'We were walking down Fifth Avenue, and every ten seconds people were stopping him. French people, Irish people, even Americans'
Sunday will be Le Crunch with a difference for Mathieu Bastareaud. Eight times he faced the old enemy during his 54-cap Test career, everything from a Stade de France Grand Slam clincher in 2010 to last year’s shambles at Twickenham.
This weekend’s Six Nations proceedings, though, will be watched from afar. Manhattan is where one of the most distinctive characters of the French game now rests his head, his Major League Rugby debut set to happen on February 9 in Las Vegas.
The 31-year-old was still in the French mix when he signed his headline-making deal with Rugby United New York and Japan 2019 was supposed to be where he would say sayonara to Les Bleus.
Instead, he never got the chance of a Far East farewell, his surprise exclusion by Jacques Brunel resulting in a short-term experimental stint as a Lyon No8 before his December arrival in the Big Apple via a tour with the Barbarians that was covered by the recently released RugbyPass documentary.
The pattern in America for any big name that previously signed for the MLR was a life in the shadows away from the pitch, an existence where they would walk down the streets without anyone recognising them. Not so, Bastauraud.
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Mathieu Bastareaud featured in the recent Inside the Barbarians RugbyPass documentary
According to James Kennedy, RUNY’s founder and majority shareholder, the 19st-plus midfielder is someone who transcends his sport and his willingness to help the still fledgeling club in any way possible is testament to his infectious spirit of generosity.
“He loves New York,” enthused Kennedy to RugbyPass. “He’s a gentleman, an absolute class act as a human being. He’s loving it. He’s super happy, super engaged. He texted me the other night after training and was like, ‘What can I do to sell tickets, how can I help?’
“That is the kind of person he is and the kind of person we need. He is not a passenger. He is very much, ‘What can I do?’ He is coming to me with, ‘Here’s a t-shirt I designed, can we make it?’ Of course, I’ll make it. If we can sell it I’ll make anything. We are so lucky.
— Rugby United New York (@rugbyunitedny) January 29, 2020
“He is loved in France and their rugby community and we have French players or players who have passed through France reaching out saying, ‘If Basta approves we also want to play there’. It’s not about the money, it’s a couple of years in New York and he has definitely opened the floodgates.
“It’s important they come out here (to check it out) because they need to realise that they are nobodies. Ben Foden was like, ‘Oh I’m a star when he came out here (from England) but nobody knew who he was and it was leveller for him.
“But Bastareaud comes out in June to sign the contract… we were walking down Fifth Avenue from the French consulate to the hotel and every ten seconds people were stopping him. French people, Irish people, even Americans because he is so distinctive. He is a breeze block of a human being, very distinctive, so he definitely stands out.
— Mathieu Bastareaud (@BastaOfficiel) January 15, 2020
“If you’re on the subway with him people look any him. He’s not big, he is just a unit and people who don’t know him recognise him. When I go to dinner with him he gets recognised all the time as opposed to your Fodens and all these other players, your Irish and your English. They kind of disappear into the background whereas this guy absolutely does not.”
As things stand, Bastareaud is signed for just the 2020 season but Kennedy, an Irishman who made his fortune as a builder before taking the plunge and settling up a professional rugby franchise, is optimistic that he will be around for much longer than that due to the attractiveness of living in America. “We’re planning for four years. I think he will be over and back,” he suggested.
“I’m not speaking for him here, but guessing on the information to hand he will be here for four years. Someone like Bastareaud, the idea of a six-month season is very attractive and he still has the freedom to do a fall season or something in Europe.
? VEGAS BABY!! ? MLR Vegas Weekend is returning to Las Vegas’ original home of rugby, Sam Boyd Stadium. For tickets visit:https://t.co/f1m7B7aAz4#vivalasrugby #mlr2020 ???? ?? ??@usmlr pic.twitter.com/7INbclxGNb
— Houston SaberCats (@Hou_Sabercats) January 31, 2020
“The money isn’t good here. What’s he on? He’s on $35k/$45k a year, I can’t remember. It’s not great money but he has made his money and he has got his endorsements and so on. He gets to live his dream being in New York and I’m hoping it will be four years.”
