A year after the last Major League Rugby season was abruptly cut short amid the COVID-19 pandemic, North America’s premier club competition is back for its fourth instalment this weekend.
Available to watch live and on-demand for free on The Rugby Network, the 2021 edition of MLR kicks-off this weekend when NOLA Gold host Old Glory DC in New Orleans on Saturday [local time].
In anticipation of the new season, we have devised a XV made up of the biggest new and returning stars on show in the league this year.
1. Jamie Mackintosh (Austin Gilgronis)
Nation: New Zealand
Test caps: 1
Former teams: Southland, Highlanders, Chiefs, Montpellier, Ohio Aviators, Pau, Otago
One of four former All Blacks in this composite team, Jamie Mackintosh returns to continue his second stint in the United States after first turning out for the Ohio Aviators in the ill-fated PRO Rugby competition in 2016.
The demise of that league saw the one-test international extend his journeyman-like career with Top 14 club Pau before linking up with Austin Gilgronis last year.
Mackintosh made three appearances for the Texan club before COVID-19 hit, which allowed him to return home to New Zealand to take up a player-coach role with Otago in the Mitre 10 Cup – the same position he will have in Austin this season.
2. Dylan Fawsitt (Rugby United New York)
Test caps: 15
Former teams: Ohio Aviators, Glendale Raptors
A valued member of the USA Eagles, Ireland-born hooker Dylan Fawsitt will captain Rugby United New York in their third season of existence.
After moving to the United States in 2014 to attend Life University in Georgia, the 30-year-old has made every post a winner in his American rugby career, turning out for the likes of RUNY, Ohio Aviators and Glendale Raptors in the past five years.
Following his international debut for his adopted nation came in 2018, Fawsitt played the back-up role to 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year nominee Joe Taufete’e in three of their side’s four matches at that year’s World Cup in Japan.
3. Kensuke Hatakeyama (New England Free Jacks)
Test caps: 78
Former teams: Suntory Sungoliath, Newcastle Falcons
A vastly experienced prop, Kensuke Hatakeyama is back for his second season with the New England Free Jacks in Weymouth, Massachusetts.
The 78-test Brave Blossoms front rower made two appearances for New England last year and is bound to add plenty more caps to his name in 2021 as a seasoned veteran of the game.
Hatakeyama, who played his last test for Japan in 2016 and has won two Top League titles with Suntory Sungoliath, attended the 2011 and 2015 World Cups and started in his side’s famous victory over South Africa in Brighton six years ago.
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4. Isaac Ross (Austin Gilgronis)
Nation: New Zealand
Test caps: 8
Former teams: Canterbury, Crusaders, Highlanders, Chiefs, NTT Communications Shining Arcs, Tasman
After almost a decade of action in Japan with NTT Communications Shining Arcs, former All Blacks lock Isaac Ross has joined Austin Gilgronis for the 2021 season as a player-coach.
The victim of an obscure Top League rule that cost him his contract with the Shining Arcs last year, the eight-test international returned to New Zealand to link up with Tasman in a brief stopover before jetting off to Texas.
During his time with the Mako, Ross won his fourth New Zealand provincial title, adding to the hat-trick of championships he won with Canterbury between 2008 and 2010 and the Bledisloe Cup status he helped the All Blacks retain in 2009.
5. Dave Dennis (LA Giltinis)
Test caps: 18
Former teams: Waratahs, Sydney Stars, Exeter Chiefs
Capable of playing at lock, blindside flanker or No 8, former Wallabies utility forward Dave Dennis has found a place in this side in the second row.
One of the foundation players of the MLR’s newest franchise, the LA Giltinis, the 35-year-old is part of a strong Australian contingent at the Venice Beach-based club.
Dennis brings with him a plethora of experience, including 18 tests for the Wallabies and a Super Rugby title and over a century of caps for the Waratahs, as well as two Premiership crowns and a European club championship with Exeter Chiefs.
6. Tera Mtembu (New England Free Jacks)
Nation: South Africa
Test caps: 0
Former teams: Sharks
The only uncapped member of this side, former Sharks loose forward Tera Mtembu still possesses plenty of quality that is likely to prove crucial to the New England Free Jacks’ aspirations this season.
A long-time member of the Sharks at both Super Rugby and Currie Cup level, the 30-year-old is a versatile back rower that can cover blindside flanker, openside flanker and No 8.
Despite being bereft of test caps, Mtembu has represented South Africa at U20 level and in sevens, and was a bronze medallist at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, India.
7. Chris Robshaw (San Diego Legion)
Test caps: 66
Former teams: Harlequins
Arguably the MLR’s biggest signing of the 2021 campaign, former England captain Chris Robshaw is undoubtedly the marquee acquisition for the San Diego Legion.
Joining the Californian club on a two-year deal, the 34-year-old departs England as a one-club man after racking up 300 appearances, a 2012 Premiership title and 2006 RFU Championship crown for Harlequins over a 15-year period.
Robshaw also triumphed twice in the Six Nations – winning one Grand Slam and two Triple Crowns – during his 66-test tenure with England, who he captained 42 times between the 2012 Six Nations and the 2015 World Cup.
