Local player hopes new pro rugby league will ‘awaken sleeping giant’
For the last five years, John Cullen has played for Haggis, the Park City-based rugby club team. In January, he and a handful of Haggis players got the opportunity to try out with the Utah Warriors, Salt Lake’s team in the newly-formed Major League Rugby organization, which started its inaugural season on March 30. For Cullen and the rest of the Warriors, it’s a chance at being professional athletes, but the nascent league is only the latest attempt to bring rugby to the American public and joining the venture comes with certain questions.
At 3 p.m. on a recent Saturday, Matt Knoop Memorial Park was ringed by a 3-foot tall snowbank, which had been pushed off the field to allow play. The snow still held the little rubber nibs, which act as soil for the turf surface, embedded in it, giving the snow the look of a heap of lackluster chocolate chip ice cream. In one corner, the snowbank also served as a open-air refrigerator for nine cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon, some of which had been stripped from their boxes and lay in the snow as if sunning themselves, waiting for the game between Park City Haggis and the Highlanders to finish. Nearby, a handful of men were hanging out watching the game at one of the park benches.
The scene — the beer, the sparse crowds, the park field — was a microcosm of club rugby, and it’s been a beloved Utah staple for decades. But several players, including Cullen, who stood on the sideline dressed in a Warriors hoodie, were hoping to break through to something else. At six-foot-five and weighing 255 pounds, Cullen is a formidable figure – he looks like an offensive lineman, which is exactly what he was for many years. He played football at the University of Utah and served a “very brief” stint in the NFL, where he trained with the San Diego Chargers and the New York Jets. After getting cut from the NFL, he returned to the U, where he finished out his eligibility as a forward for the rugby team, then spent a year in Seattle, with the Saracens, a high-level rugby union club.
Now he’s bridging the gap between recreational and pro, but the lines are still a little fuzzy. For example, after making the cut for the Warriors during tryouts in January, it’s unclear whether he can keep playing with Haggis. So far, Cullen said there is no official word on that front.
“Obviously, I’ll always stay involved with Haggis and try to help out as much as I can,” he said – which is essentially his job as a player coach for the team. But with regular practices with the Warriors – twice a day on Mondays, Wednesday and Thursdays — he doesn’t have much time for his old club, and at the end of the day, he said that’s how it should be.
“Not that I don’t love the guys, but ideally I wouldn’t play for them, because I’d be making selections every week for the Warriors,” he said. “But we’re still hoping to find that (if playing for Haggis conflicts with Warrior policy) soon.”
But during the game at Knoop Memorial, it was a moot point. Cullen was injured – six weeks out of a knee surgery after a lateral tear in his meniscus required a full repair.
“Realistically, what (the doctor) told me was, it’s about a four- or five-month injury,” Cullen said. “We are in the middle of a plan to get me back in 10 weeks. The goal is to be able to play in the San Diego game (for the Warriors on April 29) maybe on the bench, then being actually ready to go by the time we play Glendale again in Utah (March 5).”
Currently, Cullen is paid a stipend for playing with the team, which he said is not yet enough for him to quit his day job at alternative weekly SLUG Magazine’s advertising department.
“You’re being paid, you’re on a contract, but it’s not any amount of money that you’re paying bills, or you’re about to go buy a new car,” he said.
Realistically, Cullen said the team is still about three years from that kind of dough. The Warriors’ general manager, Kendall Kjar, agreed.
“For it to be their full time job, I think it will take less time than people will think, because we are going to have to push in that direction,” Kjar said. “This year, you have a bit of a hybrid squad where some guys get full-time wages, some guys get part-time wages. I think you’re going to see within three years a majority switching to full time, and I think within five years you will see a full roster of 35 men going to full time.”
Cullen said that may sound distant, but its closer to being a fully-funded pro than he’s ever been. However, there have been some other attempts to create a professional league, such as the Professional Rugby Organization, a five-team league that dissolved after one season, the result of which left players and staff waiting for paychecks that never came, and has complicated the process of enticing talent to Major League Rugby.
“The owner wasn’t set up to take care of the players the way he should have,” Kjar said. “For the most part, everyone was excited (for MLR), just because they weren’t involved with the PRO rugby in 2016. There were some guys that had been involved with that and were asking what I would call the right questions (about insurance, pay, and funding) — once those questions were answered they were all on board.”
So far, the MLA has met Kjar’s and Cullen’s expectations. The season’s opening game may have been hard on the Warriors, who lost to Glendale 42-15, but in terms of an event, Kjar said it was “right on par with what we felt we could do.”
The game opened at Rio Tinto Stadium, the home turf of the Real Salt Lake MLS team. It aired on CBS and ESPN and drew a crowd which MLR tallied at 9,100 people.
“We had rugby community folks reaching out and saying ‘Good job,’” Kjar said. “We had a lot of eyes focusing on what we’ve done and the feedback has been positive all around.”
To stay at that level, Rob Randell, the Warriors’ forward coach and a longtime fixture in the Utah rugby scene, said the players have to perform up to a high standard, and the community has to keep supporting it.
“The big question for me is sustainability,” Randell said. “Do we have the community support and the investment to continue that support?”
He said with the sponsors and investors that MLR and the Warriors have garnered, the league is on the right path.
“The biggest additive would be the community support,” he said. “We have to have that community getting behind us to continue the growth. It’s happening as we speak and that’s what I’m excited about.”
But whether there is room for professional rugby in America is a big and looming question.
Cullen is optimistic. He has personally seen the sport grow in recognition since his days at La Mirada High School in Southern California – a hotbed of rugby development in the U.S.
“It’s always been referred to as the sleeping giant of the U.S.,” he said. “Now, in the last three or four years, everyone you meet or talk to knows what rugby is; knows something about it; it’s not this completely unheard of thing, which is a massive improvement.”
Because Utah regularly fields some of the best college rugby teams in the U.S. and draws talent from the Pacific islands through its religious affiliations, Cullen believes the Warriors, perhaps more than any other team, have reason to believe in its community. But for now, nothing and no one can say for sure which kind of business the Warriors will be. He likened the venture to being part of a startup.
“You could be the next Amazon, or you could be a part of something no one’s ever heard of before,” he said.
Cullen will keep waiting for rugby to take off, and the beer in the snow becomes a nostalgic image of club life. But it’s not there yet.
“Just in my time we’ve seen probably three to four professional leagues come and go,” Cullen said. “So I’m still skeptical. I’m hopefully optimistic, but I’m still skeptical.”