New American rugby union league with huge financial backing to be launched to take on Premiership

Daniel Schofield
The Telegraph
Siya Kolisi - Reuters
Siya Kolisi - Reuters

A group of American investors are promising to revolutionise rugby by recruiting the world’s biggest names to a new league in the United States. 

The National Rugby Football League, which has ties to the NFL, is set to be launched in 2022 with a salary cap equivalent to Premiership Rugby’s £7million limit. “Our ambition is to be the biggest league in the world,” Michael Clements, the NRFL commissioner, told Telegraph Sport. 

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Asked whether the likes of England lock Maro Itoje or New Zealand fly half Beauden Barrett would feature on their shopping list, Clements said: “Our goal is to put the best product on the pitch so we will need some of the best athletes, whether or not they are the names you mentioned I can’t say.”

The NRFL has already established a relationship with leading rugby agent Hilton Houghton, who represents South Africa captain Siya Kolisi and several other Springbok stars. “They want to make it the Hollywood of rugby,” Houghton said. “They are determined to create something special. This won’t be a dumping ground for international players. It will be more like the IPL players where you bring a Ben Stokes or AB De Villiers as your sprinkling of stardust on top of largely domestic squads.”

The NRFL season, featuring eight teams will run from April to July to fill the void left during the NFL’s off-season. Clements believes the 16-game season will act as a powerful incentive for players who otherwise face the slog of an 11-month season. 

“Players will be paid on par with the big leagues out there but making a comparison with the Premiership they will play half the games,” Clements said. “Playing half the amount of game time then allows the recovery and recuperation and helps the welfare of the player. When you are done playing the game, you can have a productive life and you are not beat up.”

Among the league’s backers are the NFL Alumni, the association for retired American football players. As well planning to bring in crossover athletes from the NFL, the league will adjust several laws to appeal to the American demographic. “To truly reinvigorate the game which means modifying the laws so we can Americanise it,” Steve Ryan, the league’s managing director, said.

Although rival league Major League Rugby launched in 2017, rugby has yet to truly penetrate the world’s biggest sporting marketplace worth over $500billion. Clements argues that is because rugby has never before being presented in the right fashion with the necessary financial backing.

“Going back to 1823, it will be 200 years when William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it, but the question has to be asked is how can rugby be better positioned?” Clements said. “When you look at the top valued sports properties in Forbes list, rugby is not there. Once it steps up from behind the curtain and is presented in the highest class fashion then we are going to raise the bar.” 

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