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‘They'll bounce back’: MLR pioneer Lance Williams confident league 'will grow’

By Finn Morton
Lance Williams of the Utah Warriors walks onto the field for warm ups before the game against the Los Angeles Giltinis at Los Angeles Coliseum on March 13, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images for LA Giltinis)

As one of the “pioneers” of Major League Rugby, Utah Warriors veteran Lance Williams is confident that the competition is “going to grow” in the wake of a tough period for North American rugby.

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MLR confirmed an “unfortunate” update late last month with Canadian club the Toronto Arrows ceasing operations immediately ahead of the 2024 season.

But there was more bad news on the way for rugby fans up north with 2022 MLR champions Rugby New York also folding in a heartbreaking blow for the sport.

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While it seems that North American rugby and MLR are in a bad spot, the competition may just be experiencing the very same growing pains that all big competitions seem to go through.

World-renowned competitions including the NBA, MLS, MLB and NHL have all experienced the loss of teams folding at some point in their esteemed histories. MLR is not alone in this.

“Prayers to Toronto and New York for falling out in the league but I can’t see anything about it, I don’t know the background of why they’ve fallen off,” Williams told RugbyPass

“I feel like MLR is going to push through because teams like Seattle… Houston, they want to make this league, they want to make MLR capable.

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“I think it’s just finding the right owners and finding the right people to run this league.

“For the past six years, I’ve been with MLR, there was some struggles but that’s the way rugby is. If you want to start a new sport and grow it in the USA, you’ve got to start small.

“I feel like the MLR will grow with these new teams coming in, Miami and LA, (but) they’ve just got to find the right owners.

“My heart and prayers go to New York and Toronto. I feel like they’ll bounce back. It’s never a goodbye it’s a see you later so hopefully they’ll come back because they’re two great teams.

“I feel like it’s going to grow.”

With the new season expected to kick off in the first weekend of March, it’s time to get excited as the best rugby players in America prepare to battle it out for the famed MLR shield.

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The New England Free Jacks are the reigning champions and they’ll be eager to defend their crown, but the Massachusetts-based franchise will face tough competition across the board.

Rugby ATL will move from Atlanta to Los Angeles for the 2024 season, and they’ll be joined by the new kids on the MLR block in the Miami Sharks, and Chicago is still quite new to the scene too.

“Unfortunately the USA didn’t qualify for the World Cup… there’s no other league that’s helping USA grow, the rugby,” Williams said.

“MLR and PR Sevens and all these other guys, they’re taking a shot. You don’t see other people taking a shot to grow this sport (in the US).

“I think MLR is doing a great job right now. I know it’s hard… that’s what it takes, hard work. We’re the pioneers of rugby now.”

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Poorfour 10 hours ago
The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

AI models are really just larger and less transparent variants of the statistical models that have been in use since Moneyball was invented. And a big difference between the Icahn centre’s results and AI today is that ChatGPT-like Large Language Models can explain (to some degree) how they reached their conclusions. In terms of what impact they will have, I suspect it will have two primary impacts: 1) It will place a premium on coaching creativity 2) It will lead to more selections that baffle fans and pundits. Analysts will be able to run the models both ways: they will see their own team’s and players’ weaknesses and strengths as well as the opposition’s. So they will have a good idea at what the other team will be targeting and the decisive difference may well be which coaches are smart enough to think of a gameplan that the other side didn’t identify and prepare for. For players, it places a premium on three key things: 1) Having a relatively complete game with no major weaknesses (or the dedication to work on eliminating them) 2) Having the tactical flexibility to play a different game every week 3) Having a point of difference that is so compelling that there isn’t a defence for it. (3) is relatively rare even among pro players. There have been only a handful of players over the years where you knew what they were going to do and the problem was stopping it - Lomu would be the classic example. And even when someone does have that, it’s hard to sustain. Billy Vunipola in his prime was very hard to stop, but fell away quite badly when the toll on his body began to accumulate. So coaches will look for (1) - a lack of exploitable weaknesses - and (2) - the ability to exploit others’ weaknesses - ahead of hoping for (3), at least for the majority of the pack. Which is likely to mean that, as with the original Moneyball, competent, unshowy players who do the stuff that wins matches will win out over outrageous talents who can’t adapt to cover their own weaknesses. Which will leave a lot of people on the sidelines sputtering over the non-inclusion of players whose highlights reels are spectacular, but whose lowlight reels have been uncovered by AI… at least until the point where every fan has access to a sporting analysis AI.

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