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Second season of Major League Rugby sees increased Irish involvement

The new season in the US and Canada kicks off this weekend.

THE SECOND-EVER SEASON of Major League Rugby kicks off this weekend in the US, with two additional clubs swelling the numbers from seven to nine teams.

The 2019 campaign will be considerably longer too, going from an eight-game regular season to a schedule of 16 fixtures for each club before the play-offs in June.

Cathal Marsh Former Leinster out-half Cathal Marsh is playing in New York. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

After a promising first season, which saw the Seattle Seawolves claim the MLR trophy, there is excitement in the US at the expansion, which will continue again in 2020 with the introduction of the New England Free Jacks and clubs in Washington and Atlanta.

This year, the Seawolves will be defending their title against Glendale Raptors, Austin Elite, Utah Warriors, New Orleans Gold, San Diego Legion, Houston SaberCats, as well as newcomers Rugby United New York and Toronto Arrows.

MLR is a single entity league, operating in the same manner as Major League Soccer, with each club paying annual capital commitments that ensure players’ wages are always covered.

With national TV coverage, as well as now breaking into the New York sports TV market and other local networks, the future looks bright for MLR.

The IRFU, SRU and LNR [the organisation in charge of French club rugby] have all had discussions with the MLR or individual clubs about creating official partnerships, underlining the extent to which the rugby world is watching. 

Conor Kearns with Paul Davis Ireland Universities international Conor Kearns is with San Diego. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

If MLR can establish itself as a genuine player over the next decade, it will be a true gamechanger for professional rugby. 

Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of Irish involvement again this season, with Irish players, coaches and owners at several of the MLR clubs. Here’s who to watch out for:

Rugby United New York

One of two new clubs in MLR this season, RUNY are heavily Irish-influenced.

Founder and chairman James Kennedy is a Tipperary native who came through St. Munchin’s College in Limerick but has lived in New York for 20 years and is the CEO of construction company Murphy Kennedy Group.

The coaching staff this season includes former Leinster, Connacht and Ireland A lock Dave Gannon, who moved to the States in 2014 to study, coach and play. Simon Gillespie, a GAA development officer, is also part of RUNY’s backroom set-up.

RUNY’s squad is packed with Irish players, with hooker Dylan Fawsitt captaining. The 28-year-old won a Leinster Schools Senior Cup with Blackrock in 2009 and played for Leinster through the age grades, as well as starring in club rugby with Greystones and St. Mary’s.

Andrew Conway and Jordie Murphy with Dylan Fawsitt after the game Dylan Fawsitt with fellow Blackrock alumni Andrew Conway and Jordi Murphy in November. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Fawsitt has been in the US since 2014, initially studying and playing at Life University in Georgia and qualifying for the Eagles three years later. He now has seven international caps and played against Ireland in November.

Also in the RUNY front row stocks is former Munster A prop Paddy Ryan, who is also a USA international and has had spells in Italy, France and with Premiership side Newcastle. 

Ryan’s fellow former Dolphin RFC man James Rochford is another new RUNY signing this season. Having come through at Crosshaven RFC, tighthead Rochford also had a stint in Italy with Lazio and will now aim to impress in MLR.

Former Leinster out-half Cathal Marsh was one of RUNY’s big-name signings over the off-season – Ben Foden is a high-profile addition too – with the 27-year-old having left his native province after falling down the pecking order under Leo Cullen.

The former Ireland U20 international playmaker will be a key figure in RUNY’s bid to win the title at the first time of asking.

Mark O'Keefe with Steven Kilgallen Lansdowne's Mark O'Keefe has joined RUNY. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Marsh could find himself playing outside scrum-half Marcus Walsh, another former Blackrock College student who initially studied at Life University, having spent time in Connacht’s academy. Former Lansdowne FC man Walsh is now US-qualified and will hope to push into the international reckoning.

Ross Deacon will be an important presence in the back row. The Kilkenny College alumnus won U20 and senior AIL titles with Lansdowne after playing for the Leinster U20s and – having been born in San Francisco – has been capped by the USA U20s.

Alongside Deacon will be Youghal man John Quill, who is now an experienced USA international and another former Dolphin RFC man.

RUNY also boast two new signings from the AIL, with Shannon centre Will Leonard arriving from Shannon. The 23-year-old won back-to-back Munster Schools Senior Cups with Crescent and played for the Munster U20s, as well as shining with Shannon recently.

Lansdowne’s Mark O’Keefe is another recruit from the Irish club scene, the prolific wing having come through St Michael’s College and played for the Leinster U19s and Connacht U20s.

Austin Elite

Now in his second season with Austin and captaining the team, Ben Mitchell is one of the best locks in MLR.

download Mitchell is a key man for Austin. Source: Norma Salinas/Austin Elite

Born without any fingers on his left hand, the Youghal man had complex surgery when he was just 18 months old, whereby the second toe was taken from each of his feet and transplanted onto his hand.

Mitchell came through Midleton College, when he was a centre or fullback, and played for a Munster Development team in 2016 but truly made his name with superb performances for UCC in the AIL, earning him a move to the US last year.

Glendale Raptors 

Although he is a US native and Eagles international, second row Brendan Daly holds an Irish passport on account of both his parents hailing from these shores.

They emigrated to San Francisco in 1986 but Daly regularly visits Ireland, where he has 12 aunts and uncles, as well as 45 first cousins.

Houston SaberCats

Ex-Ireland and Ulster prop Justin Fitzpatrick is head coach of the SaberCats, who will be looking to make improvements after a 2018 season in which they won only once.

Fitzpatrick will be able to call on an entirely Irish front row this season, with former Connacht academy hooker Pat O’Toole - who is US-qualified – having joined from San Diego Legion.

 

Tighthead prop Charlie Connolly has signed after stints with Italian outfit Mogliano and Welsh club RGC 1404. The 21-year-old, who came through Blackrock College and played for Trinity, will look to build on the promise that saw him start nine games for the Ireland U20s in 2017.

Pat Lam and Jamie Dever Former Connacht prop Jamie Dever is with Houston. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

On the other side of the scrum, Jamie Dever is in his second season with Houston. The Mayo man played for Ireland up to U19 level before advancing into Connacht’s academy and earning his senior debut, though his time with the province was severely hampered by injuries.

Former Connacht and Leinster hooker Jason Harris-Wright has also joined the SaberCats in a coaching capacity, while Irish-qualified scrum-half Connor Murphy signed last season from London Irish.

San Diego Legion

25-year-old out-half/fullback Conor Kearns is back for a second season with San Diego and is on track to become a senior USA international too. 

The former Glenstal Abbey student is San Francisco-born and has featured for the US at U20s, Collegiate and Selects levels already.

Kearns played for the Munster U19s and U20s, shone in the AIL with Trinity and played in Oxford Unversity while studying for a Master’s degree.

Seattle Seawolves 

The defending champions have an Irish co-founder and general manager in Fermanagh man Adrian Balfour, who left Ireland in the ’80s and had major business success when selling his company, Pcubed, in 2013.

Just over a week out from the 2019 Six Nations openers, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey are joined by Bernard Jackman to look at Ireland’s bid for another Grand Slam:


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Murray Kinsella

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