Recently RUNY announced that they will sign French superstar Mathieu Bastareaud. The French center will join RUNY after the world cup in Japan in time for the start of the expanded 2020 season.
Bastareaud will join RUNY on loan from his current club Toulon for a single season before returning to Toulon.
To date the biggest signing to have made the move to the MLR has undoubtedly been Ben Foden. Foden who has 34 England caps to his name and has played for top English teams Sale Sharks and most prominently Northampton Saints. Foden who at 33 years of age provides RUNY with a wealth of experience whilst also being one of the teams top ball carriers, however he has not featured for the English national team since 2013. This is the major difference in the Bastareaud signing as he does still feature, and not only feature but starts on occasion for the French team.
The big center was drafted back into the French starting line-up for the clash with England in the Guinness Six Nations earlier this year and while they suffered a heavy defeat to the English, this was seen as a game to stop the bleeding from previous results and Bastareaud the man to do that.
The point being made, is that Bastareaud is still relevant. He is a player who at 30 years of age is still in his prime both physically and mentally to perform at the very top level.
The visibility this signing will bring to the MLR is immeasurable and could be the catalyst for other big names to make the move also. Rugby is still a relatively confined market for players when compared to other sports like soccer. There are only a handful of leagues and stemming from that limited employment opportunities for up and coming rugby players.
Taking the Irish players in the MLR currently, the majority of these players with the exception of Cathal Marsh are products of the AIL (amateur league in Ireland). Players like Dylan Fawsitt, Mark O’Keeffe, Ben Mitchell and Will Leonard to name but a few have been stand out players in the MLR this season and have adapted well to the professional game. Much of this is down to the ethos of professionalism that exists with the top teams in the AIL. These are players who can play at a high level, given the opportunity and there are many more players like these that exist.
In Ireland for example, there is a surplus of top quality players coming through the 4 provinces academies yet there is only a certain amount of professional contracts available with just 4 professional teams on the island. The amount of professional opportunities for the ‘pretty good’ player in Ireland are few and far between.
The majority of these ‘pretty good’ players will end up going to England or France if they are lucky.
A good case in point is Ian Madigan, who could never nail down a position at Leinster due to the obvious talent of Jonny Sexton and others. Madigan tried France for a season before moving on to England to sign for Bristol. The goal for the MLR should be to offer the Ian Madigan’s of this world a viable alternative to ply their trade.
The addition of 3 teams next season will add not only more exposure and revenue for the league in different parts of the country but also more opportunities for players to play in the MLR. With the World Cup just around the corner, all eyes will be on the US Eagles to see how they perform in their group albeit a difficult group. If the US can get a win against Tonga and put in good performances against other teams in the US, this would raise the profile of rugby in the US and could spark further interest in the MLR both domestically and abroad.
The MLR is growing and much like the MLS in the 00’s needs high profile international players to grow the league and the sport in the US. The difference between the MLS and MLR is that the MLR could feasibly attract great players in their prime given the surplus of quality players to employment opportunities, if it continues to develop.
This then poses the question of balance. The MLR does not want to become a league of imports as this is not sustainable and will not benefit younger players looking to break into a team, the national squad and ultimately the MLR itself.
The balance needs to be there between recruiting foreign based players and working with the grassroots to promote the game domestically and have home grown players tog out for their clubs.
For now however, having the MLR as a viable and attractive option for foreign based players can only help the league at this stage of development.