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MLR came to the Big Apple and it seemed to fit right in: rough, raucous and at the end, to home fans, a genuine nailbiting thrill

MCU Park in Coney Island, set up for rugby and a storm off the Atlantic.
 MCU Park in Coney Island, set up for rugby and a storm off the Atlantic. Photograph: Dallen Stanford/@TheRugbyCorner

Out on the turf at MCU Park, by the mock dirt of the baseball diamond and the covered pitcher’s mound, James Kennedy puffed out his cheeks and smiled. Then he offered a very Major League Rugby take on the home debut of his New York rugby union team.

“I physically feel,” he said, “like I played the fucking game.”

The owner laughed, of course, as did his players around him as they mixed with friends, family and fans. Rugby United New York (RUNY) had beaten the Toronto Arrows 24-21 with what one local writer, perhaps looking at the football-formatted scoreboard, called a “game-winning drive with no time left”. In other words, a short-range try with 80 minutes up, the Americans pounding the line, the Canadians tackling like demons.

John Quill scored it, an Irish-born flanker writing his name in New York history after another Irishman turned US Eagle, hooker Dylan Fawsitt, scored the first and second tries on home soil. Or if not soil, turf or damn-near sand: the Coney Island beach was also the backdrop to the American lock Nate Brakeley’s try and two conversions from the fly-half, local boy Chris Mattina.

Behind the beach, the dark Atlantic. Above it, storm clouds and a scissoring howl of wind. Somehow, promised rain held off. But New York weather never fails to infuriate. That wind, in Toronto’s favour in the first 40, disappeared completely at halftime.

“Amazing,” Kennedy said. “But you heard the crowd, they got into it.”

They did when New York attacked, although they were quieted for long stretches by Toronto’s snappish short drives and sharp backs moves, former Manawatu fly-half Sam Malcolm a chivvying dynamo, kicking 10 points around tries by the scrum-half Andrew Ferguson and centre Guiseppe du Toit. And, as it happens, any thoughts this writer had of complaining about his chilled fingers were stilled by a halftime chat with Arrows analyst Rodin Lozada. A couple of rounds ago, in the snows of Glendale, Colorado, it was so cold Malcolm left the field “incoherent” and one of the centres fainted in the post-game shower.

This is frontier rugby in every sense, rough and ready and reliably entertaining. RUNY won their first game in the sun of San Diego but their first in their own city was as raw and honest as that horrible wind off the ocean.

RUNY’s slogan is “Unite the Empire”, as in the Empire State. Their fans wore shirts and splash jackets bearing the names of hometown clubs. Xavier, Pelham, Monmouth, Adirondack. The whole thing is so new they were trying out their chants. “RUNY, RUNY” sounded a bit like something from a DC United game, or maybe the cry of a lone British paparazzo outside a Washington courthouse. “Let’s go RUNY” was probably a bit too Yankees for the home of the Brooklyn Cyclones, named for the roller coaster, affiliated to the storied New York Mets.

But RUNY wear the orange and blue of the Mets and the Knicks and “it did feel very New York”, as Kennedy said of the buzz as the game built to its finish. Catcalls and boos greeted Canadian counters and one promising but quickly doused fight. In a break in play, when the girls from the Brooklyn School of Irish Dance missed their cue, a chap in a suit and a RUNY scarf, perhaps a few Coney Island Mermaids to the wind, saw his chance. Up on a dugout roof he Riverdanced his heart out, to delighted cheers and whistles.

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“You put this crowd in here on a Sunday during the day,” Kennedy said, “you double it. I was in the stands to watch. The atmosphere, the buzz, it was great. I know because I’m a fan, you know? I’ll be telling my mates. This is brilliant. So I couldn’t ask for more. About 3,000 fans? I’ll take that on a Friday night.

The next test of his product, which he has boosted in the New York Times, will come next Sunday, in the afternoon against the Raptors from Colorado. They will fly in. The home fans may not have it so easy.

Playing in Coney Island presents a challenge common to rugby in America: getting to the game to watch it. As the great USA No8-turned pundit Dan Lyle put it, looking on, in US sports you need the two Es: entertainment and ease. RUNY has the first, the second is on the to-do list. Coney Island is spectacular and historic, iconic New York to the tip of its wingtip shoes. It’s also absolutely miles from everywhere.

Think of a better world in which Seinfeld was the 90s sitcom that did the one with all the rugby, not Friends. Kramer would’ve been with Bob Sacamano, selling knock-off Russian hats on the boardwalk. But Jerry, George and Elaine would’ve spent a whole episode on the D, crawling through the Brooklyn dusk, moaning about the subway and how they were going to miss the anthem and a hotdog and kickoff, if not all of this weird game they didn’t know much about only Whatley re-gifted them tickets. After a fashion, that was what the Guardian did.

But Jerry, George and Elaine would also have seen what the Guardian saw from the train. Two kids bouncing Space Hoppers on a tiny apartment balcony. A thousand neighbourhood bodegas. The first glimpse of the Cyclone and the Parachute Jump, lit by the setting sun.

As a trip to a game, that is unique. That is probably just as well. Welcome, rugby, to your new and strangely appropriate home. Beautiful and maddening, baffling and brutal. New York.