New Name, New Coaches, New Home – Catching Up With The Rugby New York Ironworkers

December 22, 2022

11:46 PM

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Written By Joe Harvey I Photos By Davey Wilson and Getty

As the 2023 Major League Rugby season draws ever closer this December, the league’s incumbent champions have made three significant announcements. 

This includes the announcement of their rebrand, a new home stadium, and their coaching group for the new season.

To talk about each of these developments, the Rugby New York Ironworkers’ Chief Engagement Officer, Ric Salizzo, spoke to Major League Rugby about the side as they look to defend their first-ever title.

Photo By Davey Wilson

RUGBY NEW YORK IRONWORKERS

Eleven months ago, the entire Rugby New York playing squad and front office walked into the Ironworkers Local 40 and 361 training center. There, the team learned more about how the city became the place they call home.

Along with learning more about the Ironworkers and even taking part in a series of training exercises, the entire squad felt ‘inspired.’ In some ways, the Ironworkers tag was already applied to the group, who warmed up in Ironworkers t-shirts gifted to them ahead of the MLR Final in Harrison, New Jersey.

Photo By Davey Wilson

“From day one, we have taken inspiration from the Ironworkers, and we were lucky enough last season to go to the Ironworkers training center here in New York,” Ric Salizzo said.

“We were told stories about what they meant to New York, what they have done, and stuff like that. It was really inspirational for us. 

“We’ve had a close connection to those guys, and it was just a natural evolution as opposed to sitting down and going, ‘what is a good name for a rugby team?’.

“It is real. We have a really strong connection with those guys, and we take a lot of inspiration from what they have done. This is who we are. These are the people that inspire us. We are proud to add their name to ours.”

NEW FACES AT THE TOP

After the departure of Marty Veale as head coach during the offseason, New York announced their new coaching group heading into 2023.

There were familiar faces in the form of Steve Lewis, coaching coordinator, and Ollie Richardson, Head of High Performance, while Andy Ellis  remains with the team as a technical advisor following his retirement after leading the side to a Shield.

Photo By Davey Wilson

“I don’t like saying nice things about him [Andy Ellis], because he might read them,” Salizzo laughed. “He’s a pretty special person in our environment, and you could see that by the way players went to him at the end of the final.

“I thought it was pretty cool that he finished his career by being player of the day and winning another championship. He adds so much to our culture.

“We wanted to make sure that we had some continuity. What’s exciting is that we have got some fresh ideas as well as some continuity.”

Along with those that were along for the ride in 2022, there is a new coach and forwards coach that will be leading the side. 

James Semple comes with prior experience in MLR after having represented the Utah Warriors in 2019, but since finishing up playing has excelled in coaching.

To date, the New Zealander’s coaching career has seen him nominated the NZ Coach of the Year on two occasions, be the head coach of the Waikato Women’s team, and an assistant coach with the Auckland Blues.

In addition to the arrival of Semple, their new forwards coach is capped All Black, Ben Afeaki. Having had his career cut short by concussion, the 34-year-old has amassed a coaching resume with North Harbour, the Blues in Super Rugby, and Samoa at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

“It’s important to have some continuity because things were good last year,” Salizzo said. “With Ben and James joining us, it is exciting.

“Ben has worked with a number of the players before, the guys that have played on the Blues or at North Harbour, and James has got some experience.”

The new coaching group, who arrive in New York ahead of the New Year, will have plenty of returning faces from last season’s championship-winning side.

Photo By Davey Wilson

Reining forward of the year, Brendan O’Connor is among the headline names returning, as is the electric Ed Fidow, Chance Wenglewski, Benja Bonasso, Nate Brakeley, Jason Emery, and Andrew Coe.

Those returning will be joined by the likes of Seattle Seawolves stalwart Brad Tucker, former Blues prop Tevita Langi, Chiefs lock Hamish Dalzell, and Paraguayan front-row Enrique Quinteros.

A PLACE TO CALL HOME

“Finding a home stadium in New York has probably been one of the most challenging things I have ever experienced in the world of rugby, and I have been working in rugby a long time,” Salizzo said.

Having played the 2022 MLR season in Hoboken, New Jersey, at the start of December, the Ironworkers unveiled that their title defense would be staged at Mount Vernon Memorial Stadium in 2023.

A 25-minute train ride from Grand Central Station in Manhattan, the stadium is an exciting development for the side. Additionally, the team gaining the use of the recently completed facility is a massive cause for celebration.

“It has been a really interesting challenge and one I really appreciate the fans’ patience in,” Salizzo said. “We have been talking to them for several months, and we are excited that we finally got things sorted so we could announce it. 

“It was a massive day for this club. We have a home. It is not just somewhere to play; it is a home. From the moment I arrived, it is the question I get asked most; where are you going to play?

“Half the time, I didn’t know. When I arrived, we were at Coney Island, and then Covid hit, and the Mets took over that facility for one of their teams, which meant that we had to find somewhere else.

“We ended up at a high school ground in Jersey City until we could find somewhere else, and then we went to St Johns in Queens, which was great. 

“Just as we were getting ready for the 2022 season, we were told that wasn’t available for us anymore, and we had to find a ground in literally four weeks.

“We found one in Hoboken, which was amazing. The people were amazing. Now at Mount Vernon, we are planning to be there for a couple of years at least.”

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