While Europe and beyond is again in thrall to the annual Six Nations, the next few weeks and months are crucial to the MLR taking their product up another few levels. Starting the league in Las Vegas is typical of the big ideas they are investing in and with new money entering the sport, the possibilities are endless given the prevailing attitude – epitomised by Kennedy – is don’t be afraid to fail.
“The values of the sport, they are very important to me. It sounds kitsch but I a few dollars and in the times we live in, Brexit, Trump, all the s*** that is going on in the world, this offers the opportunity to present a different message, a different spin on things.
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“I have a distaste for everyone bitching about the world. I don’t want to be one of those guys, I want to be one of the guys that try to do something. Something I spoke at school recently is the American mentality of accepting the possibility of failure.
“As an Irishman, I wouldn’t have done this ten years ago because I would have been terrified. It would have been, ‘Oh my god, if I fail I would be embarrassed’. But I have become more and more American and the American appetite and acceptance of failure is extraordinary and extraordinarily liberating because that fear of failure can be quite paralysing.”
As it stands the future is bright for RUNY. Fresh finance has recently come in from New-Zealand based investment company Bolton Equities and other clubs are similarly attracting increased interest in their businesses.
“There is more confidence in the entire league. Because we are in New York I get a lot of those phone calls, high-interest companies saying I’m involved in this investment company, I involved with this sports team or this family group.
“With the Boltons coming in, the main thing with them was their willingness to put boots on the ground, help with the heavy lifting. They have people in my office since day one and their investment has definitely 100 per cent given other groups a shot of confidence.
“Over the next year, year-and-a-half, you’re going to see a lot more groups like the Boltons announced. Some of them don’t want to be announced but you will hear of them investing in the league, so it is verification that this league is here to stay. There is sophisticated money coming into it across all teams.”
It hasn't taken the ex-Wallaby long to secure alternative employment following last week's TV setback, and other star names could follow him to America in 2021 https://t.co/p5YF4odhqV
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 28, 2020
MLR’s potential growth is a watch this space situation. Currently, the salary cap is $500,000 per team per year, meaning loads of player salaries being around the $15K mark, plus accommodation and travel costs, for the six months, but Kennedy is happy with the cards he has been dealt in a city heaving with rival attractions.
“It’s not other sports that I would be worried about. We’re not competing with your Giants or your Jets or whatever for fans, we’re competing with apathy and a general trend towards not going to sports events any more.
“Our job is to put on a show. We are also in the events business. Someone has to say, ‘Okay, are we going to go to this rugby match out in Coney Island where RUNY are playing right now, which is not easy to get to, an hour on the subway, as opposed to watching Game of Thrones of whatever you’d be doing?’
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“That’s the challenge and it’s a challenge for all sports. Attendances in the NFL were down four per cent this year and four per cent of your average attendance of 60,000 is a lot. Attendances in baseball are down, basketball is down, so it’s a challenge. But I believe in the sport – we have the opportunity to provide a show and we must do it.
“I don’t bulls*** the players from overseas,” continued Kennedy, who claims America won’t be the only growth explosion for professional rugby as he believes African countries like Kenya are also ready to take the sport to another level.
“There is no money here, you will not make any money but they are desperate for the visa or the green card, or they just what to spend a year in America as these are kids who grew up watching American TV, but you have to find local players because local players sell tickets.
“Bastareaud is great and he probably will sell a couple of hundred tickets a game but a local guy would sell more than that and would be more sustainable, so there is always that outlook. We have to grow local rugby, we have to push rugby on in the local community to make it ultimately survive.”
WATCH: Foden: Stateside, the RugbyPass documentary on how the ex-England international settled into his first season of Major League Rugby with Rugby United New York
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