Is MLR 2022 the future? An interview with USA Eagle Will Hooley

USA Rugby player Will Hooley in the 2019 Rugby World Cup
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INTERVIEW – Is Major League Rugby, America’s professional league, the sport’s most exciting prospect? USA Eagle Will Hooley believes so. MLR 2022 is in full swing, and you can watch all matches free of charge on The Rugby Network. LWOS spoke with Hooley about MLR’s potential, the USA National Team, and life after rugby.

An exclusive interview with USA Eagle Will Hooley

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Life in San Diego

When his contract at Saracens ended, it didn’t take for Hooley to know his next club would be the MLR franchise, San Diego Legion. The lifestyle change from St Albans to San Diego certainly has its perks: “The difference is pretty striking. Most of all the weather, which just makes you happier. The sunset goes down over the Pacific Ocean and you feel very lucky. I really can’t complain”.

Hooley’s new franchise certainly has its sprinkle of stardust. This includes Chris Robshaw, Bjorn Basson, and All Blacks legend Ma’a Nonu. No doubt it gets fans through the gates, but the question is whether it limits the game-time of American talent. Hooley believes the MLR manages this challenge well: “It’s great for the environment. Young American players coming through will learn off these stars”.

“Equally, you don’t want young American talent not playing at the weekend because it’s a team full of foreigners. Even someone like myself, you want to play and don’t want to just be training the whole time. That’s how you learn. So I think there’s a fine line and a balance, which I think the league is getting right at the moment”.

For those wondering if Ma’a Nonu still has it at nearly 40 years old, USA Eagle Will Hooley has some insight: “He’s still in very, very good shape. Scarily good shape. You can just see you wouldn’t want to mess with him. But he’s also a great guy as well”.

What makes MLR 2022 so exciting?

“Rugby needs to be Americanized. It needs to be brought into big bright lights and having great characters that you see in the NFL.”

“The MLR can really seize the opportunity to engage with new fans and new generations. Whether it be a cool kit or some cool new stadiums. Or even different places in America. Having San Diego playing against New York, that in itself is quite different”.

Perhaps, established leagues like the Gallagher Premiership could even learn from MLR’s approach. “No disrespect to English clubs… but a lot of them are happy to be what they are, and the fan bases they are. Meanwhile, in America, they know they have to go out and really provide a bit of a flashy product; do a bit more behind the scenes stuff with players, social media, or whatever it may be to really grow the game”.

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And ‘flashy’, MLR truly is. Two of the MLR’s clubs, including last year’s champions (the LA Giltinis), are named after signature cocktails. The MLR kit launches were truly eye-catching, exhibiting some of the coolest kits in the sport. Crucially, the brand of rugby is flashy. In the 2021 MLR season, there was an average of 6.9 tries per match. The standard is developing, but the intent to offload and keep ball-in-hand brings some razzle-dazzle for the fans.

Hooley aims for success with US Eagles

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USA face Chile in a two-match play-off this year for Rugby World Cup qualification. The winner takes a spot in Pool D alongside England, Japan, Argentina, and Samoa. The loser enters a ‘repechage’ tournament, the last opportunity to qualify for France 2023.

Since his USA debut, Hooley has truly ridden the highs and lows of international rugby. In 2018, he was part of the USA’s first-ever wins against Scotland and Samoa (where he slotted the winning penalty at the death). Yet he has also experienced some rocky results, including last year, when the team lost 104-14 to the All Blacks. As the game was scheduled outside of the official World Rugby test window, the Eagles were without their Europe-based players.

“It’s very hard to look back at it (the loss to New Zealand) with a sense of enjoyment. I’m sure one day I will be like ‘wow, I took on the All Blacks’, but particularly playing 15 that day, it was just a nightmare… an endless barrage of black jerseys coming your way. You’re damned if you make a decision, and you’re damned if you don’t. But at the end of the day, we have to get exposed to those bigger and better teams”.

“COVID was a struggle for North American rugby because of the protocols that were in place, and the (limited) time we had together. If we compare that to Uruguay, who credit to them, beat us in the World Cup qualifiers. They had spent more time together, and it showed”.

“We have huge potential. We’ve shown it already… So I’m really excited about the future with USA rugby, but I know that it’s always a challenge. We just need time together. I think that’s a huge one”.

‘The Next Game’

“During lockdown, there was a realisation that rugby is just so small. It can be taken away so easily”.

In 2021, Hooley started a podcast, The Next Game. He spoke to former players about their ventures after retiring. “I was so interested to see how my fellow teammates and professionals have gone about transitioning. Some have found it really simple and easy; others have found it really hard”.

 

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“I wanted to let other players and fans know that the person they train or play with, or who they support and cheer on at the weekend; that’s just them as a rugby player”.

It was the lockdowns that provoked Hooley to consider his future beyond his playing days: “I think contracts are now much harder to come by, particularly when you’re a bit older. You realise rugby is not forever”.

“It will probably help my rugby career if I try and guide myself into what I want to do after it. Then I can enjoy playing rugby, and when I do hang the boots up, then I’m in a good position to move on rather than clinging onto the past”.

MLR could be the future

Certainly, his new rugby venture is anything but ‘clinging to the past’. “Major League Rugby is only going to go one way; it’s only going to get better”.

“If there’s one place in the world that really can take the sport to a different stratosphere, it’s over here. I absolutely believe that”.

Hooley’s team, the San Diego Legion will have their next game on February 20 at SDSU Sports Deck in San Diego, California. The game will take place at 5:00 p.m. ET and will be shown on The Rugby Network and Root Sports.

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