2 teams set to play in Atlanta in coming Major League Rugby season

Rugby ATL will begin its second season in Major League Rugby on Saturday in Marietta. Here Marno Redelinghuys dives to score in Rugby ATL's first-game, in February 2020. (John Amis/For the AJC)

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Rugby ATL will begin its second season in Major League Rugby on Saturday in Marietta. Here Marno Redelinghuys dives to score in Rugby ATL's first-game, in February 2020. (John Amis/For the AJC)

Marietta will host two teams as the Major League Rugby season begins Saturday. Rugby ATL, the city’s permanent inhabitant, started play last March. The Toronto Arrows will join it in 2021 at Lupo Family Field, home of Life University.

The two teams will test their relationship early on. Rugby ATL and the Arrows are scheduled to face off in Saturday’s season opener at 7 p.m.

Border restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated the possibility of the Arrows playing in Canada. The league has three teams (New England, New York and Washington D.C.) closer to Toronto, but team decision makers chose Georgia because of Rugby ATL’s willingness to share medical staff and house players, league commissioner George Killebrew said Tuesday.

“It was either you relocate or sit out,” Killebrew said. “Leaving your home country is a big deal. … I want to thank Rugby ATL for rolling out the red carpet.”

Toronto’s relocation to the Atlanta area underscored the pandemic’s effect on MLR, which was sanctioned by USA Rugby and founded in 2017. Another team, the San Diego Legion, will temporarily play in Las Vegas “due to the impact of COVID-19 in Southern California.” The Dallas Jackals, originally primed to begin its inaugural season in 2021, postponed its start until next year.

COVID-19 disrupted the league five weeks into its 2020 season. Rugby ATL had a 1-4 record after winning its first-ever game. Almost a year later, the team returned to the pitch to beat the Utah Warriors 15-13 in an exhibition game. Like the 11 other MLR teams, Rugby ATL is ready to get started.

“I think (MLR players are) even more ready than in previous years,” Killebrew said. “The pent-up demand for rugby is kind of at its peak. And I think everybody is fired up for this Saturday.”

MLR is trying to expand its media footprint. Games have been televised on Fox Sports 2 in the past. This season, fans can watch four matches on the more popular Fox Sports 1, Killebrew said Tuesday on a virtual news conference. The league’s championship will be broadcast on CBS. An app and a streaming service called The Rugby Network also recently launched.

The sport boasts about 900,000 fans in the Atlanta area, according to a study conducted by Escalent.