SEATTLE — Teams from B.C. and Ontario may soon join the new Major League Rugby circuit, but plenty of Canadian content already is just south of the border with the Seattle Seawolves.
Seattle head coach Tony Healy is a Victoria native and a former Canadian international. His assistant, player−coach Phil Mack, captains Canada. Director of rugby Curry Hitchborn is a longtime coach in B.C. with UBC and Capilano RFC.
Other Canadians on the Seawolves player roster include Ray Barkwill, George Barton, Nakai Penny, Cam Polson, Brock Staller and Connor Weyell.
Seattle−based entrepreneurs Adrian Balfour and Shane Skinner lead the ownership group of the Seawolves, whose roster also includes players from the United States, Belgium, New Zealand and South Africa.
Other teams set for play this year are Austin (Texas) Elite Rugby, Houston SaberCats, Glendale (Colo.) Raptors, NOLA (New Orleans) Gold, San Diego Legion, and the Utah Warriors.
Teams in Ontario and B.C. hope to join them in 2019.
The Ontario Arrows are a beefed−up offshoot of the Ontario Blues, a regional squad that plays in the Canadian Rugby Championship. Karl Harrison of Vancouver−based North Star Rugby, and Balfour, co−owner of the Seattle club, hope to have a Vancouver club ready to go.
Major League Rugby hopes to succeed where PRO Rugby failed. PRO Rugby, which had teams in Denver, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio, lasted just one season — in 2016.
“I think PRO gave people a taste and now people are ready to take it on board full−on,” said Healy, who coached the B.C. Bears to the Canadian Rugby Championship last year. “I’m expecting a very high level of competition.”
The inaugural MLR season is set to run April 21 through June 24.
“There’s a lot of excitement north of the border as well,” said Healy. “Lots of talk about a Canadian team getting on board. People are excited straight across North America, I think.
“People have become fairly, let’s say, disaffected by the lack of results through both USA Rugby and Canada Rugby. And so private entities, instead of griping and complaining, they decided to make an effort to create a pathway and a program that will allow our best athletes to play their wares professionally instead of hoping to get scraps somewhere in Europe. And these Canadian guys represent the first batch of guys who are going to get that chance.”
Once the MLR season starts, the Canadians on the Seawolves will be based in Seattle. The team will train and play out of the 4,500−seat Starfire Stadium in Tukwila, Wash., where the MLS Sounders train.
The Seattle franchise has already sold close to 1,400 season tickets.
Mack believes MLR, with its emphasis on community, has a better framework than the single−entity PRO Rugby.
“What I understand of the MLR and from what I’ve seen, it’s largely based around community involvement and rugby development as whole, to better rugby in general – not just make a few dollars,” said Mack, who is currently with the Canadian national team.
“So that’s what really attracted me. I also think it’s an exciting opportunity to get into something that’s brand new.”
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