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8. Cam Dolan (NOLA Gold)
Test caps: 51
Former teams: Northampton Saints, Cardiff Blues, San Diego Legion, Nottingham
The USA Eagles’ second-most experienced player at the 2019 World Cup, Cam Dolan stands as one of the most valuable homegrown players in the United States.
Hailing from Fort Myers in Florida, the 31-year-old is one of the few American players to have cracked the professional ranks in Europe, having played in the Premiership for Northampton and in the PRO14 for Cardiff.
Dolan, a veteran of 51 tests and two World Cups, returned to the United States in 2018 to join the San Diego Legion for the inaugural MLR season before linking up with NOLA Gold the following year.
9. Andy Ellis (Rugby United New York)
Nation: New Zealand
Test caps: 28
Former teams: Canterbury, Crusaders, Kobelco Steelers
Former All Blacks scrumhalf Andy Ellis has come out of retirement to sign with RUNY for the 2021 campaign in what is a major coup for the Brooklyn-based club.
One of the longest-serving Crusaders players of all-time, the 37-year-old brings with him a ton of title-winning experience to the franchise, with his biggest accolade coming in 2011 when he was part of the World Cup-winning New Zealand side.
Ellis was also part of the 2007 World Cup squad and has won a Tri-Nations and a Bledisloe Cup with the All Blacks, a Super Rugby title with the Crusaders, six provincial championships with Canterbury and a Top League crown with the Kobelco Steelers.
10. Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias (San Diego Legion)
Test caps: 41
Former teams: Pampas XV, Jaguares, Munakata Sanix Blues
Able to play at both flyhalf and inside centre, Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias brings with him almost half a century of tests worth of experience to the San Diego Legion.
Having taken part in Argentina’s run to the 2015 World Cup semi-finals, the 32-year-old has played at the highest echelons of the game, a facet that will be vital in the Legion’s hopes of clinching a first-ever MLR title.
Iglesias, a former member of the now-defunct Jaguares, joins the Californian club from Top League side Munakata Sanix Blues.
11. Frank Halai (Austin Gilgronis)
Nation: New Zealand
Test caps: 1
Former teams: Waikato, Counties Manukau, Blues, Wasps, Pau
Another one-test All Black, imposing wing Frank Halai is back for his second season with Austin Gilgronis after debuting for the Texan side in 2020.
The 33-year-old made a promising start to his American club career, as well, dotting down twice in just three appearances before the season was cut short thanks to COVID-19.
Prior to his stint in the United States, Halai accrued 60 appearances in European club rugby with Wasps and Pau, as well as 39 for the Blues in Super Rugby.
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12. Matt Giteau (LA Giltinis)
Test caps: 103
Former teams: Brumbies, Western Force, Toulon, Suntory Sungoliath
A major pick-up for the LA Giltinis and MLR as a whole, former Wallabies centurion Matt Giteau is set for his first taste of action in over a year this weekend.
The 38-year-old’s three-year stint with Suntory Sungoliath came to an abrupt end last year because of COVID-19, but one of the game’s modern-day stars still has the playmaking touch that has made him one of Australia’s all-time greats.
With two Super Rugby titles, a Top 14 championship, three European Champions Cups and a Top League crown to his name, Giteau will relish the challenge of adding an MLR winners’ medal to his packed rugby CV.
13. Adam Ashley-Cooper (LA Giltinis)
Test caps: 121
Former teams: Brumbies, Waratahs, NSW Country Eagles, Bordeaux Begles, Kobelco Steelers, Austin Gilgronis
Partnering his long-time teammate in this side’s midfield is fellow former Wallabies veteran Adam Ashley-Cooper, who has also joined the LA Giltinis following a match-less spell with Austin Gilgronis last year.
The 36-year-old is Australia’s third-most capped player of all-time and, with 39 test tries, is also the third-highest try-scorer in the country’s history.
Ashley-Cooper, who is equally adept at wing and fullback, is also one of a few players to have played at four World Cups, having last played for the Wallabies at Japan 2019, and brings with him title-winning experience from Super Rugby and the Top League.
14. DTH van der Merwe (LA Giltinis)
Test caps: 61
Former teams: Saracens, Glasgow Warriors, Scarlets, Newcastle Falcons
Another member of the LA Giltinis, former Canadian international DTH van der Merwe will hope to bring his prolific try-scoring record with him into his first season of MLR.
An experienced operator of 60 tests and four World Cups, the South African-born 34-year-old holds the record for most test tries scored by a Canadian, bagging 38 of them between 2006 and 2019.
Van der Merwe, a two-time PRO14 champion with the Glasgow Warriors and Scarlets, also racked up over 100 appearances across two different stints with Glasgow and is the club’s all-time leading try-scorer after having dotted down 58 times.
15. Ben Foden (Rugby United New York)
Test caps: 34
Former teams: Sale Sharks, Northampton Saints
Former England international Ben Foden returns for his third season with RUNY after arriving as the club’s marquee signing in their debut campaign in 2019.
A veteran of over 300 Premiership matches split between Sale Sharks and Northampton Saints, the 35-year-old also attended the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand and was part of the England squad that scooped up the 2011 Six Nations title.
A Premiership champion with Northampton in 2014, Foden has, to date, played in all of RUNY’s 21 matches since their inception and has contributed a solitary try.
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