BACK IN NOVEMBER, when the IRFU announced that the four provincial A teams would travel to Boston for a series of development fixtures hosted by the New England Free Jacks in March and April of 2019, one question instantly sprang to mind.
What the hell is a Free Jack?
“That’s part of the reason for the name,” explains Alex Magleby, co-founder and CEO of the Free Jacks, “so that people would engage and question it. It represents our values.
“When we started this process, we asked what we stand for, what the region stands for, what our history is?
“Our main logo is the fist of revolution with the light of hope. So our mantra is ‘do right no matter what’. Our area is the heart of the revolution originally.
“If you look back through history, multiple revolutions would be represented by that image of the fist – the Jacques of France, Jack Goodfellow and that revolution – so there’s plenty of literary and historical references to that part.
“For us, it represents all of that and it’s about ‘do what’s right, no matter what’ for the community.”
The Free Jacks, who are already a member club of Major League Rugby but will compete in the league for the first time in 2020, will host the four Irish province’s A teams in the ‘Cara Cup’ from March 16 to April 14, with each of the provinces getting two games.
Magleby, who moved into his role with the recently-formed New England franchise from a position as ‘general manager of national teams and high performance’ with USA Rugby, is highly-experienced in the sport.
A 15s and 7s international for the US in his playing days, he spent 18 years in total working with USA rugby – player, captain, manager, analyst, assistant coach, head coach, development director, director of high performance, general manager – before leaving at the end of 2018.
Although he’s a native of Utah, Magleby studied in Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and so, New England has been his home for the last 20 years.
He knew IRFU performance director David Nucifora through his work with USA Rugby and when the Free Jacks began to take life last year at the same time the British and Irish Cup was folding for the Irish provinces, the timing was ideal.
“Clearly, there’s always been a relationship between Irish America and Ireland in the New England area,” says Magleby. “That’s always been in place and a lot of the clubs have had relationships but not probably partnerships established for the long-term.
“I had a chat with David over a few things and this was one of the concepts that could benefit everybody. He looked into it with his provincial folks and the high-performance department in Ireland and they thought it could work.”
Nucifora had, and still has, concerns over how the A teams would get enough games after the collapse of the B&I Cup and although the new Celtic Cup showed promise this season, it is a short competition that runs from September and October.
The Cara Cup will provide some of the provinces’ emerging talent with the experience of travelling for competition and being in camp, although this venture into the US is not purely about rugby.
The42 understands that the IRFU’s full costs for sending the four A teams to the US are being covered, while Magleby points out that this could help build Irish rugby’s brand Stateside too.
“David’s a smart guy and Padraig Power [the IRFU's commercial director] as well,” says Magleby. “On one side, they’re looking for ways to develop on the rugby side and look for opportunities for athletes who don’t always get them.
“There’s a big match void for a lot of those athletes now without the B&I Cup, so they had a needed part of the pathway. But then from a commercial standpoint, how does the IRFU continue to grow, where is that market?
“It makes sense to say the States is a good potential opportunity to build the brand. All sides, the rugby side and business side, it makes sense in addition to other things they’re trying to do in the States and other places.”
The Cara Cup will take place across three venues as the Free Jacks trial possible home stadiums for their first Major League Rugby season in 2020.
Union Point Sports Complex in Weymouth, just outside Boston, hosts four of the six games, while the Free Jacks’ clash with Munster A will see a rugby game played on the Gaelic pitch at the Irish Cultural Centre in Canton for the first time, before the final clash of the Cup between the hosts and Leinster A takes place in Harvard.
The Free Jacks will also host AIL side Lansdowne FC at the Irish Cultural Centre on 1 June.
Magleby explains that 40% of the population in Weymouth claim Irish heritage, while in nearby Braintree that figure stands at 50%. Boston city itself also has a strong Irish history, so the hope is for strong local support.
The Free Jacks, Magleby stresses, are “pan-New England, not just a Boston team” and plan to represent all six states of Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
The fact that the Free Jacks are focusing on local players in their roster is sensible in that regard, although it remains to be seen how competitive they are against the provinces’ A teams.
Former Ulster U20 and Rainey lock Ronan McCusker is part of the squad, while there will be a familiar face in the shape of former Connacht academy out-half Tadhg Leader, who is now a USA international.
“It’s a long time in the making,” says Magleby of Leader breaking into the Eagles squad. “One of the big areas that we targeted in the US after the 2015 World Cup were fly-halves who could do well. By this time last year, we had four pretty high-quality guys, it wasn’t just AJ MacGinty any more.
“It’s good to have Tadhg in that competition now. The thing about Tadhg is that he’s a really good leader. He’s not ‘ra-ra’ but he understands the game well and communicates well. He’s been a great addition for us and he’ll be a really good addition for the US as well.”
The IRFU isn’t the only international union that is keen to break into the promising North American market, with Magleby saying there has been “a massive influx” of interest since Major League Rugby kicked off last year with an encouraging first season.
Magleby, experienced enough not to get ahead of himself, is excited too but warns that MLR has some way to go.
“People have to understand that it’s going to be a long growth, that’s the only way it can survive,” he says.
“If there’s a loose salary cap to try and compete with Europe, it doesn’t survive because there are not enough people in the stands spending money, then watching on TV to generate the commercial dollars. Yet.
“It’s a slow burner, very much based on the Major League Soccer model which took time but the lessons they went through, we can learn from. We don’t need to be in 20,000-seater stadiums tomorrow to survive.”
Slow and steady, stresses Magleby, but there is no doubting the potential of Major League Rugby.
The North American league expanded to nine competing teams this year with the Irish-influenced Rugby United New York and the Toronto Arrows taking part, while the Free Jacks will be joined by teams from Atalanta and Washington in swelling the number to 12 in 2020.
It remains to be seen what the IRFU do next after the upcoming Cara Cup, but Magleby is keen to build on this first foray.
“It’s exciting. The big thing is that this is the start of it and then, what’s next?
“How do we fit that in? Next year the MLR schedule is similar to this year, so we will be playing from the end of January through June, so if the Celtic Cup stays how it is and ends at the end of October, is there a window there in December/January where we do a similar version of this?
“It’s really, really cold here at that time of year, so how do we manage that? I just think it would be a great opportunity for the provinces to build their brand in the States via that window.”
Saturday, March 16:
Free Jacks v Connacht Eagles, Union Point Sports Complex
Wednesday, March 20:
Connacht Eagles v Ulster A, Union Point Sports Complex
Sunday, March 24:
Free Jacks v Ulster A, Union Point Sports Complex
Wednesday, April 10:
Munster A v Leinster A, Union Point Sports Complex