It’s that time of year again when we present the Year in Review - our annual recap of all the highlights from the year that was in Rugby League in America.
With 2011 in the rearview mirror, we can happily report that there were many more highlights than there were blots on the copybook for the game in the USA and it got started early on.
The New Year ushered in news that a handful of clubs had decided to defect from the American National Rugby League to form their own competition. Among the defections were two past champion teams and one of the AMNRL’s original clubs.
In the end though, it turned out to be nothing more than a minor setback as the AMNRL set about restructuring its 2011 domestic season. The League got some good news in early spring with a decision by the Bucks County Sharks RLC to rejoin the comp after a self-imposed one-year hiatus to retool and the addition of expansion team the Delaware Vipers.
The first big test of the year came on the St Patrick’s Day weekend in March when the USA Tomahawks hosted the Ireland Wolfhounds in the Donnybrook Cup match. The home team went into the contest with an overall 4-2 record against the Irish dating back to their first meeting in 1995, but it was the visitors who took home the spoils in 2011 with a 26-8 win. Three tries to one told the story.
From there it was on to planning the start of the 14th season of the AMNRL and what a start we had with the unheralded Connecticut Wildcats springing a huge upset of the more fancied New York Knights on opening day in early June. The Cats edged the Knights 42-40 in a thrilling encounter that set the tone for the rest of the season.
In a year in which final playoff spots weren’t decided until late in the piece, the Northern Raiders were one of the League’s success stories in 2011 advancing to the postseason for the first time. They got as far as the semifinals when they were bounced by the Wildcats, who themselves would come out on the wrong side of the ledger in the Grand Final.
After their season opening loss, New York proceeded to run the table steamrolling all comers en route to their third AMNRL national championship by downing Connecticut 38-4 in the title game.
The AMNRL marked another milestone in 2011 with the establishment of the new Pacific Conference based in Hawaii. New clubs sprang up in the islands and that competition unearthed some genuine Rugby League talent that caught the eye of the USA Tomahawks coaching staff.
In an explosion of Rugby League popularity across the US, other new teams popped up on the mainland including in Chicago, Iowa City, Atlanta and Salt Lake City. Teams in those cities are expected to compete in 2012 and there is interest in forming more new clubs on the West Coast in cities including Los Angeles and San Francisco.
In the summer, the annual Colonial Cup series between the USA and Canada was contested. Despite Hurricane Irene buffeting the East Coast, the Tomahawks managed to win the opening round 18-2 with an entirely domestic-based squad, but the Canadians made history of their own by taking the return rubber 18-16 in notching their first ever victory over the Americans. Despite the loss, the US retained the Cup on aggregate points and disappointing though it was, USA captain Apple Pope told us afterwards that the team learned some valuable lessons.
“It was a result we weren't anticipating and it definitely left us a bit disappointed, mainly with our lack of effort and discipline on the day,” said Pope. “Yeah, retaining the Cup is great, but taking the series on two wins was always the goal.”
The Colonial Cup behind it, the AMNRL then turned its full attention to the all important 2013 Rugby League World Cup Atlantic Zone Qualifiers in Philadelphia in October. A Train-On squad was selected that included players with American heritage playing in Australia and Europe.
Matt Elliott, a coach with NRL experience, was appointed head coach of the Tomahawks and along with AMNRL president David Niu, conducted a High Performance camp in Hawaii in the lead up to the RLWCQ.
Finally, after months of anticipation and preparation the qualifying series was upon us and the USA opened the series with a resounding 40-4 hammering of South Africa to put one hand on the Atlantic Zone seed for Group D in Wales in 2013.
Jamaica beat the Rhinos 20-6 in the second game of the series to set up an all-or-nothing showdown with the USA in Game 3 and then the Tomahawks sealed their moment of glory by dominating the Jamaicans 40-4 to punch their ticket to Wales.
In the 14-year history of the game in the USA, the RLWCQ victory was the Tomahawks’ unequivocal crowning achievement, not to mention the major highlight of 2011, and it was something that wasn’t lost on Coach Elliott.
“There’s been some tough defeats and some near misses,” he said at the time. “I think the first thing to do is to recognize what everyone did prior to this.”
With the RLWCQ success behind it, the AMNRL continued to build on the momentum by making several key appointments towards the end of the year as part of its strategy to implement best practices and systems in Rugby League in America.
Included among the positions that have been created are National Director of Coaching, Football Development Manager, International Representative and Collegiate Development Manager. And on top of those roles, the AMNRL also has announced plans to establish a High Performance Academy and a Youth Development Program.
It’s no coincidence that most of the appointees are Australian given that it is Australians who have embraced the challenges of continuing to develop the greatest game of all in a country where it is still regarded as a fringe sport.
So as we suggested at the outset, 2011 proved to be a standout year for Rugby League in America.