The Runner Sports

Meet The USA Rugby League

Most rugby fans know there are two primary rugby codes; Union and League. Many rugby fans in our country are aware of Union in the US and USA Rugby but how many are aware of their League brother? So as the National Rugby League (NRL) kicks off in Australia and Super League takes the pitch in the United Kingdom, the USA Rugby League (USARL), the sanctioned governing body for Rugby League in the US, prepares to operate the semi-professional competition.

Canada’s Toronto Wolfpack are competing in the lower tier of Super League, the first professional transatlantic sports team. Ten US-based players were given a try-out, five were offered professional trial contracts. While USARL alumni Joe Eichner, Casey Clark, Terrance Williams, Marcus Satavu, and Sterling Wynn have yet to make Toronto’s 22-man roster, they would have likely not been given a shot without the USARL.

Together the clubs have finalized their schedule for 2017 which kicks off June 3 and ends with the Grand Final on August 26. This schedule is likely coordinated to coincide with the start of training for the Rugby League World Cup (RLWC) 2017 starting in October.

Who participates in the USARL this season? Unfortunately, two clubs, the Bucks County Sharks and D.C. Slayers, will not be able to participate due to financial issues, leaving 12 clubs to compete; the hope is for their return in future seasons.

 

So getting to the clubs that are participating in the 2017 season we begin with the defending champion and perennial winners the Philadelphia Fight.

Mid-Atlantic Division:

Philadelphia Fight: Without question, the most successful club in the USARL; winner of four out of six Grand Finals and current reigning champion. The favorite to take home the crown again.

Northern Virginia Eagles: One of the newer clubs, the Eagles have not yet found their legs. The highlight of the 2016 season was their 42-24 upset of playoff-bound Boston.

Delaware Black Foxes: A 2015 expansion club still navigating the USARL.

 

Northeast Division:

Boston 13s: With one title in two Grand Final appearances, Boston remains a regular contender to take the crown. Dark horse to upset Philadelphia.

New York Knights: Quickly developing into a contender it would not be a shock if they found themselves in the Grand Final. More likely a playoff team and possible division champion.

Brooklyn Kings: Affiliated with Super League’s Castleford Tigers, the Kings finished last season at 4-0-4 and will likely remain middle of the road this season.

Rhode Island Rebellion: The Rebellion will try to rebound from a one-win season but at best they’ll finish mid-pack.

White Plains Wombats: The newest club in the league went 4-0-4 last season and looks to become the new powerhouse on the block.

 

South Division:

Jacksonville Axemen: One of the USARL model franchises and more successful clubs with one Grand Final in four appearances. A favorite to win it again.

Atlanta Rhinos: Developing into one of the more formidable clubs in the USARL, Atlanta is sponsored by the Super League Leeds Rhinos with a common goal to professionalize the club. Dark horse to upset Jacksonville.

Central Florida Warriors: After three years in the league, the Warriors have never climbed above .500 and went winless in 2016. They’re looking to rebound after a rough season.

Tampa Mayhem: After an impressive campaign in 2016, the Mayhem looks to improve even more in their 4th season.

 

I recently spoke with USARL Chairman, Peter Illfield, about the upcoming 2017 season.

I ask him about the nature of the USARL, “The USARL is a not for profit organization run by volunteers, as is its member clubs.”

With financial issues plaguing two clubs this season it’s hard to imagine expansion is on the agenda but in fact, it is. The USARL have developmental regions where they’re looking to grow the game. Illfield stated the hope is that future clubs have “operational and financial sustainability with appropriate governance.”

Two such developing regions are the upstart Midwest Rugby League led by the Chicago Stockyarders and the new four-team Texas Rugby League Association (TRLA). The TRLA’s Houston Seahawks, San Antonio Coyotes, Austin Cowboys, and Dallas Dragons will compete in a 9s season followed by a 13s season with the ultimate goal being inclusion, one day, in the USARL.

“We desperately require sponsorship and grants,” Illfield said. “To finance development, education, and training and our assault on RLWC 2017.”

The US national team run by USARL is known as the Hawks, coached by Super League power Leeds Rhinos head coach Brian McDermott, and will compete against 13 other nations in the RLWC. The goal, I’d imagine, is the quarterfinals, the dream is to shock the League world.

Financial stability and cohesive relationships are key for the future of the league and the sport in general. The USARL isn’t new to feuding parties and was born out of club dissatisfaction with its predecessor, the American National Rugby League (AMNRL). In 2011, seven clubs broke away to form the USARL, which offered stronger governance and a more democratic approach. I asked Peter about the spilt, “Most of the AMNRL clubs were discontent with the admin so they formed the USARL. I was elected Chair.”

For a couple of years after the split reconciliation negotiations were ongoing to include involvement by Rugby League International Federation, the global governing body. “I attempted to negotiate unity,” Peter told me, but efforts proved unsuccessful. “The AMNRL disbanded, 2 of their clubs joined the USARL.” And now? “All clubs operate under USARL [as of 2015] the AMNRL no longer exists.”

As the undisputed Rugby League in the US, the USARL can focus on the future. I asked Peter about future plans and how the Toronto Wolfpack’s professionalism and the RLWC 2025 coming to North America has changed the pathway of the league. “Nothing at this stage. We are focussed on RLWC 2017. We communicate and work with them (Toronto) to support both our goals.”

Expansion and growth are much easier when there’s more exposure to include broadcasting deals. “USARL matches on YouTube are ad hoc,” Illfield said. Currently, only Jacksonville, Philadelphia, Central Florida, Atlanta, Tampa, Brooklyn, New York, and the USARL have dedicated YouTube channels but not all matches are available.

“Regular broadcasting is required.” Illfield said, and just like their Union brother, that’s been an ongoing struggle and a limiting factor for national growth.

If you’re a fan of League then give the USARL a try, if you live in one of the communities go watch a game or give a stream a watch. It’s not the NRL or Super League but it’s our league and it’s growing.

 

Jason Graves
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Jason Graves

USA Rugby Writer at The Runner Sports
Just a guy with a passion for rugby. Critical thinker and problem solver who likes to write. My sports writing role model was an objective fan, the great Mike Royko!
Jason Graves
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