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World Rugby backs North Carolina team in US MLR with eye on 2031 World Cup | Rugby union

Major League Rugby, the US men’s professional rugby union competition, will this year include a team predominantly featuring young American players, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, and backed by World Rugby in an attempt to boost the US game in the run-up to the 2031 and 2033 World Cups.

The introduction of Anthem Rugby Carolina will restore the league to 12 teams and two conferences, after the recent collapses of the Toronto Arrows and New York Ironworkers, the latter MLR champions in 2022. The announcement of the new team, widely reported before being confirmed on Friday, comes a little over a month before the season seven kick-off, on the first weekend in March.

Alan Gilpin, the World Rugby chief executive, said: “Working with strategic partners in the USA, and backed by our executive board, we are activating a transformative and long-term growth plan for rugby in the US that will enable a great sporting nation, and the sport as a whole, to unlock the true potential of hosting men’s and women’s Rugby World Cups.

“This ambitious plan is centered around making the sport more relevant and accessible to more people in … a nation that loves sport and events, anchored in entertainment.”

Two MLR champions – New York and the Los Angeles Giltinis, winners in 2021 – have ceased to operate. A new LA team, Rugby FC Los Angeles, will play this year, new owners having moved the team previously based in Atlanta.

MLR salaries are low and facilities sometimes basic. Contention over the purpose of the league – to succeed as a business, employing the best global talent available, or to work to produce US-qualified players and boost the national men’s team, or to try to achieve both – has accompanied play since kick-off in 2018.

Alex Magleby, chief executive of the New England Free Jacks, champions in 2023, told the Guardian last year: “Right now, in every position, there are professional Americans that didn’t have that opportunity only a handful of years ago.

“Once the league gets to full expansion, you’re going to talk about 300 to 400 professional athletes in North America. To see us get there, hopefully in the next seven to 10 years, will be very cool.”

In the short term, the men’s US Eagles’ failure to qualify for the 2023 World Cup was another blow, defeats by Uruguay and Chile setting up a final qualifier in Dubai in which Hong Kong and Kenya were beaten but a draw with Portugal saw the Americans miss out.

Portugal’s success in France – beating Fiji, drawing with Georgia and putting up fights against Australia and Wales – did offer the US game a picture of what might be achieved. Portuguese improvement has been aided by World Rugby, the bulk of the men’s national side playing for Lusitanos in the Rugby Europe Super Cup, a tournament featuring teams from emerging nations.

The USA, in blue, take on Portugal in Dubai in November 2022.
The USA, in blue, take on Portugal in Dubai in November 2022. Photograph: Martin Dokoupil/World Rugby/Getty Images

In MLR, the Anthem RC team is an attempt to build on work done by the USA Hawks, a men’s development squad which has been based in Charlotte.

Announcing the new team, MLR, World Rugby and USA Rugby said it would “greatly accelerate that high-performance objective by supporting the long-term goals of the USA men’s national team in advance of qualification for Rugby World Cup 2027 [in Australia] and hosting the 2031 edition on home soil”.

Gilpin nodded to Super Rugby, predominantly based in Australia and New Zealand, saying: “This type of partnership has proven successful for Rugby World Cup 2023 quarter-finalists Fiji with the establishment of the Drua, and we are excited about the huge potential of Anthem RC, not just as a pathway but as a major franchise within a long-term vision for MLR success, shared by all stakeholders.”

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Nic Benson, chief executive of MLR, said Anthem RC would “create new pathways for player development and grassroots participation, building on the outstanding foundation our teams have forged during the past seven years”.

Ross Young, chief executive of USA Rugby and a former Rugby World Cup general manager, described a “remarkable collaboration” and “an inspiring example of progress we can look forward to as rugby in America begins a new trajectory.

“Anthem RC provides a truly unique opportunity for accelerated development with USA Rugby High Performance while continuing to bolster MLR as a key pathway for the USA Men’s Eagles. The level of teamwork that has occurred across all parties to bring this project to life is unprecedented and we’re thrilled to see it on a rugby pitch this year.”

The Anthem RC roster, the partners said, will “feature players from various MLR teams who are eligible to participate on behalf of the USA in international competition”.

Its name “inspired by the US national anthem”, the new team will play at the 10,500-seater American Legion Memorial Stadium in Charlotte, seeking “distinct connections to the Charlotte community” by “drawing from its rich military heritage and incorporating a recognisable colour palette that draws from the smoky tones of the Blue Ridge Mountains”.

Team colours and kits for the other 11 MLR teams were announced last week. As of Friday, Anthem RC had not yet been incorporated into the published season schedule.

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