By Brian Lowe, Date: 18/12/18
This year started with a lot of hype and promise for the future. It had peaks and troughs along the way, and then finished in disappointment.
2018 was certainly a year of contrasts for the game of rugby league in the United States.
It started with Danny Hanson being elected in March as the new chairman of the USA Rugby League arm in charge of running the domestic competition.
Coming off the back of America’s second straight appearance at a Rugby League World Cup, and in spite of it being a winless run for the USA Hawks, most of the first half of the year was marked by incessant yapping, mainly from parties outside of America who have no inkling of the reality of sporting life in the US, that the greatest game of all was on the verge of cracking it big time in the biggest sporting market in the world.
The first six months of 2018 were taken up with that nonsense, mainly because the rugby league media picked it up and ran with it and that’s because, for the most part, they don’t know any better either.
So, June rolled around, and we finally had the so-called Rugby League Football International Challenge in Denver between England and New Zealand.
After a lot of back and forth, toing and froing and, at times, heated debate about whether the long-haul flights and altitude would have an adverse effect on the players, the game eventually went ahead at Mile High stadium. Hallelujah!
The official crowd was put at 19,000 and change, but in reality, that number was inflated and was more like 13,000 or 14,000 give or take. England won the game, but in hindsight, who really cares.
A more serious issue emerged later in the year when it was revealed that the sports promoters who bankrolled the whole deal couldn’t actually pay the English or Kiwi rugby leagues the money promised to them for staging that game. Oops!
Australian-based Moore Sports International (MSI) had promoted this matchup as being the first installment of a three-year thing (2018-2020) to get American sports fans invested in rugby league in the lead up to the 2025 World Cup, an event which MSI was going to pay for.
Reality check – these are the same guys who said they were going to kick off a professional rugby league competition in the US in 2018. Wait. What? Here we are at the end of 2018 and funnily enough that hasn’t happened.
The upshot is that MSI has pulled out of #RLWC2025 and the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) is now left holding the bag needing to find a viable alternative.
With Denver in the books, it was time for the USA Rugby League’s domestic competition to get underway in June.
It did and right from the get-go, the Brooklyn Kings (North Conference) and Jacksonville Axemen (South Conference) established themselves as the teams to beat.
As it turned out, those two teams went undefeated through the regular season and playoffs and squared off in the USARL national championship game in August.
The game was played in Jacksonville, Florida, in late August and the home team, not unexpectedly, emerged triumphant.
It capped off an impressive run by the Axemen, coached by Aussie Sean Rutgerson.
The season was also marked by the inclusion of a new team, the Southwest Florida Copperheads. Spearheaded by Curtis Goddard, a player who has represented the USA and CanAm Grizzlies, the club showed what can be accomplished when you have a goal in mind and a blueprint to achieve it.
August also saw an exhibition game between the Chicago Stockyarders and Canadian side Ontario in Chi-town. Ontario won the match organized by the Midwest Rugby League (MWRL) as part of its push to establish an expansion Midwest Conference in the USA Rugby League’s national competition by 2020.
As we moved into September, it was time for the annual All Star game pitting the best of the North against the best of the South.
This year’s game was played in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, and the South won by a narrow two-point margin. There was also a second unofficial match later on in Tampa won by the North.
That game was the last opportunity for players to impress selectors for inclusion in the USA Hawks team to compete in the 2021 Rugby League World Cup Americas region qualifying series.
And that is where the year ended in disappointment for the United States.
The US hosted the series in Jacksonville, as it had in 2015, but unlike that year, the Hawks crashed and burned this time.
They easily beat newbies Chile in the first round but came undone against Jamaica in the second round.
That loss to the Reggae Warriors means the USA must now go into a repechage, a World playoff group, in 2019 for its final chance to qualify for the 2021 RLWC.
All things considered, looking back on 2018, it was a year that produced a couple of blips on the radar but one that didn’t really set any new marks for rugby league in America.