'The Hollywood of rugby': Meet the US investors planning to launch the world's biggest rugby competition
Some of rugby’s global stars could soon find themselves playing in the United States if a group of American investors deliver on their word of creating a new league that has been labelled “the Hollywood” of the sport.
The National Rugby Football League, which has links to the NFL, is set to be launched in two years’ time, with a £7 million (US$8.7m) salary cap equal to that of the Premiership in England.
With plans for an eight-team competition to be held during the NFL off-season between April and July, the proposed league has been likened to that of cricket’s glamorous Indian Premier League.
“Our ambition is to be the biggest league in the world,” Michael Clements, the NRFL commissioner, told The Telegraph.
In pursuit of achieving that, Clements wants to attract the game’s biggest names to his prospective competition.
“Our goal is to put the best product on the pitch so we will need some of the best athletes, whether or not they are the names you mentioned I can’t say,” he said when asked if the likes of two-time World Rugby player of the year Beauden Barrett and England star Maro Itoje were on his hitlist.
Leading rugby agent Hilton Houghton, who represents World Cup-winning Springboks captain Siya Kolisi among others, doubled down on Clements’ comments after being courted by the NRFL.
“They want to make it the Hollywood of rugby,” Houghton told The Telegraph.
“This won’t be a dumping ground for international players. It will be more like the IPL players, where you bring a Ben Stokes or AB de Villiers as your sprinkling of stardust on top of largely domestic squads.”
Clements believes that 16-game season would be an attractive alternative for players on either side of the globe.
Whether it’s through Europe’s lengthy club competitions or a stint in Super Rugby followed by an extensive international calendar, players would face a far less arduous schedule should they commit to the NRFL.
“Players will be paid on par with the big leagues but, making a comparison with the Premiership, they will play half the games,” Clements said.
“Playing half the amount of game time allows the recovery and recuperation and helps the welfare of the player. When you are done playing, you can have a productive life and you are not beat up.”
Tweaks to the laws of the game would be made to “Americanise” the sport in a bid to appeal to the nation’s demographic, which Clements told The Telegraph would help put rugby in the shop window of the rich American sporting landscape.
“The question has to be asked: How can rugby be better positioned?” he said.
“When you look at the top valued sports properties in Forbes’ list, rugby is not there. Once it steps up from behind the curtain and is presented in the highest class fashion then we are going to raise the bar.”
There is already a professional rugby competition in the United States in the form of Major League Rugby, which was in its third season before the coronavirus outbreak forced its cancellation.
MLR had lured the services of some notable rugby figures for its 2020 campaign, included the likes of two-time World Cup-winning All Blacks centurion Ma’a Nonu and former France captain Mathieu Bastareaud.
However, that league would have to compete for attention and player availability against the NRFL should the latter competition get up and running by its slated start date of 2022.
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It isn’t the first time the NRFL has attempted to establish itself as a professional rugby league after Clements initially founded the organisation in 2014.
Over the course of nine months, the NRFL hosted two combines featuring over 130 athletes – including around 50 with NFL experience – in Minneapolis and Los Angeles.
Attempts to field a team or a competition fell flat, though, when an exhibition match in August 2015 between the Leicester Tigers and a composite side made up of players from the combines and international stars was scrapped after USA Rugby and World Rugby withheld sanctioning.
Another professional American rugby competition, PRO Rugby, failed to last beyond one season following its maiden campaign in 2016.
The six-team league, which featured players such as ex-All Blacks Mils Muliaina and Jamie Mackintosh, as well as former star USA Eagles wing Takudzwa Ngwenya, enjoyed a solitary season which finished with the Denver Stampede being crowned as inaugural champions.
The competition folded in 2017 amid financial turmoil, where players and executives claimed they had been left with unpaid salaries following disputes between the league and both USA Rugby and Rugby Canada.
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