By STEVE MASCORD
YOU know how it was supposed to happen.
The United States Tomahawks would shrug off criticism that they were just a bunch of Aussies who went to a bucks weekend in Vegas, capture the hearts of everyone at the World Cup, make the quarter-finals and with the glow of their success still bright, we would have and end to the American Civil War.
And Apple Pope, Curtis Cunz, Spinner Howland and everyone else in our rich cast of colourful characters would live happily every after.
At this early juncture, it’s important to fill in those who have more going on their lives than the political situation in an amateur competition played on parks in the most powerful nation on earth.
There are two leagues, right? One is the AMNRL, established by former Australian first grader David Niu, which is the officially recognised body for the game in the United States. They sent the aforementioned Tomahawks to the World Cup, where they indeed made the quarter-finals and warmed the cockles of most hearts.
Niu has since left to promote arena (American) football in Vhina. Connecticut Wildcats owner – and prop – Curtis Cunz has replaced him as league chairman.
The other competition is the USARL, which broke away three years ago in response to what it described as the autocratic administration of the AMNRL. The rebellion was led by the champion club in the AMNRL, the Jacksonville Axemen.
Its chairman is Australian Peter Ilfield.
Now, back to our central narrative: there was a committee formed to negotiate a ceasefire, an independent commission was nominated and then …. nothing. Two months on, we still have two leagues and emails being leaked which suggest the AMNRL is falling apart.
Our mission here, which we have accepted, is to figure out what went wrong. There are two broad theories I heard during my time in the US in January. One: that the USARL lost faith in the democratic power of their AMNRL counterparts. The other is that the USARL clubs got cold feet in handing over power to the independent commission.
“I would say it leans 80-20 towards the first one you said,” Illfield tells Forty20 by phone from Philadelphia.
When negotiations were at a delicate stage, AMNRL team New York Raiders issued a media release declaring their “independence” from the negotiations and describing the AMNRL as “defunct”. Independence from an independent commission? It could only happen in rugby league.
“When you are talking unification, you are talking a merger, right? And when you merge with someone, you merge your assets with theirs’,” says Illfield. “During the course of negotiations, it became apparent there was a doubt over exactly what assets the AMNRL had.
“Two or three of their clubs came out distancing themselves from the negotiations. There seemed to be a degree of dysfunction there.
“We found themselves asking: what is the nature of this organisation? Is it an organisation at all?”
This no doubt contributed to the cold feet of the USARL clubs. They felt their fate was going to be guided for the next 12 months by an organisation in which a “dysfunctional” league had a big say. Support for the deal evaporated.
Instead, the USARL thought it best to strike while the iron was hot (the only think hot in North America this winter) and invite the quarrelling AMNRL clubs to join them. At the same time, fortuitously for the rebel competition, there was expansion in the south east with Tampa, Atlanta and central Florida joining the comp.
Atlanta have partnered with Leeds and be known as the Atlanta Rhinos.
The Invitation For Unification read: “The board of the USARL LLC has resolved to open the 2014 competition to all interested clubs in the eastern United States as well as announcing a Regional Conference in the southeast.
“Each club will become a member under the Constitution of the USARL and will have representation on the USARL board.
“The 2014 competition is expected to be based on a 10 week schedule between June and August including playoffs and a Championship Final. While the overall structure has yet to be finalized, the competition will be limited to the east coast in an effort to reduce both cost and travel with the establishment of smaller conferences within regions. The aim is for Conference schedules to operate with ALL regular season home and away games played in local regions culminating in cross-conference playoffs and and finals.”
Just last week, a leaked email from the New York Knights attacked the foreign influence in the AMNRL and the Tomahawks.
“No offense to our friends in Australia but we want the game in America to be run exclusively by people who can physically be present at every game,” said ‘G’ – who appears to be Knights coach Guillaume Cieutat.
That missive was clearly aimed at Steve Johnson, the Aussie who assembled the Tomahawks and who is also behind the Queensland western corridor NRL franchise bid. While it may appears the AMNRL is heading toward the bizarre position of running a national team but no clubs, Cunz tells Forty20 via facebook the establishment league is going nowhere.
“Why the merger fell through was totally not on us,” Cunz writes.
“All their representatives agreed with me and the AMNRL representatives to a structure on paper. Then it went sour for done reason when it went back to their clubs. I don’t know why.
“I don’t really want to focus on the past, I’m not going to get in this pointing-the-finger game like they are trying to do to us. It’s too childish
“Believe me when I say I’m personally not going to quit in trying to give what the players from both players want….and that’s a merge. We just want to play other teams like we did not to long ago.
“I have all my teams on board with my vision and what in doing here despite what the USARL tries to do to us by sending team owners emails, (making) phone calls, or by using blogs to make its look bad.”
The AMNRL will soon announce its competition structure for 2014. It continues to run the only recognised US national team. As things stand, it considers USARL players for selection after initially omitting them.
“The Rugby League International Federation has asked us to keep it updated with what we are doing,” says Illfield.
But like international rugby league elswhere, the Tomahawks don’t actually have any matches in their schedule for this year yet. And at the time of writing, neither does either competition.
Rugby league is, indeed, a funny game. So it’s probably best just to have a laugh.
Filed for: FORTY20 MAGAZINE