Adding professional rugby union teams to Canada would be a major stepping stone to improving the quality and profile of the men’s game in the country.
But as of now, Rugby Canada has not found the right competition to partner with.
United States-based PRO Rugby announced last week that it would not expand into Canada for the 2017 season. According to both sides, the league’s insistence on holding exclusive operating rights for the 15-a-side game in Canada was a key issue in the breakdown of negotiations.
Canada is considered a Tier 2 rugby nation and the men’s national team is currently No. 18 in World Rugby’s rankings. Establishing a domestic professional league would go a long way to improving the country’s players. But the PRO Rugby opportunity wasn’t the right fit, according to Rugby Canada, which wants to remain open to other international leagues looking to add a Canadian franchise.
“Rugby Canada greatly appreciates the investment Mr. Schoninger and PRO Rugby are making in the development of professional rugby in North America,” Rugby Canada CEO Allen Vansen said in a press release issued November 2.
“However, we cannot limit and restrict the opportunities that established international professional rugby would bring to Canada for the benefit of our players and the growth of the game.”
As a result, Doug Schoninger, the New York City businessman who runs PRO Rugby, says his teams won’t employ Canadian players anymore.
“There might be some exceptions, but our general program is to support people that support us,” Schoninger told CBCSports.ca. “It’s unfortunate, in all these cases, players get caught, people in the middle get caught.”
“I actually think it’s the wrong decision for them.”
Why did the deal break down?
PRO Rugby — an abbreviation of Professional Rugby Organization — is a five-team league that completed its first season in July, with clubs based in Denver, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Calif., and Columbus, Ohio.
Schoninger, who says the league is run by “me and nobody else,” insists that the exclusivity condition is necessary to protect his investment, though he does leave some wiggle room.
“Are there exceptions to that rule? Probably. But is that our general rule? Absolutely, and Rugby Canada knows that and they’re not happy with it, but I don’t really think it’s surprising,” he says.
“It’s not about [being] vindictive. There’s a lot of cross-border issues, there’s expenses of visas, there’s all that kind of stuff that if someone’s not going to be supportive, why would I be supportive?”
Vansen said there’s not much Rugby Canada can do to get players in Schoninger’s league if he doesn’t want to incur the work and costs of bringing them over the border.
“Certainly it’s Doug’s prerogative to contract whichever players he thinks are great for his league,” Vansen said.
Ray Barkwill, a member of Canada’s national team, saw tangible benefits during his season with the Sacramento Express.
“The big thing is the financial stability and being in a training environment daily,” Barkwill said ahead of Canada’s match against Ireland on Saturday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 2 p.m. ET). “That kind of thing has a big influence towards us being successful when we return to play for Canada.”
Canadian teammate Nick Blevins adds: “It’s always good to get those extra high-level games in the off-season, whereas back in the day it would just be you in the weight room or maybe playing a bit at a lower level,”
Blevins and Barkwill are two of six Canadian players who participated in PRO Rugby’s inaugural season. San Diego Breakers captain Phil Mackenzie, who represented Canada at the last two Rugby World Cups, spoke at length about his experience in the league in May and lamented the failed expansion to Canada on social media.
Barkwill acknowledges the complicated situation that the national union and the players find themselves in after the deal fell through.
“[Rugby Canada] feels they need to look out for their best interests and their players’ best interests. Then there’s us as players who obviously look into that league and see an opportunity,” he says.
“I mean, not everybody agrees on everything.”
Other options for Canadian rugby
Rugby Canada does have other options for professional competition. Vansen confirms that he met with representatives from Guinness Pro12, a European rugby competition, as well as unions involved with Super Rugby regarding expansion in the next three to five years.
Pro12 currently operates in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Italy. Rugby Canada could look at the recent expansion of rugby league (the 13-man version of the sport) into Toronto as an example of the possibility of transatlantic competition. The Wolfpack begin their season in March 2017.
Intercontinental rugby competition exists in the Southern Hemisphere, where Super Rugby added teams in Japan and Argentina last season to complement the existing clubs in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
While exclusivity is a deal-breaker for Schoninger, Vansen believes that the two competitions could coexist depending on where the franchises would be set up.
“We believe that the two work very well together in augmenting one another and helping grow the sport and bring professional rugby to mainstream sport within Canada,” Vansen said.