Rugby New York will host the Major League Rugby championship game on Saturday, at the Red Bull Arena in New Jersey. Regardless of the result, the city of Seattle, nearly 3,000 miles away, will celebrate.
The mayor, Bruce A Harrell, joined other local leaders in declaring 25 June Seattle Seawolves Community Pride Day, in recognition of the two-time champions’ reaching a third MLR final in five seasons. (Four completed, 2020 having been lost to Covid.)
An official proclamation recognised “deep ties to our community” and “strong, positive role models for the young people in Seattle”. The mayor also praised “one of the most passionate and vibrant fanbases in the league and beyond”.
The Red Bull, a Major League Soccer venue, can hold 25,000 fans of any degree of passion. New York have sold out JFK Stadium in Hoboken this year but it holds just 1,500. After beating the New England Free Jacks in the eastern championship game, they have had less than a week to sell tickets fo the final. The game will be broadcast on Fox Sports 1 in the US and online around the world. MLR crowds are growing but small; a good-looking showpiece would be handy.
George Killebrew, the MLR commissioner, told the Guardian: “Having your finals in Los Angeles or New York is the biggest stage you can be on. So we had the final at the LA Coliseum last year, and then the final at Red Bull Arena this year. You want to be big on the coasts.
“We put 9,000 or so in the Coliseum [to see LA beat Atlanta]. There is a much shorter window here in New York. So I think … 5,000 would be awesome. The way they’re configuring the stadium, they’re focusing in on those sections that are camera-visible. If we can get those somewhat filled, I think we’ll have a good day.”
MLR is forever in the shop window, seeking to prove itself to American sports fans, to rugby fans round the world and now to World Rugby itself. In May, the governing body placed a major bet, announcing US World Cups in 2031 and ’33.
That was seen as a major boost for MLR but not all has run smoothly since. Just before the playoffs, the league announced the disqualification of the Austin Gilgronis and LA Giltinis, two teams owned by one Australian entrepreneur, Adam Gilchrist, and named for cocktails named after him.
LA were champions last year, Austin top of the west this time. Fans were frustrated by MLR’s silence about why the teams were disqualified. Eventually a statement said Austin failed to co-operate with a salary cap investigation and LA pursued “conduct deemed detrimental to the league”. Since then, little has been said by anyone.
Killebrew said: “I can’t say anything on the record, for obvious reasons. One day when we get to tell the story, it’ll be a good one. But right now, we can’t really say much.
“I hate that, by the way, because fans deserve more. They deserve clarity and they need to know if they’re going to follow this league.
“We’ve been monitoring social media and everything and there were a couple of grumblers but for the most part, people kind of just moved on and now here we are in the finals with two other teams.”
New York finished the regular season 11&5, behind the Free Jacks and Rugby ATL of Atlanta. Then they beat them both away from home. Seattle went 9&7 while Austin were 12&4 and LA 11&5 but the disqualifications happened and the Seawolves saw off the Houston SaberCats, coached by Heyneke Meyer, once of South Africa, to make the championship game.
At the Red Bull, a 12pm ET kick-off will present challenges. For one thing, on the field in Harrison, NJ the heat will be north of 85F or 30C. But the early kick-off will also give European viewers a chance to watch at teatime.
Now MLR is five years old, Killebrew said, “they’re gonna see a better quality of play, a better quality of officiating, better quality of coaching. That’s kind of been the theme through the last few years. We’re not at the place we want to be but we are on the right pathway.”
He also said long-rumoured expansion teams in Chicago and St Louis were “close but I’m not sure they get the finish line for ’23”, despite in Chicago’s case an MLS-level venue, SeatGeek Stadium, standing free after the Fire switched to Soldier Field.
The lot of an expansion team is never easy. This year the Dallas Jackals went winless. Killebrew said: “The team hotel caught on fire and the bus broke down and everything that could go wrong did.
“Dallas were snake-bit a little bit but it’s in our best interest to have nobody going 0&16 and nobody going 16&0. We want everyone winning. If everyone was 8&8, I’d be satisfied. Right? So we get it. We’ve got to work with Dallas to get better.”
Killebrew said future seasons may see a championship venue named earlier, giving time to sell tickets and travel, DC, LA and Boston among potential host cities.
For now, Ric Salizzo, chief executive of Rugby New York, and his staff are working to stage rugby at the Red Bull. Saracens and London Irish have played an English Premiership game there. USA played Ireland. This week, Salizzo and others went to see a New York derby in soccer’s US Open Cup.
The CEO has received support from home, New Zealand. He said: “I’m getting swamped with messages from all sorts of people. For example, straight after our game [in New England], I got a message from Wayne Smith [a former All Black and All Blacks coach] saying we’d had a great game. And Razor Robertson [Scott, coach of the Super Rugby champion Crusaders]. ‘Really enjoyed the game. Boys going well.’”
It helps that New York can field Waisake Naholo and Nehe Milner-Skudder, World Cup winning All Black backs in 2015, as well as Andy Ellis, scrum-half for the All Black champions of 2011. In a team heavy on southern-hemisphere skills, the Samoa wing Ed Fidow also stands out.
Seattle also have southern-hemisphere talent, led by their dangerous Samoan fly-half, AJ Alatimu. But there will be promising North American players on show in the final too, including for New York Ben Bonasso, a dynamic back-five forward, Kaleb Geiger, a hooker converted from baseball and football, and Andrew Coe, a lightning Canadian wing. Seattle have the mighty Samu Manoa, once a star back-five forward at Northampton and Toulon.
Next month, the US Eagles face two games against Chile, for a place at the World Cup in France next year. For Seattle and New York’s American internationals, the MLR final will double as a sort of a trial.
Salizzo said: “There’s real real interest growing. I think the world of rugby is fascinated to see what America does with the game.”