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The Scramble to Get The Anthem into MLR

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The Scramble to Get The Anthem into MLR

USA hopefuls have their own team in MLR now with Anthem NC.

The arrival of Anthem RC into Major League Rugby seems fairly logical on first glance.

After all, we have seen other national-team-supported teams in professional leagues, such as Fiji Drua, the Argentina Jaguares, and most of the teams in Super Rugby Americas. GRR sat down with USA Rugby High Performance General Manager Tamara Sheppard as well as USA Rugby COO Johnathan Atkeison to discuss how it all came about.

Was It Planned?

Not really. The idea of having a professional team overseen by USA Rugby in some form was certainly something the organization wanted, but they hadn’t developed a clear plan for that yet. The USA Hawks program in Charlotte had played against some Super Rugby Americas teams, but not as part of the competition as a whole, and that might well have been the plan

Sheppard told GRR that even as she was interviewing for the HP GM job, there were discussions with USA Rugby CEO Ross Young, Atkeison, and current USA Men’s 15s Head Coach Scott Lawrence about finding more high-level games for Eagles and for players who are close to being Eagles.

“When you look at what Drua’s been able to achieve and what Argentina’s been able to achieve, you see it’s a stepping stone to High Performance and this is a great opportunity to see American talent play more games. It was always in our plans; it just came about a little quicker than I thought we were going to aim for.”

So there was a movement to find a volume of high-level games for high-potential players.

And then the NY Ironworkers dropped out of Major League Rugby, and MLR was stuck with 11 teams.

The Scramble to Get it Done

Atkeison added that the idea of getting a USA Rugby-run pro team of some sort has been part of their conversations with World Rugby for quite some time. It’s a part of the buildup to the 2031 and 2033 World Cups. 

But the loss of the Ironworkers opened an opportunity to put a team into Major League Rugby came up … with a deadline.

“We’ve been in discussions with MLR the last two years about how we work with the partnership,” said Atkeison. “Last year we partnered with the Hawks program, and we were discussing what the future of that program was. And then the opportunity presented itself.”

What followed was, both said “an incredible amount of hard work.” Daily phones calls, long phone calls; desperate planning. MLR had to commit to re-doing the schedule they had already been forced to chance because of the Ironworkers.

Atkeison joked (not completely unseriously) that he owed Nishant Nereyeth and Aaron Castro (MLR’s Dir. of Operations and Competitions Manager, respectively) a nice dinner out.

But they worked together and worked quickly. World Rugby got behind the funding (which they share with World Rugby—the Anthem team takes no funds away from USA Rugby). MLR got behind the scheduling. 

“We were all committed to the framework,” said Atkeison. “It was just a question of timing. Trying to align USA Rugby, World Rugby, and Major League Rugby can be quite tricky, but everyone was committed to it. It really demonstrates about anything the power of unifying around a common mission.”

The Bones Were There

Meanwhile, the nuts and bolts of the actual team had to be taken care of. That, said Sheppard, was where having the Hawks program in place helped a lot, along with their support from the US Performance Center in Charlotte.

“We’re really fortunate the partnership with USPC in Charlotte,” said Sheppard. “With that we already had an environment where we could bring in the athletes; we had a foundation. The USPC are really supportive of rugby and we’re really fortunate to have that Charlotte base for both the men’s and women’s 15s. And this is just putting another layer on a partnership that we know works.”

And, added Atkeison, they had more of “the bones,” as he put it, of the program—not just the Hawks program and players, but the volunteers and other workers around the Hawks were in place.

So there is an organization around which they can form a team. There were players already slated to play for the Hawks who will be on the Anthem. Alama Iremia, USA assistant coach, will be the Head Coach of the Anthem team. Players are already coming in, but more will come. Almost all will be USA-eligible, but there will be a small number who are not who will be on the team as veteran mentors to bring the team up to speed. 

While there is no age limit to the team—it’s not the USA U23 team—there will be a goal of fielding up-and-comers over established USA internationals.

“Eagles who are established on other MLR teams, we want them to stay on those teams and keep being a big part of those teams,” said Sheppard. 

The goal, then, is to put together a team of players with a future, and while there is no age restriction, expect the players to be relatively young. 

The players will be paid, and they will be paid as part of the Major League Rugby salary guidelines and follow the salary cap. Compared to what USA hopefuls were getting before this all happened, this is a big step forward.

There are some things to figure out as the year progresses. Key among them would be the draft—seeing as being part of the USA pathway is attractive to players, and USA Rugby has their other pathway programs which might, in a strict sense, circumvent MLR’s no tampering rules, something will have to be figured out. It is quite possible that the Anthem might not participate in the draft at all, but instead be there to sign players who aren’t drafted or don’t wish to sign with any other MLR team. 

How all of that works will have to be figured out. 

The Money

Funding, as stated above, is from World Rugby and Major League Rugby. 

“We are the beneficiaries, absolutely, of this program,” said Atkeison. “And huge thanks to them for giving us the opportunity.”

And it will cost money—it’s running a sports franchise and so there’s pay for the players, use of the American Legion Memorial Stadium, paying the coaches, travel, food, and other aspects.

But, added Sheppard, “it doesn’t take away from our other programs. Usually everything comes with a cost but this is actually an add-on for us.”

The roster will be finalized over the next few weeks. There’s still a lot of work to be done. But after all the scrambling, what has kind of fallen into USA Rugby’s lap is a chance to put fledgling Eagles into a professional environment playing against other professionals and internationals and playing for a trophy. It took some quick work and some open minds to get here, but we’re here.

And, said Sheppard, “it’s nice to finally be able to talk about it.”