The MLR – Is It Living Up To Expectations?

Major League Rugby.

Major League Rugby made a welcome return to the schedules in 2021 and the third full season of this competition promises to be the best yet. 12 teams remain in contention for the title and there’s lots of high-class rugby union action in prospect from now until the beginning of August.

MLR began in 2018 and has slowly evolved from that point. This season, an expansion of teams underlines its steady development as it builds on the growing interest in rugby across North America. The organisation has also started to attract some of the bigger names in the sport so, just how far can MLR go?

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The Set-Up.

Those 12 sides currently taking part in MLR consist of 11 franchises from America plus Canada’s Toronto Arrows. The third scheduled campaign, in 2020, was curtailed so we have two completed seasons of Major League Rugby to date. In that time, only one side has ever lifted the trophy with the Seattle Seawolves claiming the two initial titles.

As a result, online sportsbooks like DraftKings tends to list the Seawolves as favorites to win the league moving forward but the competition is growing. New franchise teams have been added on a regular basis since the league was formed with Old Glory DC, Rugby ATL and the New England Free Jacks the latest to join the roster in 2020.

The remaining seven teams currently involved are the Utah Warriors, LA Gilnitis, New Orleans Gold, Austin Gilgronis, Houston SaberCats, San Diego Legion and Rugby United New York. Like the majority of major sporting leagues in the US, MLR features a regular season followed by a series of playoffs. The champions are eventually crowned following a one-off final.

It’s a lengthy campaign and the division is just starting to draw in some of the bigger names in World Rugby.

The Game’s Greatest.

Star players may have been absent from the earlier editions of Major League Rugby but that isn’t the case in 2021. It’s a matter of debate as to who is the best in the division but many observers would point to Adam Ashley-Cooper. The former Australian international is now tearing down the wing for LA Gilnitis and has made quite an impression on his new employers.

Ashley-Cooper has played at four world cups and has 121 caps for the Wallabies. He’s also Australia’s third-highest try scorer and he registered two tries in his first three games for L.A.

Joining Adam Ashley-Cooper at the Gilnitis is fellow Aussie Matt Giteau. Another man to have racked up over 100 caps for his country, Giteau is back in action after sitting out 2020. Other Australians in MLR include Dave Dennis who completes a trio of Wallabies at LA Gilnitis.

All Blacks Presence.

Over at Austin Gilgronis, Jamie Mackintosh is one of four New Zealand internationals currently playing in Major League Rugby. He’s joined by Isaac Ross, Andy Ellis, and Frank Halai.

A former England rugby union captain is also involved with Chris Robshaw having signed for the San Diego Legion for 2021. Robshaw won 66 full caps for his country and he’s joined by fellow Englishman Ben Foden who plays for Rugby United New York.

Other notable international players currently involved in MLR include Santiago Iglesias of Argentina, Kensuke Hatakeyama of Japan, and Canada’s DTH Van der Merwe. Most are at the later stages of their careers but their collective presence is warmly welcomed and can only raise the profile of Major League Rugby around the world.

Drawing Comparisons.

It’s very easy to liken MLR with Major League Soccer in the United States but the comparison is a valid one. MLS started out in the mid-1990s and the inaugural season contained just ten franchises. Fast forward to the 2021 edition and 27 teams are now involved with new clubs being added on a regular basis.

More noteworthy is the fact that Major League Soccer has been able to attract some of the biggest players in the game. David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Gonzalo Higuain are just three of the best.

Major League Rugby has also undergone steady expansion since the first season back in 2018. In those early days, just seven teams took part as Seattle Seawolves drove to their first title. The league was expanded to nine franchises a year later with the current, 12 team set up coming along in 2020.

There’s no reason to believe that this expansion won’t continue until a point where MLR can replicate the size and reach of Major League Soccer.

A Bright Future.

Another important aspect of the developing MLR is the fact that the division is becoming more competitive. Seattle Seawolves may have won the opening two editions but that dominance isn’t expected to continue.

In the most recent final of 2019, the Seawolves were made to work hard by San Diego Legion as they secured a narrow, 26-23 victory. In 2021, the league is already showing that Seattle will have a tough task in securing a historic three-peat.

The presence of big-name overseas players is important for several reasons. Not only will they raise the profile of Major League Rugby, but they will also improve the domestic talent within the squads. In turn, USA Rugby should benefit from their input so the future of the game with the country looks to be exceptionally bright.