History of Rugby League in America

While the United States is considered an emerging, or fledgling, nation when it comes to Rugby League, it may surprise you to know the game had its origins in America in the middle of the 20th century.

by Brian Lowe | USA Rugby League Writer | @BrianDavidLowe

In 1953, wrestling promoter Mike Dimitro put together a USA team, known as the American All-Stars, for a tour of Australia and New Zealand. The team was made up of players with absolutely no Rugby League background who undertook a 26-game tour.

The USA’s first unofficial Test match was played the following year against France in Toulouse. The Americans were shut out in that game (31-0), but it didn’t matter because more importantly it rekindled interest in what up until then had largely been an unknown sport in the US. It would be another 33 years, however, before an American national team played its first official international match against Canada in Pittsburgh where the US lost 23-10. That same year, 1987, also saw a State of Origin match between Queensland and New South Wales played in Long Beach, California.

In the early 1990s, the American Patriots were formed to compete at the World Sevens in Sydney, although that competition was short-lived.

The US national team began regularly competing on the international scene in the mid-1990s. They played Canada in an annual Can-Am series, renamed the Colonial Cup in 2010 when the Canadians re-emerged after a ten-year hiatus, as well as Ireland in an annual match to mark St Patrick’s Day known as the Donnybrook Cup.

Super League America, USRL and AMNRL 

In 1998, the first formally structured domestic competition was launched by the newly established governing body Super League America, which later became the United States Rugby League (USRL) and then the American National Rugby League (AMNRL). It was an amateur organization and the main driving force behind it was former St George Dragons (Sydney) player David Niu, a new arrival to Philadelphia where he worked as a school teacher.

In those formative years, Rugby League was played by a handful of teams based in the Northeast from Philadelphia to New York.

During its first ten years, the AMNRL competition was dominated by the-then Glen Mills Bulls, later renamed the Aston DSC Bulls, who won more Grand Finals than any other team. In later years, the New York Knights and Connecticut Wildcats became the AMNRL’s powerhouse clubs. In its latter stages, the AMNRL expanded farther north to Boston, as well as to the Southeast and Midwest, before being dissolved in 2013 and replaced by the USARL.

The AMNRL had also made a push into Hawaii where it started up a small local competition, however, it lasted for just two seasons. In 2012, the AMNRL also expanded to American Samoa where it set up a development program aimed at capitalizing on Rugby League’s growing popularity among the local rugby-playing population.

As part of the AMNRL’s expansion plans for the Pacific, Honolulu was selected as the venue for what was the inaugural Ohana Cup in 2012 when the Tomahawks hosted Tonga. Between then and 2016, the tournament’s format was altered and saw an Indigenous All-Stars side from Australia, a New South Wales Police team, along with representative sides from Canada, Samoa and Fiji, plus the Hawaii Chiefs Select side all taking part.

After twice failing to qualify for the Rugby League World Cup in 2000 and again in 2008, the national team, which had since been renamed the USA Tomahawks, swept South Africa and Jamaica in the RLWC Atlantic Zone Qualifying series held in Philadelphia in 2011.

The team, coached by then Matt Elliott, advanced to the 2013 World Cup. They beat the Cook Islands and Wales in their Group D matches, before losing to Scotland in a Groups C/D crossover game. The Tomahawks made it as far as the quarterfinals where they were beaten by eventual champions Australia.

The AMNRL was still the recognized national governing body in control of the game leading up to that RLWC, however, due to the bitter internal politics, domestic-based players selected in the national team were restricted to AMNRL clubs only, while those who played for clubs that were part of the breakaway USARL were excluded from the selection process.

The bulk of that Tomahawks’ squad was comprised of overseas-based players who were eligible for selection under Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) eligibility rules.

Formation of the USA Rugby League

The formation of the independent USARL in 2011 with eight teams was largely the result of dissatisfaction with the AMNRL’s management of Rugby League in America. The teams which branched out to establish the new competition did so because they had a different perspective on how to develop and manage the game in the US and believed that their blueprint to do so was more inclusive.

Following the 2013 World Cup, the USARL assumed full control of the domestic game and was officially recognized by the RLIF as the USA’s new national governing body.

Under its guidance, Rugby League in the country was realigned and a new Conference structure was implemented. Competition was still limited to the East Coast, but with expanded North and South Conferences, while the pre-existing Midwest Conference had withered to just one club based in Chicago.

The Philadelphia Fight emerged as the new dominant club winning the USARL’s inaugural championship in 2011. The Fight has since gone on to claim three more titles in 2013, 2014 and 2016. The Jacksonville Axemen is the other power team having won a championship in 2012 and finishing runners-up three other times since then.

In 2015, under the guidance of English Super League coach Brian McDermott (Leeds Rhinos), the national team, which had been renamed yet again and were now the USA Hawks, won the Americas Region Qualifying series for the 2017 World Cup by beating Canada and Jamaica. That series was held in Florida in December of that year. Matches were played in Jacksonsville and DeLand. In 2016, the inaugural Rugby League Americas Championship series was played between the USA, Canada and Jamaica with the Hawks emerging victorious.