A Hawaii team which trumpeted backing from a group of ex-All Blacks including Jerome Kaino and Joe Rokocoko will not join Major League Rugby in 2021 as planned, the US professional competition said on Friday.
In a statement, MLR said “the exclusive negotiating agreement (ENA) executed with Kanaloa Hawaii Rugby Ltd has expired. MLR and Kanaloa Hawaii have not reached any agreement by which this team may join MLR for the 2021 season.
“MLR commissioner George Killebrew has encouraged this potential ownership group to continue with its development plans so that it may be in a position to join MLR for a future MLR season.”
Multiple sources in the US game said Kanaloa did not meet a deadline for a payment to MLR, instead submitting a note of protest about the admissions process.
Kanaloa did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But in a Facebook post presented as an extract from an “email to the members of MLR dated 3 September”, chief executive Tracy Atiga cast doubt on “the financial stability and long-term viability and sustainability of the MLR competition” in the era of Covid-19.
Kanaloa, she said, had “formally actioned a request to … undergo a full investigation into the financial viability of the MLR and also to review what was offered to Kanaloa Hawaii during our ENA negotiations.
“The result of which is that the MLR has offered Kanaloa Hawaii an opportunity to terminate our ENA with provisions to reinstigate [sic] a membership opportunity from 2022. We are considering our options in this regard also.”
MLR has completed two seasons, in 2018 and 2019, but the 2020 schedule was called off after five games thanks to Covid-19. Since then a founder club, the Glendale Raptors, have withdrawn but the Dallas Jackals have been added. A Los Angeles team, the unusually named LA Giltinis, are also due in for 2021.
The former England captain Chris Robshaw has become one of a number of experienced internationals to sign to play in the league, with the San Diego Legion.
“Given the uncertainty and continued complexities of Covid both here in NZ, in Hawaii and across the US,” the Kanaloa Facebook post continued, “We undertook a due diligence review and moreover a thorough investigation into the financial stability and long-term viability and sustainability of the MLR competition. The result of which presented a range of high-level concerns for our organisation.
“The MLR has not been able to provide the type of assurances (Covid Plan, proposed match schedule, other) that would enable the trust and confidence required to continue with our membership goals.”
The post cited a “lack of insight and planning around a Covid strategy” but said “the situation was compounded by a list of other more sensitive issues around governance, policy and the financial performance of the organisation as a whole”.
Atiga said Kanaloa would reconsider its options “once the MLR is in a position where they can provide greater clarity and assurances for the health, safety and well being of our staff, players and of course a more feasible solution for our investors, partners and sponsors”.
She added that the organisation “look[ed] forward to providing an alternative option for our players, staff and volunteers for 2021.”
Kanaloa made a splash in July, when it announced its intention to join MLR with the backing of Rokocoko, Kaino, John Afoa and other former New Zealand internationals. It also said it aimed eventually to field a team in Super Rugby.
“The owners have pledged to lead through a Polynesian village ethos based on servant leadership principles that are guided by the organisation’s values of faith and family,” Atiga said then.
She also said: “The sky is the limit now. We’ve done the impossible. We went through a Covid period of four months and put together an application that was strong and that was approved by the MLR.”
However, things did not proceed smoothly, particularly after a Hawaii state senator said announcements about plans including a proposed playing venue were premature.
Atiga said then: “We agree with the senator, we may only get to launch something like this once, and it is important not only for us as a business entity, but more importantly for Hawaii this succeeds.”