Loose Pass

Date published: December 28 2016

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with events across the pond…

It’s been a fine festive feast of rugby across Europe this holiday season, with Bristol’s new-found resilience making things interesting at the foot of the Premiership, the derby days in Scotland, Ireland, Italy and Wales all serving up some palatable mixes of gristly scraps, fleshy hits and delicate finishings.

Over in France, fans have watched agog as Toulon continues to stutter and Clermont continue their annual pilgrimage to their runners-up spot in the Top 14. For even the most casual of rugby fan, a satellite dish, and/or sturdy internet connection has been a friend this past few days.

But spare a thought for those fans in the USA, whose dreams of a local, thriving and superstar-nurturing domestic league were smashed to smithereens one week before Christmas, as the PRO Rugby organization suddenly collapsed.

It’s worth mentioning a couple of things at the outset here: PRO Rugby was a league run in a decidedly American way, in that all players and coaches were employees of the organization running the league (PRO Rugby) rather than just being stakeholders, with salaries paid and administered from PRO Rugby and not the clubs themselves.  The inaugural season was a league formed from just five teams, but there was a continued buzz of more than passive interest from some other parts of America and Canada, and – divisively as it turned out – from the PRO12. The ultimate plan was to have a full North American league of 10-12 teams including Canadian teams.

On October 7, PRO Rugby lost its COO Steve Lewis. Lewis had been instrumental in drumming up quality players to rosters and setting the season structure; setting up a professional league in the USA was a long-held dream of his. He was given credit in every quarter for the quality of the product that was delivered. So it was a little strange that he should leave so suddenly ‘to pursue other opportunities’, stranger still that he was not quickly replaced.

On December 15, the organization then rid itself of one of its five teams, the San Francisco Rush, citing venue difficulties – which was already seen as a warning sign by some. Most notably, there was nothing in the way of succession planning mentioned, i.e. another team replacing the Rush.

Five days later, the whole league was shut down. CEO Doug Schoninger sent out a mail to all players and coaches, informing them that their contracts were being terminated, but also slightly ominously reminding them that they were still employees of PRO Rugby until the termination was carried out.

The mail (which you can read here) also appeared to lay the blame for the sudden volte face squarely at the feet of the USA governing body. Finally, Schoninger’s mail noted that should USA Rugby change their stance, the decision might be reversed.

Which, to the sceptic, could neatly be summed up as:

– We’re not paying you
– But you’re still our employee for the time we’ve paid you for
– So you don’t talk to the media without our permission
– Because in reality, we’re using you as an all-in bargaining chip with USA Rugby

And there were many sceptics. It took a couple of days’ of ferreting around, and then open day on Schoninger started. One editorial simply started with the quote ‘He’s a baaaaad man’ and went downhill from there.

Not without substance. Lewis, it turns out, was owed money – he’ll square off with Schoninger in a small claims court in February (Having personally coached opposite Lewis, I think I can credibly note here that Schoninger will need to be ready for a scrap). Paul Keeler, coach of the Rush, has taken Schoninger down the same legal channel.

The highest-profile claimant is former All Black Mils Muliaina, who believes he is owed $20,000, while there are several voices which have piped up anonymously – no doubt in fear of the possibility that talking to the media without permission might breach contract and void their claims. It will be fascinating to see whose those voices become once the termination period expires in January.

One player, who refused to sign an altered contract at the end of the inaugural season, is owed five months’ pay – the money being held from him until he does sign.

And it’s not just players. Several restaurants, contracted to feed players on training and match days, have substantial unpaid bills running into five figures.

“I really actually felt for the people,” said Muliaina to the website Rugby Today.

“They were really trying hard to make something like this. I know in America there are pockets of enthusiasts that love the game. Unfortunately, in this instance you’ve got some really bad people trying to run something that they don’t know how to run.”

But Schoninger did have an axe to grind. He was concerned at the threat posed by a rival competition and that USA Rugby, although not sanctioning the rival, was doing nothing to help Schoninger protect PRO Rugby from the threat of a rival competition. The same concept applied to the way USA Rugby did nothing to dumb down the rumours that PRO12 would be seeking to establish a presence in the USA.

USA Rugby CEO Dan Payne and Schoninger spent a week arguing the toss in New York in early December. Schoninger demanded – not altogether unreasonably, considering PRO Rugby had finally delivered to the USA an (initially) functional league with paid players and paying spectators – that PRO Rugby be given more protection and exclusivity to develop the professional sub-international game.

Payne countered with the very simple and reasonable demand that Schoninger pay his bloody dues to his bloody employees, and on bloody time bloody please.

Neither of those demands are likely to be met, a situation that reflects badly on both sides and leaves everybody a loser – not least the 100-odd young men who have made significant sacrifices and are now several thousand dollars lighter during Christmas.

The challenges of developing professional rugby in the USA will always be unique. It’s a niche sport, requiring substantial investment to play it on a national scale. You’ve got vast travel times, huge climactic differences, and barely any buy-in from mass media (although remove the screen hours from that asinine election campaign and there might be some new empty time coming up for grabs).

But more than anything else, it needs granite-solid administration. PRO Rugby seems to be run by someone who deals with payables and receivables much in the manner of his new President-elect. This has left USA Rugby courting new leagues and competition concepts, all the while thoroughly diluting the strategic direction that PRO Rugby appeared to be giving it.

The rugby world would be better off for having the USA and Canada continue to emerge as a credible professional zone, but this spat has set that evolution back a good couple of years and has cost USA Rugby some good people. The argument of who did bad first is long irrelevant now. It’s time for closure, reflection, learning. And then it is time to try again.

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens.

Photo credit: PRO Rugby USA