Top 14: Boudjellal chases the American Dream
Like the Aviva Premiership and Pro12, Toulon's colourful owner Mourad Boudjellal has spent his summer thinking of expansion in the USA
Mourad Boudjellal spent his summer vacation in Florida and it seems he was doing more than just lying on a sun lounger. “Boudjellal and the American Dream” was the headline in Wednesday’s L’Equipe and the report that followed explained the latest grand scheme of the Toulon president.
Not content with establishing a foothold in Japan, first through the acquisition of Ayumu Goromaru and then with his plan for Toulon to tour the Far East (a two-match tour scheduled for July was cancelled because of logistical problems), Boudjellal now has his eyes on the North American market. “We’re going to launch a club in Miami,” he declared this week to Var Matin, Toulon’s local paper. “The goal is to bring together several clubs to create a real American championship.”
Boudjellal intends to twin Toulon with a club in Miami – not too dissimilar to what Manchester City have done in the USA with their majority purchase of a Major League Soccer franchise christened New York City FC – and he invited other French clubs to join him. “I hope other [Top 14 clubs] are going to do it because I think that the USA can be a magnificent window for the Top 14,” he said. “It will be a championship which will last only two or three months, and where we can send 10 to 12 players from Toulon.”
In fact Toulon are a step behind Racing 92 with the Top 14 champions already having a foothold in the States. Last season they teamed up with Austin Huns, a semi-pro team in the Red River Rugby Conference, which has its general manager Frenchman Thierry Dauphin. “[Racing] see the U.S. as their next world target so they want to extend their reach here,” said Dauphin in an interview in April this year. “Austin is high-tech, young, modern. That is appealing to them. They’ll open up a new market. We’ll have a full exchange with Racing 92, involving players, coaches. We’ll even send our youth team to Paris for a week.”
There was a swift response to Boudjellal’s comments from Pro Rugby, the governing body of the first professional rugby competition in North America. In a tweet they said: “Very flattered but a surprise to us and completely untrue.”
Pro Rugby might think it “untrue” but that’s only because clearly the Toulon president didn’t see fit to inform them of his vision.
According to sources in Toulon, Boudjellal’s contact in Florida is Christophe Kwiecinski, a former player for Bègles-Bordeaux who has been living in the Sunshine State for a number of years and is now coaching rugby to high school students. “In the last year rugby has made huge advances in the States,” he explained. “French players are involved and some Top 14 presidents are interested….one day I talked about it with Mourad and, voila, that’s how the connection came about.
Earlier in the summer former France full-back Clement Poitrenaud announced he had rejected the offer of a one-year contract extension with Toulouse to relocate to the States next year to play professional rugby. “It’s a challenge that interests me,” said the 34-year-old, who might prove to be the first of a number of ageing French players heading to the States to enjoy a lucrative swansong.
Kwiecinski said the name of the incipient club will be “RCT Miami”, born out of the existing Miami RFC. “It’s a real opportunity for the sport in the States that people like Mourad Boudjellal and Bernard Laporte are interested in developing rugby here,” added Kwiecinski.
The amateur club scene in the USA is divided into two Leagues, West and East, and within these leagues are four Conferences, of which one is ‘Southern’. Miami play in Division II of Southern, competing against eight other clubs including Fort Lauderdale and Tampa Bay Krewe. Boudjellal’s ambition seems to be to establish a partnership with Miami and use Toulon’s clout to propel them into the Pro Rugby championship, which at the moments comprises five franchises: San Francisco, Sacramento, Denver, Ohio and San Diego.
“We’re going to launch the pro club, that’s sure, but it’s difficult to say if we’ll be ready for next February,” said Kwiecinski, referring to the start of the 2017 Championship in which Boudjellal wants to participate. “You know what Mourad is like, he’s not there simply to take part. He’s made it clear to me, saying: ‘I’m warning you, I want to win it’.”