one will be signed off in a cross-conference battle between the Gilgronis and the Canadian-based Toronto Arrows in Austin.
After 17 weeks of action, the top three sides in the eastern and western conferences qualify for the play-offs, with the MLR final expected to take place in June.
2020 Major League Rugby round one:
Houston SaberCats vs Colorado Raptors at Aveva Stadium, Houston. KO: Saturday 12pm ET
New Orleans Gold vs Old Glory DC at Shrine on Airline, New Orleans. KO: Saturday 4pm ET
Rugby ATL vs Utah Warriors at Life University, Atlanta. KO: Sunday 3pm ET
New England Free Jacks vs Rugby United New York at Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas. KO: Sunday 4pm ET
San Diego Legion vs Seattle Seawolves at Torero Stadium, San Diego. KO: Sunday 5pm ET
Austin Golgronis vs Toronto Arrows at Circuit of the Americas, Austin. KO: Sunday 8pm ET
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