Written by Keith Whitelock
Photo by New York Knights
New York Rugby League scene quietly kicking goals
Amid all the Rugby League headlines generated for better or worse around the world, our game is full of selfless people going about their business to help grow the game we love. Most people have never heard of the work guys like Steve Mckeown and Nathan Robinson of Aoraki Rugby League in New Zealand do for the game, Warren Heilig for Norway or Andy Mulhall for the Czech Republic. This is okay though, in fact sometimes this is how they like it. All these examples of Rugby League pioneers share many things in common, but one big common belief is that almost all their efforts should go into developing genuine and sustainable domestic scenes in the areas they operate.
I recently reached out to find what the Rugby League scene in New York looks like. Straight away, another selfless pioneer of the game volunteered to give up his time shed some light on what our game looks like in one of the world biggest cities. Head Coach of the New York Knights Guillaume “Gil” Cieutat first became involved in rugby league in New York 13 years ago.
“I moved to the US back in 2005, sent an email out to see if I could help in any way and as a result, I made lifelong friendships!”.
For those that don’t know, Rugby League in America has had a tumultuous couple of decades, having been through the all too familiar situation where two competitions staged alongside each other battled it out for legitimacy and the claim of who administers the game in America. Whilst a current period of stability has provided opportunities for sustained growth, one must conclude that the game would be in a better position if it wasn’t for battle between the two factions. Originally, the New York Knights were part of the now defunct David Niu led American National Rugby League (AMNRL). The club played in the competitions inaugural season in 1998 under the moniker of the Broncos. A partnership with Australia’s Newcastle Knights led the club to rebrand as the “New York Knights”.
As the years went on, a number of clubs in the AMNRL grew more and more disenchanted over a lack of input and stability. This led to a breakaway competition called the United Stated of America Rugby League (USARL). Whilst 7 clubs in total broke away, New York Knights were not one of them, electing to stay with the AMNRL. It’s widely speculated the club, along with the Connecticut Widlcats were the only AMNRL Teams playing regular competition games.
The formal collapse of the AMNRL saw the USARL become to official administrators of Rugby League in America, meaning the Knights played their first season in the USARL in 2015, participating in the North-Eastern Division.
Three years on and the city has a modest but sustainable Rugby League scene. “We have 3 teams, located in Manhattan, Brooklyn and a close by suburb called White Plains. All 3 teams are operating on an amateur basis with limited funds from small sponsorships. I believe some teams may subsidize some players, but we never did. We want people to be with us for the right reasons” says Gil.
Too often our sport has seen false dawns, as people come along and put the cart before the horse. This has recently become unfortunately evident with Moore Sport International’s quest to stage the 2025 Rugby League World Cup in American and Canada. Whilst optimistic, Gil is also realistic about how this would have panned out.
“I am not too familiar with this particular project but it’s evident that the current shape of RL infrastructure in the US & Canada is not adequate to host an event like the RLWC 2025. Without major investors I don’t think it can materialize because smart investors are usually looking for immediate returns with respect to this type of event… The 2 main sources of revenue e.g. a good TV deal and sizable stadium attendance are not easy goals to achieve in the US sports arena. It’s a challenge for NBA teams… imagine RL”.
Almost every single person or club looking to establish Rugby League in non-traditional areas suffers from a chronic lack of funds. It’s almost easier to gloss over this, such is the frequency that this columnist receives the feedback. It’s these funding issues that makes the work of people like Gil (along with club stalwarts Matt Astill and Rob Balachandran) even more inspiring.
“Beyond the obvious challenges that relates to finances, I think it’s very hard to gain any traction in terms of visibility for a marginal sport in a big city like NYC. There are many reasons for that and among them is the fact that the sports market is totally saturated with 2 NFL teams, 2 NBA teams, 2 NHL teams, 2 MLB teams and 2 MLS teams… On top of that, ramping up their business career is the main focus for our young athletes, not playing sports. That being said, when you are located outside of NYC, like the White Plains team is, you have a better shot at building a community – which ex-Knights (Captain) CJ Cortalano is doing a great job at.”
Being involved in such a niche sport has it’s benefits too. It’s usually a tightknit community where lifelong friendships are made. These friendships are often what keeps the guys mentioned at the start of this article plugging along. These friendships share stories that make for a great yarn over a cold beer.
One of my favourite ones is the “Murphy Jet” story when legendary Knights player Mike Murphy came off the bench all pumped up and on his first play decided to call a set play (“Jet”) that he wasn’t in charge of organizing… Not only did he called it wrong and kept yelling “Murphy Jet, Murphy Jet” but he also ran the worst line plus terrible timing that resulted in our playmaker being belted by the defence. Knowing the characters involved obviously makes that story much more entertaining”.
Any article on Rugby League in New York can’t possibly be written these days without addressing the elephant in the room, Ricky Wilby’s bid to create a professional, Trans-Atlantic Rugby League Club in the same mould as the Toronto Wolfpack.
“I’ve met with Ricky a few times. He’s a good man and interesting project but many roadblocks ahead”, says Gil. This project has the potential to transform the Rugby League scene in New York.
Our sport too often sees exciting ventures come and go, as it struggled to avoid “key man” syndrome. International Rugby League fans are sometimes seen as a bunch of dreamers. Sometimes longevity in itself is a form of success.
To still be here today (is a big success), mostly thanks to the unconditional support of our founders Rob Balachandran (president) and Matty Astill along with the remarkable and selfless volunteers like Kirk Miller, Ryan Mulligan, Gareth & Dave Baxendale, Justin Yu who supported the team for many, many years”.
Rugby League never fails to throw up new surprises and stories. We all too often hear one dimensional reports of misbehaving players paid millions of dollars. For every million-dollar rugby league player, there’s hundreds of volunteers along people playing and administering the game for free. Gil, Mark, Ryan, Rob and all those guys involved in sustaining our sport in New York are the kind of people we should remind ourselves of when we lose track of why we started following Rugby League in the first place.