Wallabies forward Lukhan Salakaia-Loto has re-signed with Rugby Australia and the Queensland Reds until the end of 2022.
In recent years there has been an increasing trend of Australian rugby players upping sticks and jet-setting to foreign lands to continue their careers.
Ex-Waratah Paddy Ryan is one more name to add to that extensive list.
While the majority of his contemporaries are favouring France, Japan or England as their new base, Ryan is blazing a relatively new trail. In January, the burly front-rower joined North America’s fledgeling competition, Major League Rugby (MLR).
After a solid inaugural season in 2018, MLR is continuing to build in its second year with more teams (nine), more games (16 per team) and an influx of foreign players.
The latter was spawned by the competition doubling each team’s overseas players allowance from five to ten last offseason. With 105 Super Rugby caps on his resume, Ryan is certainly one of the league’s bigger-name acquisitions.
The seeds of his move were first sown last July in surprising circumstances.
“On the way to South Africa, I had a chance encounter with (former Waratahs backs coach) Scott Wisemantel. He’s been doing a bit of work over here (the US) with the coaches,” he says.
Their catch up got Ryan contemplating a move to the States over more lucrative opportunities elsewhere.
”I kind of thought, ‘would I be prepared to make a few sacrifices financially rather than go to Europe and come here and try something different?’” he explained.
With the next MLR season still six months away at the time, he had plenty of time to mull his options over. Ryan spoke with multiple MLR teams, but it was the San Diego Legion that won him over.
“Darren Gardner (part owner) got hold of me. He used to play first-grade rugby for Eastern Suburbs in Sydney and is now a big member of the rugby community in San Diego. Once I had spoken to him I knew where I wanted to be—in San Diego, It was done really quickly.”
After a quick stint in Japan at the back end of 2018, Ryan shuttled over to Southern California in the New Year to join his new teammates.
The Legion were one of MLR’s seven foundation teams. They finished a respectable third on the table last season before being ousted in the semis by eventual champions, Seattle. It is still early days in the new campaign, but a current four-game winning streak has them sitting pretty at the league’s summit.
Ryan has definitely played a big part in that. He has already made four MLR Teams of the Week (out of five rounds) with his penetrative ball-carrying and solid set-piece work. He and South African Super Rugby veteran Joe Pietersen have clearly made a significant impact on their new club in the first quarter of the season.
But it is not all about them. Nate Ausperger, Nick Boyer and Dylan Audsley are among a handful of Legion players who have international experience playing for the USA Eagles.
Then there are the raw newcomers. Ryan highlights three home-grown players who he has earmarked as players to watch. Aaron Mitchell, Psalm Wooching (both American Football) and Nathan Sylvia (wrestling) have brought their significant brawn and athleticism to rugby after successful careers in other sports.
Ryan says of flanker Wooching: “He is as good an athlete as you are going to find anywhere.” High praise from a man who has spent much time playing alongside specimens like Israel Folau and Kurtley Beale.
So, what does a mash-up of Super Rugby veterans, other foreigners seeking opportunities and domestic talent offer you in terms of standard?
If the hurt inflicted on a player’s body is any gauge, then Ryan gives MLR the thumbs up. “It is certainly physical. There are heavier bodies (than Japan), bigger contact…you’re sorer here.”
Every league around the world is a bit different in terms of style, tempo and quality. When asked for a comparison, Ryan puts the calibre of MLR somewhere between Australia’s top two domestic leagues–the National Rugby Championship (NRC) and the Shute Shield.
“MLR is about NRC level but not as fast. It feels like the backend of Shute Shield when you have the Super Rugby players back in (the line-up) and the physicality has lifted.”
The Legion’s home base is Torero Stadium in the north-west quadrant of central San Diego. The stadium holds 6000 fans, which fills up to two-thirds on a good day, according to Ryan. He explains the nature of the Legion supporters at a typical home game:
“This is going to sound really silly, but the fans are very American! We have guys dressing up in ancient armour and leading war cries. Everyone’s got a jersey or a piece of paraphernalia on. You know who everyone is going for (over here).”
Outside of life on the rugby pitch, Ryan seems to be enjoying his time in the land of Stars and Stripes. Among his highlights so far include taking in San Diego’s scenic beaches and savouring the authentic Mexican cuisine. He also got the chance to wolf down some ribs and neck a few Coors Lites at a Super Bowl party. When in America…right?
There is some evidence of a minor culture shock, though.
“Marijuana is legalised here (and) I’ve been blown away by the number of people who smoke it. If you’re walking into a shopping complex there’s a good chance of smelling it. Sometimes when you’re driving it comes through the air vent of a car.”
Ryan’s time States-side extends through this MLR season. After that, the life of a rugby mercenary seems to appeal to the thrice-capped Wallaby.
“Around the World Cup other opportunities will come. I’m open to…being a gun for hire and playing all over the world.”
With a chuckle, Ryan also notes the benefits of playing back-to-back seasons in different leagues.
“Avoiding an offseason is a priority! The more I play the less I have to do a preseason. That would be part of the plan.”
Time will tell on where Ryan ends up next. In the meantime, life is just swell as a pro rugby player based in the USA’s eighth-biggest city.
Paddy Ryan’s resume:
• Three Wallabies caps
• 105 Waratahs caps
• One Super Rugby title (2014)
• Five Shute Shield titles (Sydney University)
• Captain of the New South Wales Country Eagles (2016-2018)
• Seven Sanix Blues caps