HERRIMAN — In Year 2 of its existence, the Utah Warriors and Major League Rugby have lofty dreams.
The second-year league has nine teams, with teams in Boston and Washington, D.C., set to join in 2020. As the league continues to grow, Utah Warriors general manager Kimball Kjar is optimistic about MLR’s future. Kjar has a deep-rooted belief that rugby can take off in America, calling the United States the "sleeping giant" of world rugby.
A study done by Nielsen Research following the 2016 Olympics found that there were 33 million Americans who are either interested or very interested in rugby. Kjar and MLR are trying to tap into some of that fan base and help rugby become more mainstream in Utah and around the country.
“The reason why everyone is so motivated behind this concept of Major League Rugby, domestically and internationally, is because everyone knows that this is the last frontier for the world’s second-largest sport to be able to make not only a financial foray, but a cultural and professional foray into the world’s largest economy,” Kjar said.
The Warriors consist of about 20 full-time players and 15 part-time players. Kjar declined to comment on the salary cap, but did offer some insight to the league’s mindset in terms of salary for its players.
“It’s appropriately sized for a league that’s looking to scale strategically, rather than coming out of the gates like the AAF did. They were just absolutely burning cash,” Kjar said. “Inevitably, it was their downfall. We’re trying to be a little bit smarter, a little bit wiser. Start with an appropriately sized salary cap so that we can manage as many of our expenses as we can, and then hopefully grow it from there.”
Those 15 or so part-time players have a busy schedule. On a typical day for the team, practice begins at 6:30 a.m., then after practice, the part-time players go to work, then go back to practice at 5:30 p.m.
“It just speaks volumes to their sacrifice and the commitment that they’re willing to make, not only for the Utah Warriors rugby team, but for rugby and for Utah, as a community, to be the pioneers that will bring the game of rugby here, so that the kids that are running around in high school now will have the opportunity to be full-time professionals and not have to do part-time work to support themselves,” Warriors coach Alf Daniels said. “I think it speaks absolute volumes to the character and the sacrifice that these boys are willing to make.”
“They’re committed to what we’re trying to build here,” he said. “Most of those guys are native Utahns in some way, shape or form, so they want to see Utah remain an epicenter of rugby for North America, they want to see Utah continue to be a highlight for American rugby.”
Alex Tucci played football and rugby for Colorado State in college, and found his way to the Warriors after playing club rugby in Ireland. Tucci has been with the Warriors since the beginning, becoming one of the fan favorites on the team.
“It’s been a good experience. It’s been really cool to see what professional rugby’s like after playing club and overseas a little bit. It’s been an overall good experience, regardless of wins and losses and bumps and bruises. It’s been, honestly, really fun. It’s fun to do something that you love,” Tucci said.
The Warriors have received good fan support in Utah. The team led the league in attendance in MLR’s inaugural season, and has seen fans who knew nothing about rugby going in come out of their first game converts.
“Nothing but the very best, just absolutely awesome. Arguably, the best community in the MLR. Seattle probably comes close, they’ve got a great community and great support there, but our community is just unbelievable,” Daniels said. “They’ve embraced the game of rugby, so many of them probably came to their first rugby game last year, didn’t know what they were watching, didn’t know the rules or anything, and ending up becoming season members and full-time supporters.”
This season, the Warriors are struggling, sitting in seventh place in the nine-team league. Utah has just two wins all season, but morale still seems to be high in the locker room. The Warriors play the San Diego Legion on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Zions Bank Stadium.
“That’s a testament to the culture and the morale of the players,” Daniels said. “They’re the ones who do it. As coaches, we just try and encourage it and guide them along, but they’re the ones that step up on the day. They’ve got a really good attitude to finish the season. While we can’t make it to the playoffs, we can certainly disrupt plans for some of those top teams that are trying to get there, if we get our game right.”
The Warriors made a couple of late additions to their roster, adding rugby legends Adam Thomson and Pat Ravouvou to the team to try to continue to mold the culture of the club.
Thomson played for the New Zealand All Blacks from 2008 to 2012, and was part of the overhaul of the club’s culture. He is coming off a spinal infection from 2018.
“Adam Thomson, All Black from New Zealand … Rugby World Cup champion. Probably the big thing that Adam brings, a lot of experience on field, but probably the biggest contribution he’ll make for this team is off the field,” Daniels said. “He was part of that era of change in All Black history.Comment on this story
“What they did is what the All Blacks are now today and why they’re so successful … Being able to build a culture where they didn’t tolerate, they made sure there were no idiots, nobody that wasn’t there for the team. They founded their culture, and everything that’s been good and positive about the All Blacks since then all started there. What he’ll bring off-field will be huge for us.”
Ravouvou is another experienced veteran who won a gold medal with the Fiji Sevens national team.
“Pat, Olympic gold medalist, a very exciting player. Talented, and no doubt, when he gets his opportunity on the field, he’ll bring the crowd to their feet. Off-field, it takes a lot to become an Olympic gold medalist, and the commitment, sacrifice, everything that has to happen off the field to be able to do that,” Daniels said.