MLR Sport

A season in MLR, rugby’s wild west: mob wakes, visa runs and Bastareaud

Professional rugby in the city that never sleeps sounds glamorous but the reality is often less so

Earlier this year, thanks to the pandemic, season three of Major League Rugby ended after just five games. Covid allowing, the US pro competition will try again in March.

Season four promises new signings, former England captain Chris Robshaw prominent among them with San Diego (in Las Vegas), and a new team in Los Angeles. Notwithstanding the news that an expansion team in Dallas will delay entry until 2022, fans remain excited.

I’m a rugby fan from North America but for a while I was also director of operations for Rugby United New York. When Covid took the league down in 2020, I went with it. I quit. The memories explain why.

Some are good.

The sheer ludicrous rush of trying to launch a pro rugby team in New York City. The tantalizing thought that if the game I love can make it here, it can make it anywhere.

But most are borderline traumatic.

Staging pro rugby at a baseball stadium in Coney Island, a gale howling off the Atlantic, right behind the home in-goal. A key staff member going missing on opening night, to attend a wake for a mobster. The near-cosmic absurdity that was our biggest moment: the signing of Mathieu Bastareaud.

New York was a founding member of MLR but did not field a team in year one, 2018. For year two, we had to build a roster from scratch. It was all a bit like heading west in 1849, to seek your fortune in gold. To say the least, the rules were loose. Teams operated on rumor, the sharper the elbows the better. The most important task was seeing what you could get away with. In that respect, New York got away with a lot.

We were lucky to have local players including America’s most capped scrum-half, Mike Petri. A legend out of Xavier High School and New York Athletic Club, the kind of man any start-up needs. It would be nice to pretend that otherwise, we mounted a massive global scouting operation. The truth was, James English, our general manager, did the recruiting on his own. He had to find players who could just get to New York, which was basically how we ended up with the graduating class of Blackrock College, Dublin, circa 2011. Like New York City, like America, we were always going to have a strong Irish flavor.

Other foreign players were challenging. Trump or no Trump, US immigration isn’t going to allow you in just because you play rugby. I know this because between our first and second seasons, I was in charge of arranging visas. I had the help of a lawyer and other RUNY staff. I had a background in international relations. For god’s sake, I’d worked at the United Nations. But I needed a lot more than that.

I had to prove the player we wanted was of exceptional quality. Meaning, he had to have played internationally. The random immigration official with a quota of applications to process in his cubicle in, say, Iowa, isn’t interested in a broad explanation of why the Mitre 10 in New Zealand is better than the All-Ireland League, even if the explanation boils down to “New Zealand are just better, OK?” Which it does.

So letters of recommendation were used. They had to be from high-profile coaches or managers and they had to contain phrases such as “exceptional player”, which our lawyer told us were catnip to any bored immigration drone in Iowa.

For marquee players, the process was even more intense. We had to show they could bring a commercial and financial boost to a US industry. MLR was one of those, so that was good. We could say Ben Foden, a former England full-back, would boost tickets and merchandise. So that was good too.

Then, there was Bastareaud. For months, there were rumours we were going to sign the big centre, who apparently wanted to leave France. English, however, was adamant it wasn’t true.

“Why would I want to pay a French center $100,000 to hang out in New York?”

“The World Cup is next year, why would he come here?”

“He’s at the top of the French league. Who wants to come play in Coney Island?”

It got annoying, friends texting us about how amazing Bastareaud would be, how he’d dominate MLR. Foden? His England career was over. He was doing reality TV. Sure, he’d come to New York for a bit, live the life, enjoy the city. But Bastareaud? He’d captained France in the Six Nations. Why would he leave that? Besides, no one had talked to him or his agent. Had they?

One Monday, we arrived in the office as usual. Sleepily, we checked email. Our minority owner, Pierre Arnald, once of Stade Français, had emailed from Paris 24 hours before. Bastareaud would announce he had signed with RUNY, after the weekend’s games in France.

We went into five-alarm uproar.

“We signed Bastareaud?”

“Did you sign Bastareaud?”

“I didn’t sign Bastareaud!”

“Then who the fuck did?”

James dashed off to find James Kennedy, then our majority owner, moping about next door. Asked if we had just signed arguably the biggest star in the brief history of MLR, Kennedy replied: “I dunno. I guess so.”

Battle stations. The media noticed, of course, and James ended up conducting interviews with outlets around the world.

“I’ve talked to Mathieu several times,” he said – maybe he meant shouting at the TV during England games – “and I know he’s really excited for this challenge.”

We had a spike in merchandise orders from France. The social media intern was frantically finding clips of Big Basta in action. It was exciting. It felt like it gave MLR a bit of legitimacy, which would be echoed when Ma’a Nonu and Tendai Mtawarira signed with San Diego and Washington. But it was also just another reason to panic.

We were glad to sign local players, or at least players who had come to America under their own steam, not least because they could help real outsiders settle in.

To the outside world, New York life seems glamorous. Living in Manhattan, going out on Broadway or up to the Met? It sounds amazing – and so it is, if you can afford it. Hauling yourself to another freezing rugby field for contact training in February? By subway? And back? Less so. Especially, we guessed, if most of your career had played out in the south of France and Paris. Rugby in New York means lots of time on crappy pitches miles from Manhattan, schlepping up to the Bronx or out to Randall’s Island, in the East River, in pitiless wind, rain or snow. Or all three.

Could Bastareaud fit in? And there was another nagging thing. Despite all the ways teams got around the salary cap, we couldn’t pay Bastareaud anywhere close to what he was making in France. We were pretty sure he was going to be disappointed.

Still, he was coming over. Getting his visa became our top priority. Back to US immigration I went. Lucky me.

Since Bastareaud was so good at what he did, it was more likely the government would approve. But to get there, we needed as much evidence as possible he was as awesome as we were claiming. I called Iowa – or wherever. Anyone who has been subjected to the “but why?” game by a small child will recognize what happened next.

“Mathieu Bastareaud is a star rugby player.”

Why?

“Well … he’s very important to the French national team.”

Why?

“He has 60 caps.”

What’s a cap?

“Sorry, that means a game played.”

So he’s only good for a Frenchman?

“Well France is pretty good at rugby, but he’s also very good for his club.”

Is his club good?

“Yah, really good.”

Why?

“Well, they’ve won the European Cup.”

But is he important to his club?

“Yah, very.”

Why? And prove it. With paperwork.

With a couple of people working hard, that can take a month, maybe two. We had two weeks. We compiled clippings about Bastareaud’s displays for Stade Français, Toulon, Lyon and France. Reports from French papers were pushed through Google Translate. Letters were written for important people to sign. It was the middle of the holidays in France, so no one was doing anything. We found them, and made them do things.

We were exhausted. At the end of days that didn’t really end, back at my apartment, I collapsed, raving. My wife looked on, pity suffused with horror. Somehow, Bastareaud got his visa. He was able to show up for the season … and then to leave again, after Covid closed the league down, after playing three whole games.

Why did I do it? For the love of rugby.

Would I do it again? Ask me after kick-off.