Anthem Rugby Carolina will predominantly be made up of young American talent
While Major League Rugby has prepared for its seventh season, the competition has faced its greatest challenge. Within a matter of weeks, 2022 champions Rugby New York and the league’s sole Canadian franchise, the Toronto Arrows, announced that they would not be competing in 2024.
For a country charged with hosting the 2031 Rugby World Cup and 2033 Women’s Rugby World Cup, this scenario has created a vast unease about the long-term viability of professional rugby in the country.
To combat this, the league has partnered with USA Rugby and World Rugby to launch an expansion club in Charlotte, North Carolina: Anthem Rugby Carolina.
Joining the competition immediately ahead of the 2024 season, the team will predominantly be made up of young American talent.
This comes just months after USA Rugby and MLR combined to deliver the USA Hawks programme in Charlotte, giving 35 players the opportunity to train, live and play rugby in a full-time environment.
Putting the focus on young local talent, it is hoped that this team will not only be competitive but also aid the national team’s development as they aim to qualify for the 2027 Rugby World Cup in Australia and when they host the tournament four years later.
“One of the conditions attached to hosting the World Cup when we had those meeting in Japan in 2019, there had to be a bigger plan than hosting the event itself,” Ross Young, the outgoing USA Rugby CEO, exclusively told Rugby World of the moves in Charlotte.
“We, along with World Rugby, did a lot of due diligence on what is on what is the best way to build on a lot of the things that are happening. It is almost pre-building the legacy programme before the event, to allow the event to then be a springboard and then accelerate to the stuff that is already in place, instead of trying to build plans for after the event.
“MLR, and what has happened with a couple of different franchises, has got them focussed on their organic build, as well as them doing things in isolation outside of the international game. The two main things we are trying to focus on are regular fixtures for our men’s senior Eagles team, how we get more control of a player pool that will play in those international games.
“How we are going to increase the rugby IQ and structure that provides those players with the ability to play together.
“It is brining those things together now that had sort of got to a point, whereby we all understand we all need each other from a domestic league structure, through to an international fixture list – that has now been agreed to let us play 11 or 12 games a year, instead of four or five.
“We are not going to get to a point where all of a sudden we are world-beaters or competing with Six Nations or Rugby Championship teams.”
Already there is evidence of the fruits such a collaboration can bare. World Rugby in part funded Super Rugby franchises Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika as they were established, with the goal of greater competitiveness at international level at its heart. At the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France, Fiji made the quarter-final stages of the competition, the potential of a similar partnership an exciting one for all involved.
Due to play at American Legion Memorial Stadium, Anthem RC will train on the grounds of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where USA Rugby have already established a base for their high-performance programmes.
The team’s addition means that along with the arrival of Miami Sharks, and Rugby ATL’s rebrand to Rugby Football Club Los Angeles, the league is back up to 12 teams and will revert back to a two conference system – which had previously been scrapped after New York and Toronto folded.
There is even the potential for players to marry their time playing in MLR with study as the game’s stakeholders try to mould the pathway from grassroots to Test match rugby.
“For years we have had some really good youth programmes in pockets of the US,” young explained. “Then they all scatter to different parts for college. It is not like the UK where there is a two or three-hour drive.
“They scatter and rugby is not available. You lose continuity. We have had this 150,000 to 200,000 registered players for a number of years. But there has been an attrition rate of over 50 per cent of those because of the movement of those big chunks of people as they go through different parts of their developmental life.
“So, how do we give continuity? How do we ensure that playing levels remain relatively high? How do we plug that gap?
“MLR started, everyone wants success, one of the easiest ways to build that is padding it (squads) out with internationals that have more longevity in the game, better understanding, so how do you increase the playing number of Americans?
“It is that whole conundrum of ‘you may be American qualified, but you are not giving them the opportunity to play regularly’. They may be in the squad, but an NPC or a Championship player is taking their place because it makes that team more competitive.
“How do we plug that gap? How do we use that as a breeding ground to increase the playing time of American-qualified players? Then how do we feed them back into the MLR system as well as keeping a core of them together?
“I think that’s the hub of it all, just plugging that gap of continuity from those 18 and 19 year olds, to give them an aspirational opportunity to then get starting minutes within the MLR. Then to push them through to the national team, because they know they have the opportunity to be centrally contracted with a national team that plays 11 or 12 times a year.”
By locating Anthem RC in the Charlotte region, the team will be at the epicentre of one of the USA’s fastest-growing cities.
It is estimated that there are 100 people relocating to the city per day, there is already a strong grass-roots rugby presence in the state and following the relocation of Rugby ATL to Los Angeles, California, there was no pre-existing professional rugby team in the region.
Also, due to be working closely with the United States Performance Centre, on paper this team represents a bright future for the Eagles as they seek to recover from the disappointment of nor qualifying for the most recent Rugby World Cup.
Described by Young as an “expansion of a high0performance area”, the Charlotte side is due to be led by Eagles head coach, Scott Lawrence, while High Performance Manager, Tamara Shepherd, will oversee the programme.
There is also hope that Anthem RC could become a hub for rugby in the country. A destination for players that aspire to represent their country, there is potential that this programme could be replicated in women’s rugby too.
Young does concede that there will have to be several non-US qualified players on Anthem RC’s roster in Charlotte, with senior foreign players there mostly being there to mentor their American counterparts as they get a grip on the demands of professional rugby.
“Ultimately the measurable is going to be making us competitive on the international stage,” Young said. “That is what everything is geared towards. We also have to be honest that everything is not going to happen overnight.
“We have got a group of young players that have been around MLR for a couple of years but haven’t had a huge amount of game time, some of them coming out of college.
“We have to set targets that are realistic, but ultimately the end goal is to make the US national team more competitive.
“As a result of that, the team will be more Americanised, we will push more players through the American system, it will give us a bigger player pool through that.
“If we do that, we can then help MLR engage with community rugby in areas and geographies they are in and grow participation.
“Like any national governing body, the two main things are success on an international stage, plus growing the number of people playing the sport. To me this is a component that helps both of those.
“If you were to ask a teenager in America what the path is to become an Eagle, there are big gaps in what that is going to be.
“This, to me, is a good starting point to tell that story and be clearer about the opportunities that playing rugby will hold for young athletes.”
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