#3 Will Major League Rugby Go Big Name Hunting in 2024? – RugbyFootballTalk Mic'd!
Major League Rugby has seen a fair share of big names on the back of its jerseys. Ma’a Nonu and Andy Ellis of the All Blacks. Wallabies like Adam Ashley-Cooper and Matt Giteau. English talents such as Ben Foden and Chris Robshaw. Frenchman Mathieu Bastereaud. And, of course, The Beast.
There’s a common theme amongst all those names. While Robshaw is still relatively young and Foden has had a resurgence in New York, all these players were past their peak. The Beast might’ve been the closest having just came off a World Cup victory, but he’d decided it was his last ride when he joined DC. There’s an appetite to play the end of a professional rugby career in America. But could the growing league snag a big-name star in the coming years?
Major League Rugby is less than a month away from its fifth season. Early signs of league growth have been substantial. The competition isn’t at a point of high profitability yet, but the annual question of whether the competition will see another year seems to be behind us.
The quality of the competition has grown as well. Take the tactical kicking game. Major League rugby now has actual tactical kicking! The first few years were centered around kicking for territory if you aren’t going anywhere. Now we’re seeing kicking with intent to compete for the ball downfield. Scrums are more competitive. A few teams have lineout games that look genuinely good.
All of this raises MLR’s place in the global rugby environment. It certainly doesn’t compete with the Big Four leagues around the world. It’s still a step down from Japan’s rebranded League One, and it’s not as tough as either the English or French second tier. Even the domestic competitions in the Southern Hemisphere are a small step up, but that gap is getting smaller quickly.
My point: Major League Rugby is currently a great step for an aspiring player, but it’s not a destination for an active world class international.
Enter Will Jordan.
If you’ve never heard of Will Jordan, you’re missing a fantastic talent. Jordan is a current All Black. He’s one of the best wingers in the world. He’s also only 23 years old and just won World Rugby’s Breakthrough Player of the Year. Simply put, he’s a classy player.
Jordan made an appearance on the What A Lad podcast in early December. On that epsidoe Jordan said:
“I think one thing that’s actually enticing for players these days is potentially that American league sparking up. I’ve been to the States a couple of times. If that league ever did take off, then the opportunity to go and live over in the States for a year or two would be something I’d be pretty interested in. At the moment, it’s more in its minor stages, but, if that did pick up, I’d be certainly interested in that. But I think at some point I’ll jump overseas probably a few years down the track and give it a nudge.”
So, should we start betting on which jersey he’ll be wearing? Probably not yet.
Will Jordan is centrally contract to New Zealand Rugby through the 2023 season. He could up and leave Aotearoa entirely in, but he’ll be 25 at that point. Leaving the All Blacks altogether right when he could be entering his prime would be nothing short of foolish.
That’s where a concept not seen in American rugby could come into play: the sabbatical.
The biggest players of the big-time nations aren’t tied directly to their club team. Instead, they sign a contract with the national body and then join a team. The structure varies by nation. In Europe, you sign with the country and team separately, allowing a French player to play with an English club or a South African player to play for an Irish club.
In the Southern Hemisphere, players contract with the national body, then work for an associated club as part of the deal. In recent years, higher level players have started negotiating sabbaticals into their contracts. The sabbatical isn’t a time away from the game. Instead, it’s a contractual break from working with an affiliated club. Currently, that’s the only way to play for a club outside of New Zealand while remaining eligible for the All Blacks. Australia has softened their version of the rule over the years, but they still push for players to stay Down Under. The system has seen major names like Michael Hooper, Beauden Barrett, and Brodie Retallick play in Japan before returning to play for their country. Sabbaticals have left players coming back fresher than the grueling Super Rugby fixtures usually leave them.
So, when should we start looking for some sabbatical signees in Major League Rugby? At the very earliest, think 2024. The next two years are the most important in the 2023 World Cup cycle. Contract conversations with national bodies could start laying the foundation, but we won’t see major players looking to try something new at the start of a World Cup year. The other hinderance is the rugby environment. Sabbaticals do tend to be at a perceived lower level of the game. However, the drop to the MLR might be a bit too large for current players to stomach. Finally, Major League Rugby will need to have a larger reach. Most sabbaticals end up with a season in Japan to experience the culture and market themselves to a new population. Coming to America isn’t likely to result in any new, ongoing corporate partnerships for the player after they leave, which can be created during a stint in Japan.
As the league grows, opportunities for higher level players will grow as well. Major League Rugby also benefits from the credibility increase that comes with having big names wearing the MLR jersey and the instant quality improvement they bring on the pitch. The players’ home union can benefit from increased exposure in a growing rugby market.
The league needs to grow a bit more but bringing over the first big name could be a turning point where the MLR starts taking off and joining the second tier of club rugby competitions.