By Brian Lowe
It has been quite some time since the last full-on rugby league match was played in California, but the much-anticipated debut of the new California Rugby League (CRL) is just about upon us with the league’s inaugural exhibition games set to be played this Saturday, December 7, in San Francisco.
A total of six teams will take the field at the Bay Area’s 3500-seat Boxer Stadium, a venue more accustomed to hosting rugby union in the past.
The main game will feature the Los Angeles Mongrel up against the San Francisco Savage. Other matches on the card will feature Sacramento taking on Santa Rosa, plus two developmental squads from San Francisco and Sacramento will face off against each other to round out the day’s action.
The last time rugby league of any description was played in the Golden State was back in 1995 when All-Star teams from Southern California and Northern California squared off in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park’s Kezar Stadium in a rematch of a similar game a year earlier.
The CRL is the brainchild of expat Australian Tom Stevenson, who is very much of the opinion that the 13-man game is in a good position to gain a foothold in California, but beyond that, to also build on the existing USA Rugby League (USARL) domestic competition.
“Our goal for December 7th is to reignite rugby league in the US,” he tells RugbyLeaguePlanet.
Given that the CRL was launched earlier this year, it is remarkable that in such a very short space of time it has been able to attract enough players to field six teams for exhibition games on its debut weekend, although that doesn’t really surprise Stevenson.
“I am not surprised by the numbers of players and coaches wanting to be involved,” he says. “I am surprised by the speed in which they have appeared.”
The players, who are a mix of homegrown and overseas guys, have been training in both Los Angeles and San Francisco for a few months.
The LA Mongrel is coached by former NRL player Johnny Manning, while there has been a late change to the coaching role with the Savage.
Initially, USA Hawks head coach Sean Rutgerson had been recruited to coach the San Francisco team and scout potential national team players while on the West Coast, however, those plans changed when the US lost to the Cook Islands in the world playoff game for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.
“My vision was to give the national side access to as many players as possible for a successful 2021 World Cup campaign,” says Stevenson. “Since we are not going, we have altered our focus to 2025 and have opted to take an alternative route.”
Adriaan Ferris, who coaches at Life Chiropractic College West in San Francisco’s East Bay Area, has been named as the Savage’s new coach. Life College in Atlanta competes in USA Rugby men’s competition and is a past national champion.
The CRL’s initial season is projected to revolve around a five-week competition next year, most likely to be played in the autumn. San Diego and Oakland have been identified as additional cities where expansion teams could be located in 2021.
“The short-term future of rugby league in California involves a four-team competition in 2020,” continues Stevenson.
So, does he honestly believe that rugby league can really take off in California?
“Yes,” is his unequivocal answer.