LAFAYETTE, Colo. – Sunday, April 17, marks the kickoff of Professional Rugby Organization’s (PRO) inaugural season when Denver takes on Ohio and San Francisco battles Sacramento.
The league has been a popular topic in the American rugby community since PRO made its intentions known to take a crack at professionalizing the sport back in November. In recent weeks, much of the conversation has focused on the intriguing signings of foreign internationals such as All Black Mils Muliaina and Tonga’s 2015 Rugby World Cup fly half, Kurt Morath. These world-class footballers will no doubt benefit their respective teams, but the league’s five teams are still mostly made up of domestic players – including several current and former D1A Rugby standouts.
One of the Midwest’s best college teams, Davenport, is well represented on PRO’s lone Midwest franchise – Ohio. 2015 All-Americans Mason Baum, JP Eloff, and Angus MacLellan will all suit up for Ohio, as will another ’15 All-American in Lindenwood’s Sebastian Kalm.
“This is a game I have been pursing for years, and to get the call was a dream come true,” Hanson said of the day he found out PRO Rugby wanted him to join the fledgling league. “As kids, most of us dream of becoming a professional athlete, and to be able to fulfill that was extremely satisfying.”
PRO has made it known it is not interested and convincing college-grade players to leave school in pursuit of becoming professional rugby players. However, a few student-athletes who are nearing graduation and have laid out plans to complete their degrees have been given an opportunity.
“I’ll be taking two classes this upcoming summer, and will then return to Jesuit this fall to complete my degree,” said Hanson. “When I first got to Wheeling Jesuit University, my coaches, Eric Jerpe and Chip Hulbert, stressed the importance of getting a college degree. My parents have also been inexplicably supportive throughout my academic and athletic careers, so it’s only right that I honor these significant figures by earning my diploma.”
Ohio isn’t the only squad with D1A alumni on its roster. In fact, all five teams have players that have represented D1A this season or in the past year or two.
Kutztown’s Niku Kruger, Oklahoma’s Michael Al-Jiboori, and Colorado’s Christian Wiessing beef up Denver’s lineup. In California, where three of the league’s five teams reside, Kalei Konrad will battle for a spot in San Diego’s crowded back line after a decorated career with the San Diego State Aztecs. Saint Mary’s grad Garret Brewer won a National Championship with the Gaels in 2014, and brings his unique skill set to the Sacramento franchise.
Santa Clara Head Coach Paul Keeler will be coaching the San Francisco team, and brought with him the best player on the 20th-ranked Broncos – Jack O’Hara.
“He’s 6-foot-6, 230 pounds and fast, running the fastest 40-meter at the Northern California combine,” Keeler boasted. “He’s an excellent offloader and has great aerial skills. He athletically projects to the international level.”
Not only will the PRO competition give young, up-and-coming rugby players the opportunity to test themselves against the country’s best, but will hopefully inspire current college players to push themselves even harder on and off the pitch in hopes of earning a PRO contract of their own in the future.
“Rugby is no longer a dead end game in America,” said Hanson. “There is now a tangible outlet to continue your playing career professionally if you choose to put in the work to get in and stay in good form.”
American rugby official goes professional 2 p.m. MT when Denver and Ohio seek a season-opening win, while Sacramento hosts San Francisco 4 p.m. PT. Tickets for the match to be played at Denver’s Infinity Park can be found here, and tickets for the Northern California derby at Sacramento’s Bonney Field can be purchased here.