Professional rugby in New York City? Aussie Harry Bennett is loving it

The opportunities to play rugby around the world are these days greater than ever.

The path to Europe and the United Kingdom has long been open, while Japan has over the last decade in particular, become a viable destination for players both starting out or winding down their professional careers. The financial rewards have also skyrocketed, leading to the establishment of player "sabbaticals", the like of which All Blacks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock are currently enjoying.

And those opportunities have now extended to the United States where the country's Major League Rugby will this weekend begin its third season, a significant achievement in itself given rugby's fractured relationship with the tough American market.

How does playing in San Diego sound? What about The Big Easy down in New Orleans? Is Colorado and rugby in the Rockies, more your scene?

If those destinations don't quite cut it for you, then perhaps the opportunity to play professional rugby in New York City appeals? For 29-year-old Australian Harry Bennett, that once unlikely dream is now very much a reality, even if it might not be exactly how a 20-something starry-eyed rugby player might imagine it.

"Living in New York City has its ups and downs; it's one of those cities that can make you or break you, you've got to be constantly hustling the entire time," Bennett tells ESPN. "So to say that we're living the glamorous lifestyle, it's far from it. But at the same time, I wouldn't replace it for anything else. I love living here; I love the lifestyle and the tempo that you have to keep up with in New York."

Major League Rugby begins its next phase of development this weekend when three new teams are added, taking the competition to a conference-style - hold your shudders Super Rugby fans - 12-team competition that runs through until the end of May.

The 12 franchises are dominated largely by Americans, and rightfully so, but there are opportunities for foreign-born players to either supplement their other professional seasons or commit longer term, just as Bennett has done.

The Scone-raised, former Sydneysider's story is more one of a right-place, right-time situation, but also a valuable learning for players who nowadays might be missing out on professional contracts in either Australia or New Zealand.

"Straight out of school I was with the Waratahs academy system for a couple of years but I just had a string of injuries," Bennett explains. "I tried to have a crack at Super Rugby and Aussie Sevens, playing a bit of first grade Shute Shield with Eastern Suburbs, and I ended up having three back-to-back shoulder surgeries that spat me out of professional rugby back home pretty quickly.

"And then in 2014 when I was 24, there was basically a six-month opportunity [in America] to go and clear my head, do a bit of travelling, play some footy while I was there and the come home and have another solid crack at it [professional rugby back home]. But as soon as I got to LA, I got caught up in the lifestyle there and the opportunities kept coming, I loved it. So I made plans pretty quickly to try and set myself up here as fast as possible.

"[A few years later] I made the move to New York off the back of having a couple of conversations with the U.S. national coach at the time; he put in my head at the time that if I did my three years' residency in the U.S. [I could] be in contention for U.S. selection. So he put me in contact with New York Athletic Club, they're one of the long-standing celebrated amateur clubs in the U.S, a pretty prestigious background and their network outside of rugby as well was pretty awesome, so I got hooked up with them.

"And then literally straight off the back of that, Major League Rugby started to come to fruition and I've been involved in Rugby United New York for three seasons."

Bennett's club has to deal with the kind of issues you might imagine a fledgling team in New York would endure.

"New York City's got its own challenges in terms of its facilities, it's difficult to find training facilities or create training facilities within New York City, so you've kind of got to go to the suburbs or the outskirts of it," he says.

"Being a new franchise, they've piggy-backed off one of the minor league baseball teams that have their own facilities for game day; so the stadium that we play at is MCU Park out at Coney Island, that's about a 45-minute/one-hour subway ride for commuters from Manhattan.

"But the good thing about American rugby culture and sports culture in general is they just get behind it; they do it properly, they're fanatical. And I think that's one of the best things I've loved about being over here is that regardless of the understanding of the sport, that they're just willing to get behind the team and support them because of their background in other sports; the tail-gating, that fanatical passion, that just translates. So game day's a lot of fun."

Bennett says some of the established rugby supporters in the States have reserved judgement to date, but that Major League Rugby, and his Rugby United New York club, are bringing new fans to the game.

The competition has also attracted further broadcast interest with ESPN and Fox Sports joining CBS as television partners for season three, helping secure a rise in the competition's salary cap in the process. The League also has a new commissioner in former Dallas Mavericks executive George Killebrew, who seems intent on ensuring Major League Rugby is around for the long haul.

As for the actual rugby, Bennett says what it lacks in speed and skill it certainly makes up for in physicality.

"Everything in America is bigger, stronger, faster," he tells ESPN. "The conditioning of the guys over here is second to none, which means the standard of play is definitely a lot slower because the skill-set is not there; what they lack there they compensate with the physicality side of it.

"I haven't played [Sydney's] Shute Shield now for five years ... but it's not as fast, I would compare it more to National League 1 in the U.K. [third tier of professional rugby] in terms that it is more physical, more set-piece oriented and just not that skill level 1-15 across the park and certainly not the [player] depth."

French cult hero Mathieu Bastareaud will be running off Bennett's shoulder in Rugby United New York's backline this season while former Wallabies winger Drew Mitchell has also reportedly joined the club, though is yet to decide whether that will be in a playing or off-field capacity.

Ma'a Nonu, meanwhile, has joined San Diego Legion, ensuring an explosive midfield battle against Bastareaud later this year.

And Bennett says it's usually around now - season kick-off - when his socials light up as players inquire about the League and exactly what opportunities might be on offer.

"We all grew up watching all those American movies and wanted a piece of it ourselves," he says. "And I think the lifestyle is probably the key driving force as to why guys want to come and play over here. So it's slowly starting to happen, there's a few teams who've got a few ex-pro or semi-pro guys or first-grade Shute Shield guys are over here playing now.

Bennett is one of handful of New York players who supplement their playing contracts with work outside the club - he is the Director of Rugby at Fordham Prep, a private school in the Bronx - but the majority of his teammates are fulltime professionals. The average salary is around $U.S.15,000.

This year's season opener, against newcomers New England Freejacks -- who Bennett hopes Rugby United can establish a rivalry similar to that which other New York franchises share with Boston - will take place in Las Vegas as Major League Rugby attempts to start its third season with a real bang.

The competition is however still in its infancy and will no doubt experience growing pains as a result, but just like life in New York City, the eventual outcome may very well be worth the grind.

"This league has 12 different teams from all over the country, so every time that you're travelling into a new city you're experiencing a totally different culture," he tells ESPN. "I've been here five years and have seen 32 states and most of them have been through rugby. It's been awesome.

"It's that same old stereotype about America: there's so much opportunity, particularly in the rugby landscape, it's growing. So I would recommend it to whoever is willing to put in the yards; there's massive opportunity here."