Park City Haggis set to feed Warriors in Major League Rugby
November 2, 2017
Warriors and Haggis — there's something fitting about the combination. The two will be paired again in 2018 during the debut season of Major League Rugby, billed as the sport's top division in the U.S., when the Salt Lake Warriors start their season. Park City Haggis expects many of the Warriors' positions will be filled by current Haggis players.
"It's something we've needed in Utah for a long time," said John Cullen, a player-coach for Park City Haggis. "Some good stability, high-level, disciplined, well-organized rugby."
The league currently features six teams: Austin Elite from Austin, Texas; Nola Gold from New Orleans; the Glendale Raptors from Glendale, Colorado; the Seattle Seawolves of Seattle; the Houston SaberCats of Houston; and the Salt Lake Warriors.
Park City Haggis is poised to be a feeder team for the Warriors because Haggis is currently Utah's only Division II men's league team. The state has no teams in Division I, which is currently the highest level of league play in U.S. rugby.
"Trying to be as unbiased as possible, easily seven or eight guys on the field today will be a key role on the Warriors," Cullen said during a recent game.
Cullen estimates that up to a quarter of the 35- to 40-man roster will be former Haggis players, with possibly 12 more in a training-academy program, depending on what Warriors coaches are looking for.
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On top of Haggis' skill (the team won the Division II nationals in 2005 and has made it to the National playoffs six times), team members say Haggis is valuable to MLR because it is stable. The team has played consistently since 1974 while other Utah teams have blinked in and out of existence.
Over that time, it has drawn top talent from an area known for its rugby.
"You get a lot of guys here for the (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) aspect for it," said Jason Hoke, Haggis team manager. "The sport is the sport of countries that have high LDS bases, so Tonga, Fiji, New Zealand, Samoa, have a lot of LDS people and it's also their national sport. So when you have guys that moved here for the religious aspect, you also get guys that have played rugby before."
He said players that emigrate from Pacific Islands that play rugby tend to have much more experience than American players, because they started at a much younger age due to the sport's cultural significance.
That significance has been partially instilled in Utah, where high school and college rugby are taken seriously – a rarity in the U.S., Hoke said. The University of Utah, Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University all have top-ranking rugby squads.
As with any new league, though, the legitimacy and longevity of MLR are topics of speculation.
"It's one of those things that, you don't get your hopes up too high," said Robert Lopez, a long-time Haggis rugby player and coach. "You just have to trudge through it and try and get it really consistent and professional."
League officials did not reply to requests for comment. Lopez said the resources are available in terms of coaching staff and player talent, but the league still must be developed so it looks profitable to invest in.
"It's getting there, it will probably take a couple years to get the buzz really hyped up," Hoke said. "But we're all excited about it, we're all hoping good things for it."
Hoke added that a successful professional league would help raise interest in the sport.
"We all saw how it looked when Real Salt Lake came and it took a while to get established," he said. "But given a couple years, they turned into a powerhouse and it's a great sport and has a great fan base."
Hoke said he hopes to see MLR progress in that way, too.
"It gives the guys something to work for and look forward to," Hoke said. "They are starting from scratch, so I think everyone would like to have a shot at it."
On Tuesday, Oct. 31, Park City Haggis was scheduled to have its own tryout for the Warriors. According to Cullen, the Warriors will start practicing in February or March, with MLR games tentatively slated for April.
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