By Brian Lowe, Date: 29/12/17 (Photo Credit Carolyn Ritchie)
A mixed bag of tricks is probably the best way to sum up how 2017 panned out for USA Rugby League (USARL).
On the domestic front things went along reasonably swimmingly, while on the international scene there were both good and not so good outcomes.
The USARL’s domestic competition was as competitive as it has been in recent years with both the North and South Conferences producing their share of entertaining rugby league.
There were two standout teams, New York Knights (North) and Atlanta Rhinos (South). They dominated their respective conferences and went on to play for the national championship.
The Knights had been there done that before and went into the game as favorites on the back of an undefeated run, but it was the Rhinos who stepped up to emerge victorious and clinch their maiden title.
While all that was going on, the USA Hawks got their 2017 Test season off to a winning start by beating Jamaica and Canada to retain the Americas Championship and Colonial Cup.
Jacksonville Axemen coach Sean Rutgerson took charge of the team for those domestic games as Hawks head coach Brian McDermott watched from afar as he guided Leeds Rhinos to a Super League championship.
On the peripheral of the main domestic competition, the Chicago Stockyarders remained a going concern in the Midwest, a local league continued in Hawaii and there were renewed murmurings of getting things started on the West Coast, mainly in California.
The planned North vs South All-Stars game in Tampa Bay had to be canceled when Hurricane Irma crashed into Florida in September, leaving most players picked in the USA’s Rugby League World Cup squad without a match, in some cases, for as long as six weeks.
And so, it was on to the Australian city of Townsville where the Hawks started their RLWC2017 campaign, but sadly, they didn’t fare too well there. Indeed, they went 0-2 after being lit up by Fiji in their opening game and then shut out by Italy in their second match.
From there it was up to the tropics of Papua New Guinea where they faced the red hot Kumuls in Port Moresby and came away with their worst ever defeat at a World Cup. The 64-0 scoreline eclipsed the 62-0 hammering of the Tomahawks by eventual champions Australia in 2013.
Their 0-3 record brought the inevitable comparison with the 2-1 Tomahawks of four years earlier. That team got to the quarterfinals, which is where they ran into the Kangaroos.
In response to questions about that, the USARL put it down to having a different philosophy on national team selections to that of the previous national governing body.
“In 2013, USA went to the World Cup with one domestic player and outside of that the other players were all residents of Australia, or New Zealand or the UK,” said USARL chairman Peter Illfield.
“What we did this time is pretty much split the squad in half and of the 23 players, we took 12 out of the US competition.
“It’s all about development, it’s all about the future.
“It’s great to win and I think the win that we had was that every player that was selected turned up and conducted themselves with the best of behavior and tried their hardest.”
Illfield says he was happy with the job done by coach McDermott and wants to keep him on if circumstances permit.
Following their World Cup results, the Hawks dropped four spots to #14 in international rankings compiled by the Rugby League International Federation.
Looking ahead to 2018, Illfield expects the domestic competition to improve, particularly in the Southeast, and he says it’s possible that the Americans could participate in the Emerging Nations championship.
The USARL is also scheduled to have its board meeting in late January in Jacksonville, FL, at which the game’s future direction will be reviewed.
And on top of that, there are reported proposals for England to play New Zealand in the United States in June, perhaps in Denver, and for Australia to face Tonga in Hawaii in October.
All in all, the odds are good that rugby league fans stateside can look forward to seeing more of the greatest game of all in the next year.