New York Knights win AMNRL crown
In the land where everything is supersized, it seems rugby league is no exception.
A 100-point tryfest in the AMNRL Grand Final suggests attack figures larger than defence in the Stateside competition, as New York Knights won their second straight premiership with a comfortable 60-40 victory over Connecticut Wildcats in a repeat of last year's decider.
The first half was an even contest with the Knights taking a 16-6 lead before the Wildcats fought back to snatch a 24-22 half-time advantage, exposing New York's shaky right side defence.
But the Knights' superior fitness shone through as they took control of the game after the interval, scoring seven tries to one in a half-hour blitz to lead 60-30, before the Wildcats grabbed two late consolations.
"When you win a Grand Final you're under pressure to back up and win it again, so I'm glad we managed it," admitted Knights captain Gareth Baxendale, an Englishman who was one of the New York club's founding members in 2002. "When we started out with the Knights we'd struggle for a side some weeks, so to get to where we are now, 25 guys training hard every week to a really high standard, it's satisfying and really rewarding to be part of that and bring people along."
Wildcats' Australian player-coach Matt Walsh is a former Rabbitohs junior and has been with the Connecticut club for three years. In his first season the side won just two games, but fundraising and strong player recruitment transformed the club, resulting in back-to-back Grand Finals.
"We're a much improved team," he admits. "This year we've got a much better group of guys, and the AMNRL competition as a whole is a lot stronger than last year, so we're on the build. This is only the start of something big."
Apart from a handful of Australian and English imports, both New York and Connecticut's squads feature predominantly home-grown players. They have arrived in the sport via American Football, wrestling, rugby union and even swimming. "I always felt I was under-used as a swimmer, and I felt I could explode more as a rugby league player," admits Joseph Arquetta, now in his second premiership-winning season with the Knights. "It was a drastic change but I always liked the physicality."
"I'm definitely going to stick with the Knights and rugby league," agrees 2012 debutant and rugby union convert Justin Yu, nicknamed 'Fui Fui Yu Yu' by his teammates. "Just in the time I've played here I've dropped 15 pounds, I'm running better lines, and my line speed and fitness are better. It's amazing to be part of this team and this brotherhood."
The 2012 AMNRL competition has been boosted by the success of the USA Tomahawks on the international stage. Coached by Matthew Elliott, the Tomahawks qualified for the 2013 Rugby League World Cup by beating Jamaica and South Africa last October. Now, the chance to represent America in a World Cup is having a clear impact on the quality and intensity of the AMNRL, according to Knights President, AMNRL Manager and former Tomahawk Robert Balachandran.
"Everyone is really focused and strapped on, everyone wants to be one of those 20 guys that get to put on that USA jumper for the World Cup," Balachandran says. "So, it has been great with respect to getting people excited about rugby league in the US and it has raised the level of our competition."
The World Cup may be over a year away, but the Tomahawks mean business. This season they have already played internationals against Ireland in Philadelphia and Tonga in Hawaii - an area where rugby league will be launched by the AMNRL later this year with a six-team, six-week competition in Oahu.
The USA will play two further tests against Canada before their end-of-season clash with Melbourne Storm, scheduled for 20 October in Philadelphia. The AMNRL is hoping to sign off on the final details this week, and negotiate broadcast agreements that will see the match televised live in both the USA and Australia.
Many of the Knights' and Wildcats' Grand Finalists also play for the national side, and admit the Storm game could be their biggest challenge yet. "When I heard about it the first emotion was excitement followed by a little bit of 'oh...my...god'," says Knights second rower and four-time Tomahawk Michael Cartwright. "It's obviously a little intimidating to have international superstars come over here but you only play better when you play better teams, and there's nothing more inspirational in the lead-up to the World Cup."
"I keep up with the NRL pretty closely, and when I heard the Storm were coming over I thought it was a great plan," agrees Wildcats captain and Tomahawk veteran Curtis Cunz. "All I could think about was when I played for the USA against Samoa in 2007 when they had Nigel Vagana, Hutch Maiava and the Puletua brothers and I just thought 'woah, we're going to do it again'. It's going to be a rough one but it's going to be fun."
For AMNRL President and former St George halfback David Niu, the benefits for American rugby league are obvious. "It'll be a really good opportunity for us to market the game through one of the great rugby teams in the world, league or union, featuring some of the great rugby players in the world here in America," Niu explains. "It's very important for us to promote the game in different ways, from grassroots level in the AMNRL to the Storm coming in and helping our Tomahawks team prepare for the World Cup. It's massive."