Dallas native Kelly “Spike” Kolberg grew up embedded in the robust local rugby scene.
One of the 36-year-old’s first memories as a child is watching his dad play for Dallas RFC, one of 25 amateur clubs in Dallas-Fort Worth. Kolberg then followed in his father’s footsteps, playing for the club as well as representing the state and country at competitions across the world.
But for him and other players in the area, transitioning from amateur to professional was not easy. For over a decade, there had been no local pathway for taking that next step.
Enter the Dallas Jackals.
The Jackals are an expansion team in Major League Rugby, a 5-year-old rugby outfit with 12 teams in the United States and one in Canada. Dallas started its season two weeks ago and will play its home opener at Choctaw Stadium in Arlington against the Houston SaberCats on Saturday.
“It was a dream that I didn’t even know was a dream,” Kolberg said. “There’s not a team out there, other than representing the country, that I would rather play for than Dallas.”
The 18-week regular season runs into June. The top three teams in the Eastern and Western conferences make the playoffs with the championship game set for June 26. The Jackals play in the Western Conference with teams in Austin, Houston, San Diego, Seattle, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, home of the defending champion LA Giltinis.
The Jackals were first announced in June 2020 with plans to begin play in the 2021 season. However, the team and league agreed to push back its inaugural season to 2022 because of the pandemic, the club announced in January 2021.
Before the pandemic, Major League Rugby teams averaged 2,133 fans per game in 2019. Most teams play in stadiums with capacities between 3,000 and 6,000. Dallas and LA, which plays at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, are the only two teams in the league to play at a stadium with a capacity above 10,000.
Each team has a salary cap of $500,000 to split up among its roster — the Jackals currently have more than 40 players on their main roster and development squad. However, the organization pays for housing and utilities. Some players hold second jobs. Kolberg, for example, works as a self-employed carpenter.
Like Major League Soccer, the main crux of the teams are young, domestic athletes and older international players. The Jackals players come from 11 different countries, including and handful from traditional rugby powers England, Ireland, South Africa and Australia.
For the players arriving from overseas, the potential to play and live in the United States is very enticing. The rest of the world sees the United States as a “sleeping giant” in rugby, said team captain Chris Pennell of England, and the opportunity to help grow the game in the country is rewarding.
“In order to really capture the imagination of the public over here, you need to have a strong domestic league,” Pennell said.
The team is led by general manager Elaine Vassie, the first woman to serve in a management role in Major League Rugby and the first woman to coach on a team in an English national league.
Vassie installed two main goals for the team, she told D Magazine† One is to develop domestic talent, the other is to play an entertaining brand of rugby. The players and front office staff believe in her vision.
“If we’re playing that top brand of rugby and we’re developing all these young, talented US players, I think that would lead to more success in the long run of winning titles,” said assistant coach Aaron Jarvis, who made 18 appearances for the Welsh National Team during his career.
Those two goals merge with the way Dallas is looking to play on the field. Instead of using a complex playbook and instituting a rigid system, the Jackals are focused on empowering players to make their own decisions on the pitch. Traditionally, rugby teams play based on a well-defined system acutely installed by a coach.
That mind-set is appealing to both younger players and veterans. Eric Naposki, the No. 1 pick in the 2021 college draft out of UCLA, said that freedom allows players to express themselves on the field.
“We get to create our own brand of rugby,” Naposki said.
The path toward developing those goals has not come without bumps and bruises. Visa processing delays caused the team and head coach Michael Hodge of Australia to mutually part ways two weeks before the season, the club announced last month. The Jackals have not hired a replacement and have been operating with a coaching tribunal on game days with Vassie on the sideline and Jarvis and others in the press box.
In its first game two weeks ago, Dallas got smoked by the Austin Gilgronis, 43-7. It was a harsh result, but it doesn’t look as bad as it did since the Gilgronis beat Old Glory DC in their second game by 45 points.
Dallas performed much better this past weekend, holding a second-half lead over the San Diego Legion before falling 37-29. Pennell said the team’s growth since starting training camp about two months ago has been great and he’s excited to continue on that upward trajectory.
“We would be crazy to come in and expect everything to run like clockwork from day one,” Pennell said. “To think where we were from day one to where we are now, we’re starting to really resemble a truly quality professional outfit.”
IF YOU GO:
Fans can purchase single-game and season tickets online at dallasjackals.com/tickets/. Walk-up tickets can also be purchased at the Choctaw Stadium box office on game days. As of Tuesday afternoon, parking passes can only be purchased in person at the lots. Tickets and parking passes purchased at the stadium must be made with a credit or debit card.
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