The All Blacks will play a test in the United States for the fifth time when they take on the Eagles in Washington, DC, on October 23. Former All Blacks media manager Ric Salizzo, who is a senior consultant at Rugby New York, explains what motivates those who play the game in the USA.
I ended up in the United States because rugby wasn’t any fun for me anymore. I’m not blaming rugby, but I had been involved in it some way or another since reporting on the 1981 Springbok tour and it was time for a change. We just needed to start seeing other sports, it wasn’t you rugby, it was me.
It was a bit like having your favourite meal most days for 40 years, you start to look forward to broccoli every now and then. (Editor’s note Salizzo still eats spaghetti ragu most days of the week).
I realised it when I covered the All Blacks to Ireland and Italy in 2018. The endless top table press conferences were a bit soulless compared to the fun that escaped in the amateur days and the early days of professionalism.
No one seemed to be really having much fun even through the bright and shiny lens of social media. The good times seemed to be restricted by the fun police.
To quote that historic document “The Good the Bad and the Rugby”, I was a bit tired, a bit jaded.
So, I moved to Austin, Texas to get away from rugby a bit, to learn from the passionate fan engagement of College Football and the Mighty Longhorns.
It lasted about a month.
First, I got called in to help with the coaching of the local Westlake High School Rugby team, which was a brilliant experience working with a school so ingrained with the Texas High School Football spirit. Then I got an email from a friend at Bolton Equities.
The Bolton’s had been involved in the ownership of the Blues rugby team, so I was certainly aware of them and their passion for the game.
The email said something along the lines of “We’ve just bought a Major League Rugby team in New York; do you want to have a chat?”
So, I did and now I live in New York, well Hoboken New Jersey but I can see New York.
Rugby is fun, I am getting to see its soul again with a touch of the stars and stripes working as the senior consultant for Rugby New York in Major League Rugby, helping in any way I can. (My offer to fill in on the paddock was immediately rebuffed. Apparently, the need for a 59-year-old broken down aspiring to average loose forward is non-existent.)
My first day I sat in on a meeting where we shut the league down due to the Covid-19 global pandemic so it’s fair to say it didn’t start well, but when 2021 came around rugby was back and so was I.
The first thing I noticed was the passion that everyone involved in rugby in the United States has. Being a rugby person in the United States is like a badge of courage that those that earn it wear proudly.
There are so many challenges for rugby in this vast country where they have invented their own sports and they are fantastic.
But for me the mantra for rugby here is ‘let’s get on with it so we can enjoy it’.
Before MLR came along there were so many brilliant rugby programs in so many places but now they have the gift of a professional focal point to get more people excited about the game I’ve fallen back in love with.
So, what is it about the MLR that has brought about that falling back in love?
I’ll talk about people in New York, but I could be talking about thousands of people across the USA.
Nate Brakely is our lock forward. And I don’t think he’s ever met a ruck he hasn’t hit. He missed a tackle once. It might have been in 2018. This year he even threw an intercept pass. People commented that locks shouldn’t be throwing passes out wide. Every time he does, he has a massive smile (on the inside) because doing it makes playing the game more fun. Nate is in the USA Eagles, Cambridge educated and is one of the best rugby players I have met because he loves the game and playing it so much. But he has balance. Rugby is important but it’s not everything. But he always gives it everything. And every time there is a tough challenge, he just gets on with it.
Once, we flew six hours to play Seattle the next day. Then we flew six hours home to play LA the next week. Then we were back on a plane to fly to Atlanta a few hours away the following week. I just can’t imagine Super Rugby players flying to Perth the day before the game and then Sydney in economy and enjoying themselves. It’s just a different mindset because they are so appreciative of the opportunity MLR gives the game in the USA.
There are some seriously talented and brilliant to watch players in Major League Rugby and some big names. Andy Ellis is a Crusaders legend, All Black halfback, winner of the Rugby World Cup and loving being part of New York Rugby. He’s also one of the most competitive people I know, up there with Zinzan Brooke. In fact if they ever took the time to read something I had written they will both be trying to work out how they compete against each other to establish who is actually the most competitive.
Andy joined us this season and gave us everything. In fact, at one stage, I had to pull him aside and ask him to stop hitting so many rucks. He was such an important player to us that we preferred him to stand at the back of the ruck and pass the ball. You know, like a normal halfback. Next game he hit more rucks than ever including one where he drove his mate Dylan Fawcitt over the line for a try. He can do what he likes.
But like me he seems to have found a new level of love for the game he's been involved with all his life. Being here and playing for New York seems to make his rugby soul smile.
He’s been an inspiration to our players, showing them every day what the best in the world looks like, but at the same time learning from our American boys about how much fun being a sports trail blazer can be.
We had so many challenges in 2021. I started to write them down because I had never experienced anything like it and when I saw them all listed it made me laugh.
A brief sample. Pre-season training was halted because our training ground was covered by four feet of snow. And every time we cleared it, it snowed again. Still the shovelling was good fitness work (apparently).
Our coach resigned just before we started the season due to family circumstances, one of our major sponsors withdrew because of concerns about dealing with Covid and then our home ground was off limits due to the pandemic.
That was a good week.
And we got on with it.
Marty Veale, our forwards coach, stepped up, joined by Marty Bourke. We felt it better to just have coaches with the same name.
Mainfreight became our naming rights sponsor, and we found a home ground.
We had 37 rejections due to covid protocols before we found a home ground and we got saved a few days before our first game. But we found a home. And we will be forever grateful to Cochrane Stadium in Jersey City and then St Johns in Queens.
And then we had to get some posts. The pads needed replacing. There was a dead racoon in them, and we were lucky Hanco, our flanker, could weld because we needed to fix the base. But we had posts.
Probably the highlight was when we played LA at home. Welcome to Jersey City.
LA are a great team and so good for the MLR in every way. With former Wallabies Matt Giteau and Adam Ashely Cooper starring on and off the field they are pure Hollywood. They remind me of the wrestler Gorgeous George, that legend of the 1940’s you all remember so fondly.
They are who they are, they shout it from the rooftops, and they can play.
They showed up in their white tracksuits with Miami vice trim and shiny everything else and we took it to them, summoning the New York Ironworkers spirit in one hell of a battle.
We ended up winning the Champagne Cup which they supplied. It's bigger and more expensive than some of our players and would be sitting on the mantelpiece if such a mantlepiece existed.
LA went on to win the title after leading from the front and we were left ruing a last minute one point loss in our conference final to Atlanta in another classic street fight.
Take it from someone that has been around for a bit. Major League Rugby in the United States is the real deal. Great entertaining rugby played in front of good crowds in cool stadiums. Each team has its own DNA combining talented rugby players from all over the world with the best of the USA. And that American talent pool and fan base is growing all the time.
Despite all the challenges the MLR just keeps getting better. We played during a global pandemic and every game took place.
Rugby is fun again and at the moment finding that fun is important.
MLR 2021 was one of my greatest rugby experiences ever. Sometimes I sit here looking at the Empire State Building, take a deep breath and think about what a gift it is to be part of the MLR trailblazers for the game I have fallen back in love with.
And I get to do it in New York, one of the greatest cities in the world where having a great time is plentiful.
I can’t wait to be “getting on with it” in 2022.