PRO Rugby looks back at its inaugural season with an eye towards the future

LAFAYETTE, Colo. – Twelve months ago there was as much doubt as there was excitement surrounding a soon-to-be launched league that was supposed to provide the United States with its first professional rugby competition. Today, a month after the Denver Stampede hoisted the inaugural PRO Rugby championship trophy, the doubters have been silenced.

Saturday, April 17, was the day professional rugby in America was delivered to fans in California and Colorado, and the two scenes could not have appeared more different. The opener in the Mile High City resembled a playoff game at Lambeau Field, while fans in California’s state capital sweated through temperatures in the mid 80s. Still, both games were incredibly competitive, and kept fans wanting more throughout the 16-week season.

“It was quite a trick to ensure that all five teams were evenly matched,” said PRO Director of Rugby Operations Steve Lewis, who was tasked with ensuring competitive parity amongst the five squads. “These were teams we were creating from scratch, and we weren’t exactly sure which players were going to be available. It was quite a trick to pull off.

“With an exception of a couple games in the middle of the season, games were pretty tight. And the fact that we came down to the final game of the season to decide the championship was pretty impressive.”

The 30-game season was indeed competitive, with a third of the matches being decided by eight points or fewer, but they were also action packed. Teams combined to score more than 61 points per contest in year one. Sure – the bundles of points say something about the teams’ lack of defensive integrity, which will surely be addressed, but the mouth-watering amount of tries provided fan-friendly rugby for observers new to the game.

“At the beginning of the year we threw 25-30 players and three coaches together who didn’t know each other,” explained Lewis. “The teams began to get to know each other, established cohesion, identities, and patterns of play, and by the final three to four weeks of the season I think there was some really good rugby being played.”

And who better to judge the quality of play on the field than the lone neutral figure surrounded by it all – the referee. PRO Rugby bled five center officials and several more assistant referees, including the very first appointed female referee for a professional rugby match – Leah Berard.

“The pace was mesmerizingly fast, and the skill level was noticeably a step up from any other competition in the USA,” Berard noted.

Not only did continuity amongst the teams increase throughout the season, but individual players began to rise above the rest and become the first stars of PRO Rugby. Bona-fide Eagles like Chris Baumann and Takudzwa Ngwenya were fan favorites for their respective clubs, while Shaun Davies‘ superb form throughout the season placed the once-capped Eagle in the Elite Training Squad and back in National Team contention.

Most importantly, virtually unknown players were given an opportunity to showcase their skills. Ohio Aviator Aaron ‘Spike’ Davis demonstrated what a professional rugby environment could do for an NCAA Division I athlete who is new to the game. The colossal winger used his size and speed to bag a league-high 14 tries. In San Diego, the previously unheralded Cecil Garber was all over the park for the Breakers, and collected more tackles than anyone in PRO. Sacramento’s Langilangi Haupeakui was not even on a PRO roster at the beginning of the season. By Week 11 the ferocious loose forward had an international cap to his name.

“There were probably five or six guys who were never previously on the radar and this gave them the opportunity to show what they’ve got,” said Lewis.

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“The benefit to USA Rugby, in particular the men’s National Teams, will come in years two, three, and four. The fact that we’ve got a couple of guys showing up now is great, but we expect to see a lot more of that going forward.”

Although Lewis is excited about the athletes that will continue to emerge from PRO Rugby, he is equally enthused with the professional environment lent to coaches, referees, team managers, physios, and everyone else involved.

The man who is solely responsible for making professional rugby in America a reality, PRO Rugby Chief Executive Officer Doug Schoninger, seconded Lewis’ sentiment about the league’s influence beyond its athletes and what appears to be a prosperous future.

“PRO looks forward to working together with USA Rugby over the coming decades to raise the standards of USA’s players, coaches and referees, and to introduce the USA sports fan to their new favorite sport.”

With all of the success and excitement from year one, fans are understandably clamoring for details of PRO’s second season. Will there be expansion? Which cities are being targeted? From where will the new players come?

After taking a few days to catch their breath following Ohio’s last-second victory over Denver to close the season, PRO’s brain trust is in the midst of wrapping up its season review and already has an eye towards the 2017 season. While nothing is cemented in terms of which cities will boast a new PRO franchise, this much is known – the league will be deeper than its five-team liftoff.

Ohio’s Aviators are the closest squad to the Atlantic Ocean, so there is obviously a desire to plant a PRO seed in the rugby-rich landscape of the Northeast corridor. Another Midwest side is a possibility, too. The obvious city to create a rivalry with the Aviators would be Chicago, which has welcomed more than 80,000 fans to rugby matches at Soldier Field between two international test matches in the past two years.

It would also be a bit of a surprise if PRO did not become an international competition in 2017. Talks between PRO and Rugby Canada about expansion, while still ongoing, are well beyond an introductory phase. It is a very real possibility that one, if not two, franchises could break ground north of the border.

Fans on the East Coast might have been irked to be left out of the equation for the inaugural season, but several different cards have to fall into place to create a professional sporting team out of thin air.

“It’s a combination of where there are strong rugby communities, where are the appropriate-sized venues, and what’s the right deal – because it’s commercial now,” detailed Lewis. “So, there’s a financial aspect to all of this.”

New franchises will obviously need new players to fill those rosters. Lewis has stated the league wants to get younger in terms of the average age of its players, but there is still no interest in recruiting college-grade athletes who are in the midst of earning a degree. However, PRO’s Director of Rugby Operations believes there are 10 to 15 now-graduated seniors from last year’s college rugby season who are ready to don a PRO Rugby kit.

Additionally, there are still untapped senior club players more than capable of playing professional rugby. Lewis estimates there are 25 to 30 players representing east coast clubs alone that fit the bill of a PRO Rugby player.

The number of foreign-born players with international and professional experience is also likely to grow. For anyone who watched PRO matches over the course of the 2016 season it was impossible not to notice the positive influences players like Mirco Bergamasco, Jamie Mackintosh, Kurt Morath, and Pedrie Wannenburg had on their clubs. Players of their caliber not only raise the standard of play with their individual skill and flair, but benefit their American-born teammates tenfold.

Of course the league will need to improve upon its current product, as well. Near the top of PRO’s priorities for progress include a better match-day experience for fans at each of its five locations, put the Aviators in a proper facility in Obetz, Ohio, as well as administrative improvements on its end.

Lewis, who likens PRO Rugby to a startup company, is the first to admit the organization’s missteps during its trial season. Still, the level of play, enthusiasm from its fan base, and worldwide recognition as a viable and accepted professional league equate to a fruitful first year.

“It was the first step in a journey that had to be made,” Lewis said. “And it was a successful first step.”