Donnybrook Cup

In what could be a significant move for international rugby league, the USA and Ireland are exploring the possibility of re-establishing their former Donnybrook Cup match.

News of the bilateral dialogue emerged at the United States Association of Rugby League (USARL) Inc. annual general meeting held this past Saturday, December 18th.

The game, which was a St Patrick’s Day fixture, was last played in 2012. It was a semi-regular feature on the calendar of the American national team dating back to 1995 and was most often played in Philadelphia after the inaugural game was hosted in Washington DC.

“We’re looking to re-establish ties with Ireland for the St Patrick’s Day game from 2023,” USA Hawks team manager Billy Neilson told Rugby League Planet. “We’re discussing with the Irish their team coming to the US to play the Hawks. The game would likely be played somewhere in the northeast.”

The US has an overall 5-3 win-loss record in that series. Neilson said the Hawks are also looking at potentially touring Serbia in late 2023, although discussions are in the very early stages.

As for 2022, Neilson said the US has penciled in possible games against Americas region rivals Jamaica and Canada. He said the match against the Reggae Warriors could tentatively be played in September in Jacksonville, Florida, while the game against the Wolverines could be played in Philadelphia in October.

Whether these games go ahead will largely depend on the situation with the pandemic and safety protocols that may or may not be in place at the time.

Another matter that came up for discussion at the AGM was USARL opening a dialogue with California Rugby League (CRL) about possibly forming a combined men’s domestic competition in 2023.

“We’re not sure exactly how it would work, but we’re both interested in talking about what could be a truly national competition,” said USARL board member Drew Slover.

“Going into 2022, as was the case this year, the USARL’s North Conference will likely still be two teams. The North was cut down to two because of defections. Philadelphia and Delaware again look like they’ll be the teams in the North. The South Conference will stay the same.”

The USARL’s 2022 national championship game is set for the end of August. It will be followed by the annual North vs South All-Star game two weeks later.

Another major item on the agenda was the joint review with International Rugby League (IRL) of the governance of the sport in the US. USARL Inc. chairman Peter Illfield said his organisation asked for the review and did so for a reason.

“We felt that we needed to look at how to reform and restructure the game,” he said. “There are different factions in the game in the US with different ideas on how the game should be run.

“We always hope for smooth sailing. You always look to improve so, yes; we’d like to think we can have a viable and competitive structure in 2022.”

Apart from the pandemic causing some logistical issues for the game in 2021, the fledgling North American Rugby League (NARL) also disrupted the domestic scene with plans to start up a separate competition. While it didn’t eventuate, several USARL clubs defected, which created scheduling conflicts.

There were also some startup clubs that opted to go with the NARL, but in the end didn’t play any games because the league never got off the ground. The NARL has recently announced plans to kick off its inaugural competition in 2022.

Illfield said he hoped the USARL and NARL would be able to find a way to work together.

“The innuendo and rumours around a professional national competition have surfaced before,” he said. “Those involved didn’t do their due diligence. I would like to bring everything together with a better understanding. That’s why we reached out to the IRL.

“We need to give the game a better profile. It needs better sponsorship and better awareness, and to do that, you need an international agenda that’s exciting. We need to regain our place in the world of rugby league and get back to the World Cup.”

The AGM passed a motion to suspend the election of board members until the IRL-USARL governance review is completed. That is expected to be sometime within the first quarter of 2022.

Among other matters discussed were the women’s game and how to progress wheelchair rugby league.

USA Women’s Rugby League spokesperson Justin Tucker said the response to the women’s program this year had been encouraging. He said several South Conference teams had established women’s teams, the Carolina Cup saw solid player turn out, and training camps were well attended, particularly by rugby union players wanting to try league.

Tucker said the USWRL is in conversations with Canada and Jamaica about potential games in 2022. The first US vs Canada women’s international that had been scheduled for this past autumn in Vancouver was scrapped due to COVID-19.

Director of USA Wheelchair Rugby League, Juan Jasso talked about a possible domestic competition starting in April 2022. He said further details would be forthcoming in the new year.

Brian Lowe
Brian is a strong and effective communicator with more than 30 years’ experience in broadcast and electronic media. He has been writing for Rugby League Planet since 2012 and is frequently the first reporter to break news stories about the sport. He has been our North American correspondent reporting on news in the US, Canada and Jamaica covering everything from league standings to strategy analysis to breaking news on key trades to editorials and colourful features on athletes. He is now writing about rugby league on a broader scale to cover developments around the globe. An accomplished storyteller, Brian started his career in Australian radio, before moving to the United States. He is an experienced podcast host and producer and is also a successful TV commentator having done play-by-play and analysis for ESPN, FOX Sports and the Rugby League European Federation (RLEF) among others.