By Brian Lowe (Photo Credit Allene Rachal )
As we move into the unofficial start of summer in the United States, so too the new domestic rugby league season kicks off.
This year’s USA Rugby League (USARL) LLC clubs competition has a slightly new look in both the North and South Conferences.
In the North, the number of teams has been trimmed from seven to six with the previous national champion New York Knights taking the year off.
The Knights, who won four national championships in the days of the American National Rugby League (AMNRL) and were runners-up to the Atlanta Rhinos in 2017, struggled during the offseason to fill gaps right across the board from volunteers to players and consequently told USARL they would not be able to compete in 2019.
They hope to resume competition in 2020.
Another team with question marks over its ability to compete in 2019 was the Delaware Black Foxes when founder and head coach Bjorn Haglid opted to step aside at the end of last season because of his ongoing commitments to rugby union. However, the club found a replacement coach and will be in the thick of things this season.
The North looks to be competitive again this year with reigning champs the Brooklyn Kings the team to beat.
They went through the 2018 season unbeaten until they ran into a red-hot and also undefeated Jacksonville Axemen side in the grand final.
Another team to watch is the Boston 13s. It has been slim pickins for them since their one and only national title in 2015.
The 13s had a busy offseason recruiting players and will be spearheaded by new captain/coach James Smart from Australia. He is coming off a triumphant season in which he coached the Gundagai Tigers to a premiership in Group 9 of the New South Wales rugby league.
As they did last year, the White Plains Wombats and Philadelphia Fight will again be looking to make the playoffs, while last year’s conference wooden spooners, the Northern Virginia Eagles, have it all to do in 2019.
Round 1 of the North Conference is slated for this weekend.
Turning to the South Conference and the defending national champion Axemen shape up as the team to beat. And they opened the new season with a win against a much-improved Southwest Florida Copperheads in Round 1 action on the Memorial Day long weekend.
Jacksonville’s last loss was in July 2017 and since then they have been the form team of the competition.
Speaking of the Copperheads, founder Curtis Goddard also had a busy offseason recruiting players and setting up a club funding model that he believes could be replicated by other teams in the USA and elsewhere. They didn’t win a game in their inaugural season last year, but that’s now in the rearview mirror as they look to step things up in 2019.
The South has expanded to a five-team conference with the establishment earlier this year of a new club, the Lakeland Renegades. Former Tampa Mayhem player/coach David Ulch is now player/coach with the Renegades.
With Ulch’s move back to his hometown, club CEO Billy Neilson and Dan Slagle are sharing the coaching duties this year in Tampa and they came up trumps against Lakeland in another first round match on the holiday weekend.
The other South team, past national champion Atlanta Rhinos, will be looking to go one better this year. They won the national championship in their first, and so far only, appearance in a title game in 2017 and got as far as the semifinals in 2018 when they were beaten by eventual champs Jacksonville.
The season culminates with the 2019 national championship game on Saturday, August 24 with the North Conference champions to host the match.
That will be followed two weeks later by the annual All Stars game with the South to host the North at a venue yet to be determined.