Formation of new domestic championship in US highlights conflicts between PRO and Club Rugby

After months of rumors, on Monday the American rugby community learned that 5 teams would come together in a new competition in the Southwest called the Major Rugby Championship (MRC). Despite lacking a published sanction from USA Rugby, the MRC will play in teams will include the Austin Huns, the Griffins (TX), New Orleans, Rugby Utah, and the Glendale Raptors.

Glendale is unique in this list of member clubs: it is the only team to also be part of another regional competition. Glendale typically plays it’s winter and spring season in the Pacific Rugby Premiership (PRP). However, The PRP is currently on a break and set to return in the Fall of 2017.

On it’s face, the formation of a new regional competition in the US is not that newsworthy. The timing of the PRO Rugby season (conflicting with club rugby playoffs) and existing trends in seasonality predicted the formation of competitions like MRC, the Cal Cup, and the Gold Cup.

But buried in the the MRC announcement was a quote from Glendale’s Director of Rugby that stood out like a sore thumb:

“We also were aware that PRO had communicated verbally to players from Glendale that they would not allow them to play for Glendale so we would not have had our players available had [we] moved to a fall schedule.”

Initially I found this statement quite unbelievable. After all, how could a commercial third party (PRO Rugby) actually be sanctioning an amateur club that is under the purview of USA Rugby?

But after making some enquiries I obtained online confirmation from PRO Rugby that contracts would be terminated for employees who play for Glendale in the off-season.

Additionally, I learned that this off-season restriction also extends to another club, Life West based in Hayward, CA.

Clubs blacklisted for off-season play

To get some context, I had a long telephone conversation with PRO Rugby CEO Doug Schoninger.

Mr. Schoninger explained that Glendale and Life West were on PRO Rugby’s unofficial list of non-cooperative clubs for allegedly pressuring players to appear in club matches during the PRO Rugby season.

Mr. Schoninger elaborated via E-mail:

“[It] is extremely hard to be labeled a “non-cooperative club” by [PRO Rugby]. In these two cases, both clubs, against earlier agreements, tried to influence PRO players to play in club competitions during our season and in conflict with our schedule. Their actions caused quite a bit of disturbance to a few teams rosters and put the players in awkward situations.”

Mr. Schoninger went on to say that in at least one case a player was asked to participate in a club match on Saturday, the day after a PRO fixture on Friday.

Glendale confirmed online that their club members had been informed of the off-season playing restriction made by PRO Rugby. However, they did not reply to my request for comment on the allegations of player interference.

Venue disagreements compound problems for Denver

In addition to issues surrounding player availability, there appear to have been some problems between PRO Rugby and some venues like Glendale’s Infinity Park (which also serves as the Raptors venue but is independently operated by the City of Glendale). For example, the disagreements led to PRO relocating the Denver Stampede mid-season to the University of Denver.

Unfortunately, this tug of war over players and disputes with facilities have put a cloud over Glendale’s inclusion in MRC. It’s also unclear how well the Raptors will fare in the PRP next Fall without their PRO players who appear to be respecting PRO Rugby’s restrictions.

For both Glendale and Life West, the sanction will likely affect their ability to recruit and rebuild. Top talent with eyes on a professional rugby career will avoid playing for these clubs to maximize the chance they can earn a PRO contract.

Players caught in the middle

As noted above by Mr. Schoninger, the situation has also placed the players from Glendale and Life West in an awkward position: they are forced to choose between their club and PRO loyalties.

For the current Glendale and Life West players trying to make a full-time career on the pitch, it is clear from Glendale’s public comments above that most have chosen to continue their paid positions with PRO Rugby. But their prospects for staying match-fit in the PRO Rugby off-season are now limited.

For example, a Glendale Raptor with a PRO Rugby contract with the Denver Stampede would have to play with another club in the offseason. This may not be possible or convenient depending on where the player lives and works.

Unfortunately, the athletes are, as is typical, caught in the middle despite being the primary asset for a professional sports operation.

TL;DR (Too long, didn’t read)

Putting together the details above along with some anecdotal comments I’ve heard from various sources, it seems that some clubs on the West coast have firmly resisted the transfer of players to PRO Rugby. The cost of not cooperating appears to be quite punitive with sanctions on both clubs and players.

But rugby isn’t supposed to work like this. Players should be able to keep their loyalties to both employer and club. Of course, all parties need to respect the appropriate boundaries. Players need to honor the terms of their contract. And clubs and professional teams should not interfere with each other.

Thus, a players association is urgently needed. At a minimum, a players association should offer collective bargaining and insulate players from disputes between PRO and Club Rugby administrators/owners.

The recent formation of the United States Rugby Players Association (USRPA) for the US National Team is a step in the right direction. A fast and simple solution could be to expand the USRPA to include all paid rugby athletes in the US.

In addition, USA Rugby as the governing body for the sport needs to clearly set the rules of engagement for all parties, mediate disputes, and manage sanctions within clearly defined parameters.

Strong leadership from USA Rugby will be required to repair and maintain the current rift between club and PRO Rugby to maintain a functional pathway for American rugby athletes from amateur to PRO to the National Team.

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