The sport of rugby has a long, storied history in many parts of the world, and is finally starting to catch on in the US. More schools than ever, both at the high school and collegiate level, offer rugby programs, and many men’s leagues have begun to emerge in the past decade.
Major League Rugby is a new professional rugby league that is currently in the middle of its second season as an organization. This eight-team league hosts elite-level talent, hailing from not only the US but from all over the world.
Warwick native and Bishop Hendricken alum Billy Stewart is currently playing for the New Orleans Gold club in the league, which currently sits at 6-1 and in first place. NOLA Gold to this point is seen as the favorite to win the league championship.
Stewart, who played rugby, football and wrestled for the Hawks during his time at Hendricken, knew early on that rugby was the sport that he wanted to pursue.
“I just like the open feeling of it. Football was the sport that I was kind of brought up on, my dad coached me when I was young. I was always an offensive guard and it felt like I was being put in a similar role as that but with a more open field. I’m making tackles in space, there’s more room to run, I think that is what made me do the transfer from football … I wanted to do something that I felt was a little more exciting,” said Stewart.
After graduating from Hendricken, Stewart went on to play for Tulane University in the Division II Deep South Conference, where he helped the team win the 2014 Battleship Championship. He then graduated in 2016 with a degree in neuroscience, and continued to play for New Orleans RFC, where he had also been playing since his sophomore year as well.
After spending time with the Providence Rugby Club as well as NOLA RFC, he then signed on to play for NOLA Gold in 2017, which would then become one of the founding teams of the MLR.
Stewart has already seen steady progress and growth within the league from year one to year two.
“When this league first opened it wanted to be different, they wanted it to be a slow burn, but the atmosphere playing last year to this year is so much different. The fans are showing up a lot more and the games have been a lot more exciting because of that. I think adding the Toronto and New York teams has helped, it’s been exciting to see it take off much faster than the gradual way (the league) wanted it to,” said Stewart.
Stewart has also been impressed with the level of talent that the MLR boasts, and is hoping to continue to improve as the season wears on.
“We have guys that have played pro rugby out in New Zealand, we have guys that have played all over the world so it’s been a huge step up, both coaching and playing. It’s a completely different sport at times. I think I’ve been doing well this year, I have a lot more room to grow and that will come with playing. I think my game will grow,” said Stewart.
NOLA Gold sits at 6-1 and is currently working through the midseason grind. Although NOLA Gold may not have some of the top-tier talent that some of the other clubs field, he believes that depth has led the club to its early success this year.
“We expected it. We made a lot of trades, changed some things up in the offseason. I don’t think a lot of people knew but we saw it developing early in camp,” said Stewart. “I think it’s going to be the depth of our roster, that is one advantage that we have. Some of these teams have big name players, but we have a lot of talented players up and down the roster and that has been key for us this year.”
As the MLR continues to grow and make improvements, Stewart believes that the future is bright for the sport of rugby in the US.
“I think there is a ton of room for growth, especially in the fan base,” said Stewart. “People are looking for a high-paced, exciting sport, and that is what got me into it. I think that it will touch a lot of fans too.”