Canada to be on the sidelines for first-ever Major League Rugby draft

TORONTO — Canada will be a spectator when Major League Rugby holds its first ever collegiate draft in June.

Canadian players won't be eligible and the Toronto Arrows won't take part in the June 13 and 14 draft. At issue are visa challenges and a different pathway for young players north of the border.

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The league's immigration lawyers have said it will be difficult for young Canadians to get a visa to play in the U.S. At this early stage of their career, it's hard to argue they should unseat an American.

Plus, top young Canadian talent is either part of Pacific Pride, Rugby Canada's developmental program in Langford, B.C., or the Arrows academy. There are more than 50 players involved between the two programs with four or five Arrows players splitting time between both last season.

"It really came down to the visa issues and the pathways being so different," said Arrows vice-president and GM Mark Winokur.

"Obviously we want the best young Canadian players to have as many opportunities as possible and will continue to build those out here," added Winokur, who is on the league's competition committee.

MLR had some 50 Canadians playing this season with more than half in Arrows colours.

The North American pro league announced March 19 that it was calling off its third season five games in due to COVID-19. The league, which operated with 12 franchises this season, lost a team Thursday with the Colorado Raptors announcing they were withdrawing.

In a social media statement, the Colorado club said it wished the league "every success."

"But we believe that our greater responsibility lies in the development of American players who can go on to win the World Cup for the United States," the statement continued without elaborating.

The Raptors players are under contract to the league rather than the team so they may resurface with expansion Dallas and Los Angeles next season.

MLR says the draft will consist of at least four rounds with "more if deemed necessary." The two expansion franchises will lead off the draft followed by the existing teams in inverse order of the abbreviated 2020 standings.

To be eligible, players must have played U.S. collegiate rugby in the one year preceding the draft and must have completed three years of college or be at least 21 years of age.

The criteria allow for athletes who have completed their junior year to declare for the draft while continuing collegiate play as long as they remain eligible.

"Collegiate rugby has a rich history in the United States with over 900 active teams across the country," MLR commissioner George Killebrew said in a statement. "The immense talent in our colleges and universities has shown itself over the past three seasons and is only poised to grow. We are truly excited about creating this pathway for the next generation of MLR players."

The league says while Canadian university players will not be part of the 2020 draft, they are encouraged to enrol to show their interest in playing in the league.

Winokur, meanwhile, expects the vast majority of his squad to be back next season, with plenty of resumes coming in from players interested in filling any roster holes.

The Arrows (4-1-0) were second in the league when the season was called.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 9, 2020.

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