LOOKING BACK: MAJOR LEAGUE RUGBY’S FIRST YEAR
As Major League Rugby prepares to announce the 2021 season schedule on Tuesday, December 8th, MLR Correspondent Joe Harvey has taken a look back at the first three years of competition. The three-part feature begins with a range of perspectives on MLR’s inaugural season….
Major League Rugby started in 2018 with just seven teams and eight rounds of action lined up with the opportunity to impress. Those inaugural 31 matches saw rugby embraced in traditional rugby hotbeds, as well as audiences brand new to the sport.
One such place was Houston. Playing at Dyer Stadium that season, the SaberCats’ foundations stem from the Houston Strikers, a local rugby team that decided to re-brand themselves in order to become one of the League’s founding members.
In year one, Australian fly-half Sam Windsor would finish the regular season as the League’s top points-scorer. Coming to MLR with experience as a professional in Northern Ireland with Ulster, Windsor moved to the United States in order to be with his then-fiancé, Becca.
After a spell playing and coaching the Seattle Saracens, Sam would move to Texas to become one of the SaberCats’ first signings. The SaberCats would play 16 games in preparation for the 2018 season, a season in which they would win just a solitary game against near rivals Austin.
“There weren’t many highlights in that first year,” Sam laughed. “But, beating Austin in that first game was a highlight for us and one of the only ones to come out of that year. But I also look back to the work we did late in 2017 and in the early part of 2018, when we played the exhibition season and brought a sport to a city that didn’t know rugby.
“We had over 5000 people at an exhibition game on a cold January night in Houston where people aren’t accustomed to seeing that sport. So that night playing Seattle at the baseball stadium out in Sugar Land was one of the highlights of 2018 and just seeing the League flourish and hanging onto the people that didn’t think it was going to.
“Then just sitting back and knowing that I had a part to play in that was quite rewarding and put a smile on my face, despite us not winning many games.”
In late 2017, San Diego’s Ryan Matyas was preparing to play rugby sevens on the World Series. Living in Chula Vista at the Olympic training center, Ryan has given much of his life to the sport of rugby, living in Wales and New Zealand for periods in his early adulthood in order to play and learn the game.
Even as a teenager, the versatile backfield player would do whatever he could to learn more about the sport. Matyas even recalled a time he took a Greyhound from Tuscon, Arizona to Seattle after hearing that a big name would be visiting a club.
Jumping at the chance to play professional 15’s rugby once more, within days of agreeing to sign for the team, he flew to Colorado to take part in the very first MLR photoshoot.
“I was in a room with a bunch of guys that I had either played with or against,” Ryan said. “So, it was pretty cool sitting in that room. I was just looking around thinking to myself; holy crap. As players pulling on those jersey’s, we were representing MLR and we were on the ground floor of something that had the potential to be here forever.
“It was very surreal. I was the first player to put on a Legion jersey and those six other guys were the first players to put on the colors of their teams, not even for a game, but as representatives of those franchises. It was a special moment for all of us.”
Scoring four tries that season, Matyas and his Legion teammates would go to the MLR Championship Series where they lost 38-24 to the Seattle Seawolves. In many ways that was the start of one of MLR’s favorite rivalries. Since that first season, any game between the two West Coast clubs always led to a fiery affair.
2018 was also the start of Jessamyn McIntyre’s rugby journey. Having extensively covered sport in Seattle for the entirety of the last decade, including 11 years as the sideline reporter for Washington State Univeristy football games. In late 2017, she began to hear rumblings that a professional rugby team was joining the market. Having spent time in Australia while at college, McIntyre was aware of the sport, but had scarcely seen it played in North America.
McIntyre’s first encounter with the Seawolves came when they booked themselves a spot in the first ever MLR Championship Final. Since then, she has become one of the Leagues’ key sideline reporters, traveling across North America to cover the sport.
“I loved the broadcast element because it was treated with complete professionalism and you’d think that everyone would be running around like chickens with their heads cut off, but they weren’t,” Jessamyn said.
“The Seattle staff were amazing. Alicia Richardson who ran marketing and PR for the team was fantastic, Carly MacKinnon who is their social media specialist, and a rugby player herself, she was the person I contacted first to make sure I knew exactly what I was covering. I needed to do right by the sport.
“She immediately got me down there. I went to practice, to classroom sessions, because it was basically a two-week crash course on the sport. MLR is just so different to what I have experienced before. They had it down and I was really impressed by that.”
Since year one, MLR has added to its national coverage. CBS has continued to expand on its national coverage of MLR, and additional partners including ESPN and FOX came on board to further increase the reach of rugby.
“I think the coverage, with the partnerships with ESPN and Fox, having more coverage is huge for the league,” Jessamyn said. “They wouldn’t buy in to take those games on a national level if it was something they thought wasn’t going to be successful. Major networks don’t do pet projects.
“They see a lot of potential success and it is everything that I have seen from the beginning of watching the way this League has grown. We were seven teams to start and it has continued to expand. You see different people in major cities in America, gravitating towards the sport. I have seen tremendous growth and I think the media partnerships are a perfect example of that.”
Stay tuned to take a look back at the 2019 and 2020 seasons of MLR, and be sure to keep up with @usmlr on social media ahead of Season Four.
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