MLR survived Covid – now LA and Atlanta contest championship game

·6 min read

In American sports parlance, as George Killebrew puts it, Major League Rugby is “98 & 0”. The championship game in Los Angeles on Sunday will make it 99 out of 99 for games played in a league which began its fourth year amid rampant uncertainty and Byzantine Covid protocol.

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“The bigger leagues in the US can’t really say that,” says Killebrew, MLR’s commissioner, from his Texas HQ. “You’ve read all about losing games and things like that but our medical committee set out protocols that were followed. They were a hassle. Our teams were flying in hazmat suits. It wasn’t fun. But everyone realized the severity of it and the end result is we’ll play Sunday on national television, CBS. We did what we set out to do.”

The Los Angeles Giltinis – named for a drink named after their owner (yes, really) – will contest the title with Rugby ATL of Atlanta. Both are expansion teams, ATL starting the Covid-cancelled third season, LA this season four. The Giltinis beat the Utah Warriors in the western final. In the east, ATL beat Rugby United New York.

The result is a first championship game without the Seattle Seawolves, winners in 2018 and 2019, and a first not staged at Torero Stadium in San Diego. Killebrew says the Legion, employers of the sadly oft-injured Chris Robshaw, were one of two teams who “went through a literal hell” this year.

“You look at San Diego’s journey. They left California, they tried to play in Nevada, then some politics got in the way, they weren’t able to get use of the stadium they wanted and so they were literally nomads, jumping from place to place.

“Toronto pretty much had to move their entire rugby operation and share facilities with Atlanta … If their ownership group had come to me at the beginning of the season and said, ‘Hey, with the restrictions on Canada, we’re probably better off just sitting out,’ I would have accepted that. But they’re resilient and they’re fighters.

“And then a lot of teams, especially on the coasts, started without playing in front of fans. Our teams in the center of the country, they were open, to a percentage. So they did OK. And then, as the country opened up a little better, most of the teams were playing for the fans. But it was pretty rough.”

Austin and Utah attracted small but promising crowds to small and neat stadiums and progressed on the field; Old Glory DC made a go of it at a soccer stadium in Virginia; the New England Free Jacks played their last game at a new venue in Quincy, near Boston. The Houston Sabercats have their own stadium but lagged on the field. Next year, they’ll be coached by Heyneke Meyer, once of the Springboks and Leicester.

Such are prime concerns in a start-up league where new franchises are the major source of revenue. Dallas Jackals are in for 2022, having delayed entry. Killebrew says Chicago, much-discussed as a 14th team, may be in for 2023.

LA will host the championship game at the Coliseum, a gargantuan venue. Killebrew estimates it will host 5,000 fans or so: around par with the crowd for the last final, Seattle’s dramatic win over San Diego in June 2019.

“We are elated to be in the Coliseum,” Killebrew says. “First of all, it’s a great pitch. I asked Adam Ashley Cooper” – the 121-cap Australia wing who plays for LA with the similarly legendary Wallaby centre Matt Giteau – “and he said it was in the top five he’s ever played on. And then we’ll concentrate all the fans on the camera side and because of camera angles, it’ll work great.”

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It’s true that with the camera close to a brilliant green field, LA games look pretty good on TV … vast cliffs of empty red seats mostly out of frame.

“That stadium was built for television,” says Killebrew. He runs a league which needs to be so too. He doesn’t want to mention venues “not built for professional sports” but I can. New York spent much of the season at Cochrane Stadium, a high-school venue out in the flatlands of Jersey City, surrounded by roads, rail, old docks and, on the day I saw LA beaten, dead cocks.

“That’s where you struggle,” Killebrew says, “when you have to build scaffolding and put a camera on top.”

The championship game kicks off at 4pm ET, which is 9pm in the UK and Ireland and, happily in terms of attracting an audience, not long after the second Lions Test in South Africa.

“I wish there was some art to it,” Killebrew laughs, “but really, when we’re dealing with CBS, you know, this is a non-PGA golf weekend. That’s how we got this window. When you’re given a live primetime window on the network, you snatch it.”

MLR is in the shop window. In the regular season, free-scoring gave way to defensive battles that peaked – or troughed, if you’re one of those people who thinks rugby is just about tries – with two tight playoff finals.

Killebrew wants the championship game “to go down to the final possession”. He says the referee for the occasion, JP Doyle, is a gift from “heaven”. That or the English Premiership but Doyle has certainly helped the development of officials including Kat Roche, the first woman MLR referee.

Of the two teams, Rugby ATL might be the blue-collar battlers, based around Life University, fresh from a scrap with New York. LA are more talked-about under their monied Australian owner, Adam Gilchrist. Not many Giltinis seem to have been mixed but Gilly’s beer – “for those unafraid to challenge convention” – has played a part in promoting the team.

New York’s Hanco Germishuys tries to bring down Rugby ATL’s Jason Damm in a game in 2020.
New York’s Hanco Germishuys tries to bring down Rugby ATL’s Jason Damm in a game in 2020. Photograph: CB Schmelter/AP

What would Killebrew say to those who protest LA’s reliance on foreign talent?

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“Every team can have the same amount of foreign players. So the playing field is fairly equal. Now what I will tell you, what LA did was different than a lot of teams. They took their entire squad for training camp in Hawaii. They spent a lot of time, money and effort on bringing their team together. They have quite an amazing staff. Darren Coleman obviously is at the top of that and he has been plucked away for a much more prestigious job.”

Coleman has been assisted by the former Wallaby flanker Stephen Hoiles and Lions and England prop Alex Corbisiero. Next year he’ll coach the Waratahs, back in New South Wales.

After LA or Atlanta have lifted the pleasingly enormous MLR Shield, thoughts will turn to season five. Given a clear run – absent a fall into Delta variant hell, say – Killebrew says 2022 “should be guns-a-blazing”.

“We have a chance for all of our teams to have a full offseason, to sell season tickets and sign up local sponsors and have robust local broadcast agreements and do camps and clinics and be good community citizens.

“Really, all the things we couldn’t do this year, fingers crossed we should be able to do next year. It’s crucial for sure.”

  • The MLR championship game airs on CBS at 4pm ET on Sunday. Viewers outside the US can watch on, a joint venture between MLR and for which Martin Pengelly writes a regular column

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