The Guardian 04.21.18
‘A Very Monumental occasion’: NOLA down Houston in Major League Rugby
No one could agree on the final score but the Gold definitely shocked the SaberCats as the US pro league began with a bang
“It’s got to start somewhere,” said Tim Falcon, owner of the NOLA Gold.
Somewhere was a no-frills Texas high school stadium by an elevated freeway and a depressed shopping mall, where a new American professional rugby union competition kicked off on Saturday.
The previous attempt, PRO Rugby, had five teams and lasted a single season in 2016. Major League Rugby (MLR) has seven and is confident of sticking around. It began promisingly, with a dramatic upset as the Houston SaberCats lost to their opponents from New Orleans.
Even on the opening day of an inaugural season, recent history makes it hard not to look backwards. Things will be different this time, Falcon said: better play, smarter economics, sustainable growth.
“We are directly tied to the rugby community at the start. All our teams are very tied-in to local clubs. We’re tasked with building up a groundswell of young kids playing, bringing more kids into the game, so that’s big, but also the league office has done a great job with the broadcasting rights, the sponsorship rights.
“We’re very confident that the casual sports fan’s going to see this game and love it.”
All 30 matches are being televised and Saturday’s second fixture, the Denver-area Glendale Raptors’ 41-26 win over Austin Elite, was live on CBS Sports Network. On Sunday, the Seattle Seawolves host the San Diego Legion; the other team, the Utah Warriors, have a bye. The ranks may be swelled next year by teams in New York, Dallas and Toronto.
The season ends with the championship game on 7 July. The $350,000 salary cap limits MLR’s star power but the SaberCats have Osea Kolinisau, captain of the Fiji sevens team that won Olympic gold in 2016. He is arguably the league’s biggest name and was the scorer of its first-ever try, after 18 minutes on Saturday.
You don’t do it for economic reasons, you do it for the love of the game
Mike Loya, Houston majority owner
Houston is likely to be one of MLR’s strongest markets, given its wealthy ownership group, status as the fourth-biggest US city, its large number of residents from established rugby nations and successful hosting of international fixtures. The USA meet Scotland at BBVA Compass Stadium, home of Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo, on 16 June.
For this occasion the 6,000-capacity Dyer Stadium was less than a third full, the attendance not helped by the unsettled weather and spartan facilities. The city has few available and suitable venues with grass pitches. Still, at $15 for a cushion and $50 for a portable seat, buttock-numbing metal benches are opportunity as well as curse.
Despite the drizzle and the uncovered stands, the place was dry in one respect: as a school district venue, it is alcohol-free. Crisis averted, though: the club has secured pre- and post-match space for fans in a brewery next to the parking lot.
A NOLA fan, Don Boyd, protected his head from the rain with a vintage Stetson. He drove from Gulf Breeze, Florida, to New Orleans, then flew to Houston. “I couldn’t miss this,” the 58-year-old said. “This is a very monumental occasion for New Orleans rugby.”
It felt like less of a defining moment for the SaberCats, who had a 16-game preseason – partly in a rather more plush baseball stadium – and have construction getting under way on a 3,500-seat purpose-built home that is scheduled to be finished in time for next season.
Mike Loya, president of an energy trading company, played rugby in El Paso, at Harvard and when he lived in London, where two other American investors in the team are based.
“I went from ‘OK, I’ll invest a little bit’, to being the majority owner,” he said, standing by a concessions stand that seemed to be doing solid business. The team would have to shift a prodigious number of T-shirts to turn a profit, however, given that according to Loya the yearly investment is a seven-figure sum.
“You don’t do it for economic reasons, you do it for the love of the game. You know what, I think it’ll catch on and I think it’ll be eventually a very good project, or a good investment. At the moment we’re just trying to have a place for professional rugby players to play here in the US, to give an excellent game, show skills at a much higher level and perhaps even motivate and maybe inspire the younger ones.
“At the level we’re doing it in, it allows many of the team owners to think in the long run, maybe suffer initial losses during the start-up period but [one day get to] break-even, and eventually maybe make a profit.”
Overall, this was a smooth start to MLR, with many fans engrossed by the action and only a few quibbles: salient among them, whether NOLA won by a score of 32-26 or 35-26, which was still a matter of uncertainty long after the final whistle. It probably does not help when the scoreboard only deals in quarters, not halves. MLR logged itas the nine-point win for the Gold.
Lower down in importance were the imperfect pom-pom to cheerleader ratio and the growls emanating at quasi-random from the public address system that, however on-brand, sounded less like the terrifying battle roar of a sharp-fanged predator than the interference noise you get during phone conversations when your train goes into a tunnel.
“We didn’t do ourselves justice today and that’s probably the most disappointing thing,” said the SaberCats head coach, Justin Fitzpatrick, a former Ireland prop.
With only four regular-season home games and serious title ambitions, Houston’s pain at losing was palpable. NOLA’s joy was no less clear. And that, perhaps, was the most encouraging sign of all for the fledgling league. Already, on day one, it mattered.
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