New York’s New Pro Rugby Team Lands a French Star


The lure of the United States can be big, even for established international sports stars.

Pelé came to the North American Soccer League in the 1970s and was followed by a who’s-who of veterans. Major League Soccer has brought over big names like David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the twilight of their careers. Ichiro Suzuki and Shohei Ohtani joined Major League Baseball in their prime.

Now the fledgling Major League Rugby seems to be heading down a similar path with the arrival of a foreign superstar: Mathieu Bastareaud, a 30-year-old French stalwart, will join Rugby United New York, which is playing its first season. Bastareaud plans to play stateside next year for one season on loan before returning to his club team in France, Toulon.

Major League Rugby entered the crowded North American sports landscape last year, with the New York team joining before the second season. The league, now with eight teams in the U.S. and one in Canada, plays under the rules of rugby union, the 15-a-side variant of the game that is most familiar to American college players and viewers of the quadrennial World Cup.

New York’s first season has been a success on the pitch so far. The team is 8-3 and on course for a playoff berth.

Needless to say, New York did not approach Toulon demanding to acquire one of their marquee players. “Bastareaud’s agent reached out to us,” said James English, R.U.N.Y.’s general manager. “Bastareaud is a big fan of New York. He loves the city; he wants to be part of this.”

English said that Bastareaud found the French League “quite taxing.” “They call that league a meat grinder,” he added, “because the season is so long.” So a year’s sabbatical in New York had some real appeal.

“It’s a new adventure,” Bastareaud told Canal Plus Sport. “It was the best compromise for me of family, life experience and playing rugby.”

The announcement made front-page news in France, where Bastareaud is a mainstay, compiling 54 appearances for the national team. The French sports newspaper L’Equipe’s headline read “Big Basta à Big Apple.”

At 260 pounds, Bastareaud is large for a rugby center, a position that requires quite a bit of running and kicking, not just slamming into opponents.

“He’s quite an all-around player,” English said. “You can be fooled into thinking that he’s one-dimensional. He’s got a high skill level, either kicking or with ball in hand.”

English sees many benefits from acquiring a player of the caliber of Bastareaud.

“He’s a real leader,” English said. “He’s got a huge amount of experience. Having people who have played at that level is great to help the players surround him. He’s very physical; he’s an imposing figure. He’s about going forward. People tend to follow.”

Top French League players earn significantly more than players in the new American league. English declined to talk about financial arrangements, but emphasized that Bastareaud would remain a Toulon player for the duration of the loan. L’Equipe reported that he would make half of what he is making in France, but he told the paper, “that’s part of the adventure.”

Bastareaud plans to play for France in the World Cup in Japan through November, then report to New York for the 2020 season in the new year. He will remain in New York through the season, which ends in July. The team plays in a minor league baseball park on Coney Island.

Toulon is in 10th place in the Top 14, France’s top rugby division. The team was French champion in 2014 and European champion in 2015, with Bastareaud scoring a try in the final.

“Mathieu Bastareaud is a guy apart,” Toulon Coach Patrice Collazo told Agence France-Presse. “He has made history at this club and has given a lot. He needs to see something else and breathe a little bit. He’s going to discover New York.”

English emphasized that the acquisition of the veteran star was not a ticket-selling sideshow.

“This is not just a free ride for a guy coming to the end of his career,” he said. “It’s not an easy place to live. New York is a hustle. We’re a start-up, there’s a lot that goes with that.

“This is predominantly an on-field decision. He’s very much in his prime as a player.”



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