For an American sports fan, following a rugby match can be disorienting. The constant action is a remedy against boredom, but the experience is like watching every other sport you might be familiar with happening all at once. “It has a combination of basketball, football, hockey, soccer, and even some elements of track,” said Rodd Newhouse, COO and part owner of the Dallas Jackals. The pace of play drew him to the game, and he’s hoping it will draw new fans to a professional league that most Texans have never heard of, Major League Rugby.

MLR was founded seven years ago in Dallas, though North Texas has only had a team since the Jackals debuted in 2022. The Houston SaberCats have played since the inaugural 2018 campaign. They currently sit atop the six teams in the Western Conference, with a 7–1–0 record, while the Jackals are hanging around in fourth, with a 4–4–0 record midway through the season. One of those losses was by just 3 points against Houston. The teams will meet again June 29 for the final game of the year at SaberCats Stadium, the only one in the league built just for rugby matches.

The Jackals play home games at Choctaw Stadium, in Arlington (where the Texas Rangers used to play baseball). That’s where I took in a match against NOLA Gold in March from the owner’s box after an invitation from the team. If you can’t make it to the stadium for a match, some games are televised on KTXA and others on Fox Sports 2, but all can be found on the Rugby Network, which is free to download, though I sadly can’t find it on my Amazon Fire stick.

Down on the field before the match, I watched as unusually large men with monstrous thighs stretched, jogged, and tossed rugby balls, which are similar to footballs but longer and rounded on the ends. The team’s mascot, Jax, whose favorite food is Texas barbecue, according to his online bio, was prowling among a couple thousand fans as they found their seats. The team doesn’t display attendance numbers, but Newhouse said the average home game brings in around two thousand fans (for context, a crowd of ten thousand attended last year’s league championship game between the New England Free Jacks and San Diego Legion). Bleachers were added along the old third base line to allow a closer view of the field for rugby matches and football games. The stadium is also home to the Arlington Renegades, of the United Football League. All those yard lines and hash marks on the field distract like a big dog marking its territory. Few lines are needed on a rugby field (called a pitch), which is a little longer and quite a bit wider than a football field.

It would cost $13,000 per match to remove the football markings. “It’s not an expense we can justify,” said Bill Yates, the director of Top Tier Sports, the investment group that owns the Jackals. He founded the business with Neil Leibman, who is also part owner and COO of the Texas Rangers baseball team. Yates was laser focused on the match, from the singing of the national anthem to the last whistle, marking the 35–22 loss. “I like [rugby] because there’s no place to hide,” he told me. Unlike sports in which athletes can take a play off without spectators noticing, a rugby player trying to steal a bit of rest would be exposed. At any moment, a pass could come to them, a fumble could roll in their direction, or their help could be required to tackle an opposing player coming at them.

Not knowing much about the sport, I wanted to go in cold and see what I could pick up live. Through two forty-minute halves and several references back to brochures the team provides to explain rugby basics to fans, I realized that the thousands of hours I’d spent watching football and soccer weren’t much help.

In hindsight, I wish I’d done more research beforehand, so here are some essentials. “The game is about possession and territory,” Newhouse explained in a later conversation. The goal for all fifteen players on each team is to move the ball toward the opponent’s try zone, which would be the end zone in football. There are no dedicated offensive or defensive players. The roles change based on possession, which changes suddenly and often. Any player can carry the ball, and every player is expected to tackle when defending. And while the point is to move the ball forward, all passes between players must be backwards or sideways, though kicks can advance the ball downfield.

A forward pass is a minor penalty, which stops the game and results in a scrum. That’s when a mass of bodies from one team pushes against a similar mass from the opposing squad to try to move the ball forward. A scrum moves slowly, but the pace quickens after a player releases the ball to a line of their teammates running down the field. If one of them reaches the try zone with the ball and touches it to the ground—a literal touchdown, called a try—then they get five points and a chance for a conversion, which is a kick worth two points. Those trips to the end zone followed by kicks for extra points will be familiar to any football fan.

Dewald Kotze, who plays the hooker position for the Jackals, leads the league in tries, with nine. He racked up five in a single match against the Seattle Seawolves. Tries like those are the most exciting plays in a match, but the big scorers are those who can kick well. Mack Mason of the Seawolves is the best kicker in the league, and he has more than double the points of Kotze. A great kicker comes in handy after a major penalty, when the other team has a chance to kick the ball through the uprights for three points.

Many of the names of positions are unique to rugby and tough for beginners to remember. I found it more helpful to pay attention to numbers. The starting fifteen players of every team wear numbers one through fifteen. The numbers correspond to the positions they play. One though eight are the forwards. They’re the bulk, like the offensive and defensive lines in football wrapped into one. The other seven players are fast and agile backs who sprint down the field.

Both Jackals captains, Jerónimo Gómez Vara and Sam Golla, are forwards. Gómez Vara is one of several Argentine players on the roster, which has members from eight countries. Sam Golla grew up in Denver, but he was born in Arlington. The Jackals drafted him first overall in 2022, and he was named the league’s rookie of the year last season. The City of Arlington honored him last October 24 with Sam Golla Day, and in mid-April, fans at a Jackals home game received Sam Golla bobblehead dolls, complete with his distinctive handlebar mustache.

