North American players '10 times fitter' thanks to new league

They had to hold down jobs as well as play rugby in the past, but Major League Rugby has been a game-changer - as Italy and England may discover today.

FUKUOKA, 25 Sep - Teaching, typing, farming and washing stables used to be the moves practised by many test players from North America before they could focus on their passing, kicking and tackling.

The mostly amateur Canada and USA squads looked very different at past World Cups as they had to juggle day jobs with representing their country at rugby. 

While some are still balancing training with work, the establishment two seasons ago of a North American league, the Major League Rugby (MLR), has made a big difference.

"It's a light at the end of the tunnel," said Canada's head coach Kingsley Jones. "The biggest thing for these lads is opportunity and I don't think they've had enough opportunities (in the past), unfortunately." 

MLR players feature in three RWC 2019 squads - United States, Canada and Uruguay. Five of the Los Teros match-day 23 who beat Fiji on Wednesday play for MLR clubs.

The two countries most intertwined with the league, Canada and USA, play their opening matches on Thursday, against Italy and England respectively.

Launched with seven teams, MLR now has nine and will expand to 12 next season, which is due to start in February.

"The growth I've seen within the team since that last World Cup has been huge," said USA second-row Greg Peterson.

"The MLR has done an incredible job. From what used to be a bit of rag-tag club rugby here and there, with a competition that was all over the shop, it's now pooling some of the best players in the States into those teams."

Ten members of the USA match-day 23 and 11 of Canada's play for MLR clubs. Five of the Canucks play for the only Canada-based club, Toronto Arrows, which launched in the 2019 season and attracts crowds of about 3,000 to home games. 

MLR players start their pre-season training in December and finish the regular season in May, with play-offs in June. Whereas many North American players held side jobs while squad members at previous RWCs, those playing in the MLR are now able to focus on sport for most of the year.

"It's on for about eight months and while you're with your team you don't have to have another job," said Canada hooker Eric Howard, who cleaned horse stables for three years before becoming the captain of MLR club New Orleans Gold.

"You just focus on rugby. It's been massive for my growth as a player."

The extra hours in the gym - and expert coaching - have also helped.

"From where we've come to where we are now, the boys are 10 times more professional, 10 times more skilled, we're 10 times fitter," Peterson said, and the same can be said of the Canada team.

"This year's level for the guys is better from consistently playing every weekend, week in and week out," said Canada's prop Djustice Sears-Duru, pictured top, who plays for MLR champions Seattle Seawolves. "It's a great thing for Canada and America." 

Brock Smith, a representative of the Toronto Arrows, is already dreaming even bigger - of the first Rugby World Cup to be hosted in North America.

"They used to be just regular guys that are working nine to five and playing rugby on evenings and weekends, waking up at the crack of dawn and training, lifting weights and doing everything that they need to do to get their bodies ready," Smith said. "To have a professional environment means that their focus can be predominantly on rugby, more so than it ever was before.

"It wouldn't be far-fetched to see a North American-hosted World Cup. It's one of those things where maybe a few years ago it wasn't conceivable. Now that there's a professional league in place, it is very much a reality."

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