League in Los Angeles?

Robert Burgin Columnist

By , Robert Burgin is a Roar Expert

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    For 99 per cent of people reading this story, rugby league’s sole connection to Los Angeles is a 1987 State of Origin game largely remembered as a kind of athletic spoof movie.

    There was the overblown promotion, posters featuring a spear tackle, scenes of Peter Sterling struggling to burst on the field after being caught in a banner, and of course, Queensland’s questionable preparation and on-field effort.

    On surface value, there doesn’t seem to have been a great deal more to link the sport and the city – despite some valiant individual efforts behind the scenes.

    But with the Toronto Wolfpack going great guns this season and the USARL boasting 12 clubs on the East Coast, some riddles for rugby league beckon: Can the sport ever gain a following in the USA’s west? What will it take? What does the sport stand to gain?

    One of those with a positive mindset is Charlie Jones, the former Burleigh Bears player and Thailand rugby league pioneer who spent the last few year’s running LA Epic Club Crawls in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

    “Most flights from Australia to America have to pass through the west coast,” says Jones, citing more than one million visits by Aussies to the USA in 2016.

    “If there was an established rugby league competition, I’m sure there would be a new Aussie crowd every weekend, on top of all the expats already living there.

    “Americans love rugby union, but most have never seen rugby league.

    “I went to a Toronto game and the crowd was insane, even though 80 per cent of people had no idea what they were watching.

    “The big hits, the atmosphere, the booze and entertainment made it well worth $20. I think the West Coast could be on another level.”

    So why hasn’t it happened already? And why hasn’t there been a single competitive rugby league game in California this year?

    As mentioned, there are USARL teams dotted along the East Coast, from Boston in the north to Tampa in the south.

    California is home to 40 million people contained in an area about half the size of New South Wales, with approximately ten million of those in Los Angeles county – the most populous county in all America and with a higher population than 42 US states.

    It’s a melting pot of cultures, home to remarkable athletes of many varieties, and attracts extroverts and innovators like bees to honey.

    If you were a rugby league strategist (if such a thing actually exists) you’d surely circle it on a map with a big red pen.

    Among those drawn to LA has been Brian Lowe, an Australian print and radio journalist who fell in love with the region after visiting in 1994 and found a way to move their four years later.

    He became a dedicated American commentators on both rugby codes, but has focused almost exclusively on league since 2010 – an odd occupation to hold in a city without a team.

    “Haha, yeah I do a lot of interviews by phone and email obviously,” says Lowe.

    “Rugby union has a very strong presence in California, but I do feel there’s a significant number of people who have had enough with the politics that occur in that game. There’s a lot of disenchantment and talk of financial issues.

    “I think California’s a great place to expand rugby league, but it does need time, effort and, yes, money.

    “The USA and Canada have been given the 2025 rugby league World Cup, so it would make sense to invest there beforehand.

    “You can’t do it half-arsed, basically.”

    One person you’ll hear Lowe and others regularly refer to in regards to Los Angeles and rugby league is Col Manners, the former Fairfax advertising worker and Coogee Dolphins player who quit his job to help encourage the sport abroad.

    After dedicating several years to the USA’s East Coast, he was transferred to Los Angeles for work.

    Along with New Zealander Zane Hirtzel he helped form the California Condors and was a key figure in the Remembrance Cup tournament of 2012 that featured not only a team from California, but also sides from Las Vegas, Utah, British Colombia and the Coogee Dolphins.

    The Condors have effectively since been grounded, a product of a lack of opposition and what could best be described as a case of disillusionment and ‘volunteer fatigue’ by Manners.

    Other sides like the Orange County Outlaws, Los Angeles Raiders RLFC and Bay Area rugby league all started with the best of intentions, but have never competed regularly.

    “The biggest issue I had was player commitment,” says Manners.

    “Everyone said they were keen, but getting them to turn up to training and games was a real headache.

    “When we travelled away I was chipping in 20 or 30 bucks a night per player to help with their accommodation.

    “The amount of money I personally forked out so players didn’t have to pay took its toll.

    “Aside from that, getting administrators, coaches and managers to get their hands dirty and help build a team and competition was difficult.

    “A lot of people like to stand back and say ‘I’m the president or secretary etc’ but you need to help paint the field, wash jerseys, referee and be there at most sessions.”

    It’s hard not to feel sorry for Manners and the effort he invested, even after just a short chat.

    But after taking some downtime for family, the good news is he now seems to be prepared to give it another stab – provided he can find some compadres to come along for the ride.

    “I think it’s definitely achievable to have a rugby league competition on the West Coast of America, but I think the next time I’d concentrate on Southern California and go from there,” he says.

    “My concept would be a Los Angeles team, a Long Beach team, an Orange County team and a San Diego team.

    “Consolidate those four clubs and then move into North California and the Bay Area, then Las Vegas and Phoenix.

    “I’m keen to give it another go, but only if I have help this time.

    “Southern California is home to some ridiculously good athletes and there are so many Aussies here…it’s crazy more people aren’t prepared to help out.”

    Manners mentions that Los Angeles and San Diego both have touch football teams.

    It reminds me to make contact with another touch football fanatic I know with ties to America: veteran rugby league journalist and part-time Georgia State resident Tony Adams, popularly known as ‘The Mole’.

    “Rugby union is definitely the big dog here,” says Adams, “And rugby league is barely known.

    “No TV coverage is the real killer. If they could get TV, the dollars would come.”

    As I continue researching, I’m pleased to hear of several small pockets of interest bubbling to the surface again in California.

    I put Manners in touch with a young guy called Randy Chavez, a former college gridiron player, now Burbank radio announcer, who has fallen in love with rugby league.

    He and others sometime train for league in a park under the guidance of a Welsh coach-cum-actor, who stars as a spoof super hero in a series of short action films.

    That’s the thing – you think of a city built on entertainment and you wonder why it doesn’t play one of the most entertaining, made-for-TV sports on the planet.

    Robert Burgin
    Robert Burgin

    Robert Burgin is a sports writer of 20 years with a particular appetite for Rugby League's exotic and bizarre tales. Find him on Twitter @RobBurginWriter.