I can’t tell you the salary of either player. Newhouse said he’d rather not share who the highest-paid player on the team is, and because MLR, unlike most major American pro sports leagues, has no players’ union, the salaries aren’t public knowledge. For a roster of 38 players, the salary cap for the Jackals is just over $600,000 this year. The maximum for a single player is $35,000, according to Yates. The franchise also provides furnished housing for the team, which helps international players who might find it difficult to secure a lease while in the country on a seasonal work permit. Regardless, it’s unlikely that they’re coming to MLR to get rich.

Players from the U.S. can work side jobs to supplement their salary or boost their income by earning a spot on the national team. Sam Golla is the only Jackals player currently on the U.S. roster. “He’s almost a third coach, and he’s only twenty-four,” Yates said of Golla, who has met the lofty expectations for a number one pick—but Dallas had to endure a year as the worst team in MLR to get the right to draft him.

The Jackals were winless in 2022, their miserable first season. They lost one match against Seattle 74–7. Yates said he studied other awful teams throughout history and used metrics like point differential to compare them across sports. “We were easily the worst team in the history of pro sports,” he said. To compound the Jackals’ on-field problems, nine players were injured when a balcony they were standing on collapsed during a night out in March 2022. They had to borrow players from other franchises just to field a team in subsequent weeks. “Where we’ve come both on and off the field is pretty remarkable,” Yates said.

It took 22 straight losses until the Jackals got a win, midway into their second season. The team’s stadium announcer, Laurence White, remembers that April Fools’ Day well because it was his first match as the voice of the Jackals. He had no experience when he got the job, but he thinks the British accent helped. “I like the sound of my voice, and I played rugby for twenty years,” he said. What more credentials did he need?

When I visited the Jackals in March, White sat down with me after the match to explain what I had just watched. He rattled off several rugby terms, one of which was “jackal,” which can occur after a tackle. When a player is tackled, he must release the ball (typically behind him) immediately. An opposing player can’t go behind him to pick up the ball but must go over the top of the tackled player. Of course, the tackled player’s teammates will be there to block the attempt, but if the opposing player is successful in picking up the ball, it’s called a jackal. And that’s why we have a team in Texas named after an animal that doesn’t exist in the wild in North America.

Texas would have three teams in the league if not for the implosion of the franchise in Austin. The defunct Austin Elite were formed in time for MLR’s opening, in 2017. The team briefly changed its name to the Herd before a purchase by Australian fitness impresario Adam Gilchrist in 2020. The new owner used the opportunity to create the second-worst team name in professional sports history: the Austin Gilgronis. (The worst was his other MLR team’s name, the LA Giltinis.) Gilchrist’s plan was to launch ready-to-drink cocktail lines with the same names, but both teams were kicked out of the league in 2022 after the owner refused an audit by the league. Gilchrist’s plan was to launch ready-to-drink cocktail lines with the same names, but both teams were kicked out of the league in 2022 after MLR officials learned that the owner, who was CEO of F45 Training gyms until mid-2022, had promised players franchise locations to circumvent the MLR salary cap. The teams couldn’t find a new owner, and that left Austin without a professional rugby team. The current Rugby FC Los Angeles team moved from Atlanta before the beginning of this season.

It wasn’t only important to project fairness in the newly formed MLR—rugby culture also emphasizes sportsmanship. Players address referees as “sir.” Expanding on a quotation credited to Winston Churchill, Yates told me that “soccer is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans, and rugby is a hooligan’s sport played by gentlemen.” While White and I spoke after the game, players from both teams emerged from their locker rooms and dined together. “It’s a time-honored tradition,” White said. “Once we get off the field, we’re eating together and drinking together, and there’s no hard feelings.”

Yates learned quickly from his coaches the meaning of the shared meal. “I didn’t realize how serious it was to the culture of rugby until I tried to cut budget,” he said. The coaches had requested adding a video coordinator to the staff, and Yates suggested they cut the team meal to make room. “Our coaches flipped their lid,” Yates said. The meal remained, and the coaches edit their own scouting videos. After the match in Seattle at which Dewald Kotze scored five times, Yates was stunned by what he saw at the postgame meal. “The captain of Seattle gave Dewy a bottle of whiskey and said what an honor it was to witness his five tries,” he recalled.

Newhouse is bullish—within reasonable expectations—about the future of Major League Rugby. He compares the sport’s popularity in the U.S. to that of professional soccer in the seventies and eighties. It was a sport with fans across the world except here in the States. Such is the state of MLR, but that could all change dramatically over the next seven years. In 2022, the U.S. was named the host of the 2031 men’s Rugby World Cup and the 2033 women’s Rugby World Cup. “The players that will be in that game are ten, eleven, and twelve,” said Newhouse. And developing those young players will now be a bigger priority than ever for a national team that wants to put on a good showing as part of the host country. That bodes well for both the popularity of the game and the support MLR will have to develop the next generation of American rugby stars.