When Ma'a Nonu and Tendai "The Beast" Mtawarira lead their respective squads in a March 22nd showdown, you'd be forgiven if you thought you were watching a South Africa-New Zealand test match. Rather, you'd be watching two of Major League Rugby's most exciting squads, as Nonu's San Diego Legion and The Beast's Old Glory DC face off in that March clash. The talent on display for both squads points to potential playoff implications later in MLR's third season, which kicks off on February 8th.
Nonu and Mtawarira highlight a massive offseason for Major League Rugby, as some of the game's most established international stars join the competition. Mathieu Bastareaud comes over from France to bolster the Rugby United New York (RUNY) backs. He'll join English fullback Ben Foden and Australia's Drew Mitchell in what looks like a positively devastating backline.
The list of newly-signed test stars goes on. Former rivals Digby Ioane (Australia) and Rene Ranger (New Zealand) will team up for the Colorado Raptors. In Utah, the Warriors signed All Black Adam Thomson. Former Wallabies' "Mr. Versatility" back Adam Ashley-Cooper signed with the Austin Gilgronis just before the start of the season.
Nonu joins a supremely talented roster in San Diego. He'll join capped American backs Nate Augspurger, Dylan Audsley, Ryan Matyas and Mikey Te'o, while fellow Super Rugby veteran Joe Pieterson steers the ship at 10.
"It's a great opportunity to play with the guys I've met in the last four weeks. I'm the rookie at the moment, still trying to get the combinations right," Nonu explained. "I've been playing for a long time, so hopefully my experience helps. I'm looking forward to the start of the season. It's a tough competition from what I've seen, and I've got to respect that."
San Diego is hoping Nonu can help get the team over the hump after losing a shocker at the death last season to the two-time defending MLR Champion Seattle Seawolves, 26-23. The Legion have made it to at least the semifinals in each of the MLR's first two seasons.
On the flip side, Mtawarira's Old Glory squad out of Washington, D.C. will be suiting up for the first time as one of the league's three expansion teams. Rugby ATL out of Atlanta, Georgia and the New England Freejacks from just outside of Boston, Massachusetts make it a 12-team league.
The 12-team format provides the depth for Eastern and Western conferences and, subsequently, Eastern and Western playoff brackets. The east-west structure is one that has proven to be successful for the United States' marquee sports leagues. Given that RUNY and the fellow 2019 addition Toronto Arrows both wound up in the semifinals, there is plenty of reason to believe that any of the new squads could factor into the 2020 MLR Championship.
For all the signings and expansion, it's Nonu and The Beast who have moved the needle the most. The two have combined for 220 test appearances, three Rugby World Cup Championships, as well as countless Tri Nations, European Cups and Top 14 matches. Simply put, the two have as impressive a CV as anyone in World Rugby.
"I think it's a great competition, and we'll grow over the next couple of years. I'm sure a lot of foreign and overseas players would like to come over and experience American rugby," Nonu said. "We just have to make it exciting. All of the teams across the board are pretty strong, so it's going to be a great one to watch."
For Legion coach Rob Hoadley, the hope is Nonu's big game experience can help his team capture that elusive MLR crown.
"The point is always to win the championship. We came up just short last year, and we wanted to add a really experienced leader, and that's exactly what Ma'a offered," Hoadley explained. "There's really no one in world rugby with more experience than him and you just can't buy experience like that. We think Ma'a is going to be a huge addition to help get us across the line this year, along with other pieces that we're very excited about."
Though Visa issues have slowed his arrival, Mtawarira will lead the Old Glory Squad out of Washington, D.C. He joins an Old Glory squad that looks ready to compete right now. While he anchors the pack, Thretton Palamo (USA Rugby), Declan O'Donnell (New Zealand 7s) and explosive MLR veteran Dylan Taikato-Simpson form a backline that can run with any in the league. Following the success of 2019's expansion teams, there's every reason to believe this D.C. outfit will have a say in who lifts the championship trophy at the end of the year.
"The playoffs are the goal, because once you make it there, it becomes one-off games," explained Old Glory head coach Andrew Douglas. "And as we saw in the World Cup, anyone can win a one-off game. So that's our goal- to make the playoffs, and then anything can happen from there.
For many, the international talent on display across the league is evoking memories of the early Japanese Top League years. It took time, but the development of a professional domestic league has had massive effects on the Japanese National side. The upset of South Africa and a first ever appearance in the quarterfinals have made Japan the story of the last two World Cups, and World Rugby as a whole.
"I think the MLR has probably gotten off to an even better start [than Top League]," United States' head coach Gary Gold explained. "The signings of Nonu and Tendai are going to have significant effects on the league, and that bodes well for the National side. The fact that American players are going to come up against stars like these, scrummaging against The Beast and centers going against Nonu, Bastareaud and the likes. Players are going to gain huge experience with playing against world class opposition."
It's not only the influx of talent and addition of teams that point to MLR's stability in the American sports landscape. The media outlets have taken note, as well as investors. For the first time, MLR will be available on three national television networks, with ESPN expanding its gameday coverage from ESPN+ to ESPN News.
It is a massive jump in coverage of the American game from just four years ago. It was then that America's first endeavor into professional rugby -- the failed Professional Rugby Organization -- was marketing itself on subpar Facebook Live streams, leaving fans feeling frustrated and underwhelmed.
The 2019-20 offseason saw major movement on the investment side, as well. Ashley-Cooper's Gilgroni squad, formerly the Austin Herd, has been bought by the Australian Loyals LLC, led by fitness empire F45's co-founder Adam Gilchrist. The name "Gilgroni" comes from a yet-to-be produced cocktail named after Gilchrist.
In early January, Bolton Equities out of Auckland purchased a minority stake in RUNY, while Clermont out of France put a stake in New Orleans, Louisiana's NOLA Gold. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles former Waratahs' standout James Godfrey is leading the way for the LA Loyals. It is believed that along with an unnamed Dallas team, the Loyals will join the competition in 2021.
International superstars. Major media markets. Big-time investors. Add it all up, and it just may be a recipe for MLR to wake the long-fabled "sleeping giant" that has been deemed by many to be American rugby.
"It's a competition that will grow over the next couple of years," Nonu said. "I'm sure a lot of foreign and overseas players would like to come over and experience American rugby. It's going to be an exciting competition."