Another year of Rugby League in the USA is almost done. Both the AMNRL and USARL have finished their regular seasons and are about to kick off their play-offs. Over the last 10 weeks I have been to many of the Rugby League matches from both competitions. I have seen a range of teams both competitions have to offer from the good, to the bad and to the ugly. I have spoken with many of the players and people that run the teams and the sport. I have made my own observations as well and one thing is clear: Both the AMNRL and USARL have to come back together and soon.
This is not an article on who is right and who is wrong, or even who is better. From what I have seen both administrations do things well and not so well. They both have little money and limited resources and so can only do what they can with what they have. The split not only has divided the clubs and players in this country but also the many fans the USA has around the world. On many of the forums and articles it has become clear that fans are positive for either the AMNRL or the USARL.
The sport in reality up until the split was in a bit of a stalemate and when things happened it forced the hand of the AMNRL. It has taken time but reforms have come into the AMNRL. They now have a board and every club is represented, a sort of similar structure to what the USARL has. It is still unclear as to the role of the old administrators is or will be. In the past it fell on the shoulders of just one or a few and one of the gripes was that there was no transparency. Hopefully now we will have this with both camps in the coming years. However as has been seen in the AMNRL and USARL, they need many to step up to the plate to help run the sport. One of the comments from many was in the old days it always fell to just a few to get things done as promises were made and they were never fulfilled. This year things are better, it has forced the hand for many to step up and have to get things done. It was evident just last weekend for the AMNRL where the annual War on the Shore was staged and staged well, because many came together to get it up and running. Its also obvious that that the USARL have been very good in this regard as well. Individual teams like the Fight and Axemen have a great game day experience and this is solely due to many people pitching in. The USARL 9s has been now successfully staged three years in a row, again it’s success is due to many coming together to help out to host it.
This is not to say that we need to smooth over any issues. There is a culture of one upmanship that has come in. Both the AMNRL and USARL I have felt have been guilty of this. Instead of consolidating teams and competitions, new clubs were almost forced to form. I know that many will say that this is not true, I do appreciate that players wanted to have their own clubs and thought they could run them, but in reality what happened was that other clubs were made weaker. An 8 team versus a 7 team comp or a 7 versus a 6 team comp doesn’t men anything. We saw blow out scores in both the AMNRL and USARL this year. Huge scores being racked up to zero. In The AMNRL whole games had to be abandoned because teams could not even get enough players. This I can expect from a nation that is just starting out, but one that has been going for over 15 years its actually not acceptable, no matter what some say. Even this year we have seen teams that were previously strong suffer from being diluted. Its better to have 6 strong teams than to have 7 or 8 weak teams.
The promotion of the sport is another big thing. The USARL actually do a decent job, not perfect by any means, but do something. The Fight, Axemen and Rebellion lead the way in this with in my opinion. They appear on TV and radio on a regular basis. Their Cheerleaders go out and do a lot of heavy promoting in their communities as well. The Grand final will have two of Philadelphia’s top Radio Jocks at hand all thanks to one of the Cheerleaders. The Rebellion have been on the popular man versus food show in the USA and the Axemen really are the leaders in how to make your sport one of the main one in summer in a sport starved region. They have set up relationships with the local NFL team, so much so they were honoured at quarter time at the NFLs Jacksonville Jaguars NFL game this year for their Championship victory last year! Unfortunately I have not seen anything even close to this in the AMNRL, even the Tomahawks games get zero advertising and promotion.
The survival of any sport comes to its junior development. Up until a couple years ago, there was zero junior development on any regular basis in the game. The USARLs Rhode Island Rebellion have been the first to get any real initiative there, with an U23 academy and as I recently reported on they have gone into the youth centers and juvenile detention cetnters. They have seen the first player come through these programs into the top team. There last year the Sharks tried to get a second division team going, which was great but this only lasted one match unfortunately and momentum was lost. The Jacksonville Axemen had a 3 team feeder competition in the Florida area. The USARL were also the first to set up the North American Match Officials Association (NAMOA) where the referres and officials are set for each game with and a judiciary are also present.
One thing the AMNRL really needs to fix, or bring in rather, is that any teams that do not fulfil a fixture should have some repercussion. Right now nothing happens if there is a forfeit or not enough players, there needs to be some sort of points deduction or a fine that comes in. Teams need to know that they cannot get off scot free. The USARL has been good with this regard. And I know many in the AMNRL like that aspect.
This leads me onto the Tomahawks. This will probably be the only real negative part of the article. But I hope it to be constructive. The policy that David Niu and the AMNRL and Tomahawks selectors took I think was the most destructive and the single issue that really led to David and others stepping away. Its the issue that was the most divisive amongst players and fans and having to force players like Apple Pope to choose, excluding players from the USARL to make the team. Apple essentially played no domestic games for two years yet was able to make the national team. Fake teams like Atlanta were made up to try and cover this, but everyone knew what the situation was. Also, remember that most of the players in the United States are all friends, whether from the AMNRL or USARL, they all still hang out and do things together. There are only a few that have frowned upon this fraternisation, but they have the power, and it seems that certain players have been made to suffer.
So the point of what I have been saying here is that both competitions have pluses and minuses and for the sport to progress the pluses from both sides need to come together. The sport is not strong enough to have two competitions, unfortunately its something that seems to be a theme these days with the Italians also splitting and the Thais having two different bodies and also problems in PNG and Russia. They all need to sort them selves out as soon as possible. Rugby League has a tendency to shoot itself in the foot and its a testament to its resilience that it keeps surviving. But this can only happen for so long. I really do hope that within the USA at least by next year we will see both competitions come together finally for a stronger, unified code.
The word on the street is that the NOVA Eagles will not be travelling to New York to face the Knight. This means that the Knights win and move onto the Grand final being played next week. This again shows the total ridiculousness of the situation, teams that make the final should be able to travel. Maybe they need to adopt the USARL system where two weeks between matches are given so that travel, funds and time off can be organised by teams.
Since I started writing this article, some very exciting news has come out with the sport in the USA. As I mentioned there are many players and administrators in both the AMNRL and USARL that want reunification. Looks like that first step in the whole process has been taken with the Philadelphia Fight, who are hosting the USARL Grand Final, will also be hosting the USA Tomahawks v Canadian Wolverines Colonial Cup international for the AMNRL.
This has been in negotiation for a while, I guess I can mention that I have heard word of this for over a month now and is great to see that it actually is coming to fruition. This is the first time in three years since the split that these two groups have come together for an event(s). The games will be played 24th August at the A. A. Garthwaite Stadium in Conshohoken, PA with the Grand Final starting at 3pm and the Colonial Cup match at 6pm. For more information you can visit the fight website here.
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