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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Cody's Take: PRO Rugby Looks Promising

By Cody Schmelter

The night before the third RWC final between South Africa and New Zealand, SANZAR announced a media deal creating not only the Tri Nations (now the Rugby Championship) but the Super 12 (now Super Rugby) as well.

That announcement came on June 23, 1995. Two months later, on August 26, 1995, rugby union crossed into the world of professional sports. Roughly six months later the Super 12 opened play. Does that time line sound familiar? Eight months from announcement to launch. For a 12 team league.

PRO Rugby announced their league on November 9th and plan to start play in April 2016. Five months from announcement to launch. For a 6 team league. This might seem like a short amount of time (it is) and it has left many rugby fans skeptical. After the failings of the NRFL we have every right to wonder if PRO Rugby will ever put a match on the pitch. But I think it will.

Take the jump to read more.

There is a lot we don’t know about PRO Rugby but there are a lot of reason I think it will succeed.

1) Unlike previous attempts that publicized every step they took, we really don’t know how much work PRO Rugby has done already. It has been kept a secret for so long. It seems that instead of prancing around claiming what they are going to do, they put in the work behind the scenes until they were ready to show their hand.

2) They are targeting rugby players. The NRFL was targeting and promoting crossover athletes. While that presents a fascinating discussion, (who wouldn’t want to see J.J. Watt playing flanker or Calvin Johnson playing in the backline?) they failed to market to the correct audience. It seems like the NRFL was targeting the casual sporting fan, not rugby fans. If you’re looking to start a professional sports league, I suggest you market to the fans of that sport and not people who have no idea how many people are suppose to be on the field. PRO Rugby is targeting a rugby audience. The MLS wasn’t created for people to watch past-their-prime NFL players kick around a different shaped ball (ahem, Chad Johnson), it was created for soccer fans.

3) They have the blessing of USA Rugby and World Rugby. I’ll admit, I was looking forward to the “Rough Riders” vs. Leicester match. It was shut down because it wasn’t sanctioned by the powers that be. PRO Rugby already has that hurdle jumped.

4) Unlike most collegiate sports, PRO Rugby won’t have to battle the NCAA over amateurism. Major collegiate rugby is played under two bodies: USA Rugby and the Varsity Cup, not the NCAA. This should allow PRO Rugby to draft top college players while they are still in school**. Thus putting the best players available on the pitch.

**I’ll admit I don’t the first thing about the legality of the scholarships given to rugby athletes. I could be totally off base with paying players while they are still in school, but with the NCAA out of the way, that headache seems to be gone.

5) In the rugby community, there are already USA Rugby stars fans would pay to see, names they already know. From the sevens side there are guys like: Danny Barrett. Zach Test. Madison Hughes. Carlin Isles. Perry Baker. Andrew Durutalo. Not to mention current fifteens players still here stateside. Guys like Mike Petri (NYAC), Phil Thiel (Life), Lou Stanfill (Seattle Saracens), Tim Stanfill (Seattle Saracens), Zach Fenogilo (Glendale Raptors) and Seamus Kelly (San Fransisco Golden Gate).

6) With PRO Rugby launching post World Cup, there is a chance to snag some top players bowing out from international rugby: Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Paul O’Connell, Ali Williams was already committed to playing at least one match stateside (as captain of the NRFL’s Rough Riders side). Rugby is full of generally nice guys and if they want to help grow the game and enjoy basically a four month paid vacation doing what they love (top cricket players enjoy playing in the Caribbean Premier League), why not come give it a go over here in the US?

7) I look to Major League Lacrosse as the model to follow for PRO Rugby.  A quick look at their website and the statistics seem to match up: they have roughly the same amount of players (230 vs 180), amount of teams (eight vs six) and their season is in a similar window (April to August vs April to July). Oh and did I mention that Lacrosse doesn’t have near the same worldwide audience? If the MLL can succeed with an arguably smaller fan base, why can’t PRO Rugby?

So even with an accelerated timeline, I believe PRO Rugby will put a product on the pitch in 2016 and I can only hope it continues to grow the way rugby in the US already is. If soccer turned professional in the 1800s and the MLS was launched in 1993, it would seem that professional rugby in the United States has quite a bit of a head start.

I will acknowledge that the Tri Nations and Super 12 had a huge finical boost (some 550 million 1995 dollars) and a public (the Southern Hemisphere) ready for the product, I am just using it as a parallel to the timeline of PRO Rugby.


  1. your comments about the MLL at the end is exactly what I have been saying for years. small fan base, primarily played in one part of the country and handful of varsity college programs yet lacrosse in this country has two leagues ! indoor and outdoor. rugby is a more global sport, played from coast to coast and is gaining more varsity programs every year from small to large colleges. I cant see why rugby wont work. fallowing the MLS and MLL should and could lead to a healthy league where 10 yrs from now we will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of this league versus wondering what went wrong. start small, be smart and grow slowly and this league just might stand a chance.

  2. The PRO rugby project has already awoken the naysayers with a vested interest in preserving the status quo of rugby in the USA but you have to start somewhere. It seems that the "owners" are in for the long haul so it should not be a one year wonder. It also seems that rugby players rather than cross overs are being targeted, a good move as it is much easier to improve the athleticism of a rugby player than convert athletes into rugby men so it will be a good stage for developing players to hone their skills in a competitive environment more challenging than the PRP and the ARP competitions, hopefully with a corresponding feeder system into the Eagles set up. We have the players, we have the coaches and we have he refs so the members of the USA rugby community should embrace the project and support it in any way they can. Having said that though I have three concerns.
    1.That there is a team in Southern California ( selfish reasons as I live there.)
    2.That contracted players are fully covered by a suitable health insurance scheme with no out of pocket expenses, written into their contracts, which will allow them access to first class sports medicine including surgery and physical therapy for injuries which will inevitably come.
    3. That there is strict adherence to World Rugby concussion protocol at all matches and training, a real no brainer, and that a qualified medical practitioner is present at all games to oversee testing.

  3. Cody, I love point #6, that international players with huge names in the rugby world could come and support this effort. Paid vacation you say, but maybe a paid vacation out of the spotlight that dogs them in their home countries.

    And, yes, I would love to see guys like Mike Petri and Seamus Kelly get paid for their efforts.

  4. It's great not to see that horrific word "League" attached to the end. Remember its a Union game. Which has more nouse than a league