Glendale Coaches Corner

Glendale Merlins Rugby

Glendale Merlins Selects Camp Provides Pathway for Crossover Athletes

by | Sep 20, 2018 | Coaches Corner

As told by Glendale’s Director of Rugby Mark Bullock

Coaches Blog, Glendale Rugby Date 9.08.18, the location – Glendale Rugby’s third floor offices

It all started months ago, when Mayor Mike Dunafon and I first had a meeting about an intensive rugby camp for crossover athletes. The concept developed as the first season of Major League Rugby concluded and we saw the success and growth of the League building more and more interest from outside athletes and owners. In fact, with the talk of adding two more teams in 2019, and four more teams by 2020, many Major League Rugby coaches and administrators were starting to wonder – where are we going to find enough top-level rugby athletes to fill all of these teams?

Merlins Crossover Camp

Photo by Sara Wright

As we see it, here in Glendale, there are three avenues for developing our player pool:

1. Start young. Develop your youth rugby programs and create a clear pathway to the top-level of play. This allows the skill development and rugby intelligence to grow and mature along with the player, and there is no substitute for time on the pitch. In Glendale, this has also evolved over the years and has recently culminated with our introduction of the Glendale Raptors Rugby Academy, in which we invite players between 18-23 to train and play with our professional team. Again, we realize we are one of the most established teams in the MLR and have already been working on fine-tuning this pathway for over a decade. That kind of time and development is not a luxury that many other teams have been afforded.

2. Recruit current stand-out rugby players from various collegiate programs and club levels in the U.S. and abroad. This is what a majority of the current MLR teams have done thus far and for the most part, it’s worked. However, when you look at needing approximately 50 professional rugby athletes per team due to injuries, various USA National Team camps, etc., this will continue to get tougher as the League expands. Even with the expansion into Canada, and an increase in the amount of foreign players you can have on your team, many are worried we will find the talent pool quickly depleted, or the level of play suffering, in two years time.

Of course, we must also note that our U.S. high school and collegiate rugby programs and players are continuing to step up their game, allowing us a much broader base to choose from as they look at professional rugby as an option after graduation. This is evidenced by the recent success of the U.S. Collegiate All-Americans camp, which USA Rugby hosted right here in Glendale. The fact remains, however, that if you are at the top of your game, in rugby, many of our athletes will be drawn overseas where they will find more money and esteem to play in the more established international leagues. That, unfortunately, may take decades to change, but that’s for a whole other blog.

3. Tap into the large U.S. non-rugby athlete pool. There’s no doubt the U.S. has among the most talented athletes in the world. That’s why the rugby media has spent a large part of the past decade calling us a ‘sleeping giant.’ In fact, up until just recently, most of the past USA rugby player pool were cross-over athletes at some point. I know I was. Luke Gross, our WPL and DI Merlins Coach, played basketball in college and says he didn’t even start playing his best rugby until he turned 30. He was also the oldest player to make the Rugby World Cup roster in 2007. Even our Mayor, Mike Dunafon, openly admits that he found rugby by accident in his 20s after being cut from an NFL training camp. So this is not such a new idea. However, for some reason, we hadn’t ever set out to hold a camp of this magnitude….until now.

This, of course, brings me back to the present and our first-ever crossover camp. The 11 crossover athletes attending this camp are all coming from professional athletic or inter-collegiate competition. They are highly skilled, very professional, and very athletic. We have a former starting offensive lineman at Louisiana State University, an NLF free agent punter/kicker, multiple professional Indoor American football players, an Olympic-level bobsledder, and of course several D1 and D2 NCAA Track and Field athletes.

We started with some administration stuff – tours, introductions, concussion testing, training plan reviews and reiterating the week’s schedule. We also went through a very basic overview of our team pattern. Throughout the next five days, I plan on teaching them the fundamental rugby skills that will allow them not only to play at the Aspen Ruggerfest, but, ideally, beyond. We will go over some basic rules, ball skills, contact and tackling skills, set pieces, attack patterns and defense options, with the hope that they don’t get too overwhelmed, but that they can put it together and learn decision making under pressure.

The game of rugby is a very complex game, made of a lot of basic skills. At the Glendale Rugby Club, we practice perfecting those skills day in and day out at all levels. It’s not rocket science, but to athletes that may have never been presented with these things, it can be a bit daunting. The nice thing is – we’ve been able to choose athletes whom we think are up for the challenge. We are looking for elite athletes that are coachable. What we want is someone with good character, discipline, and a willingness to put in the work. Most importantly they have to have an open mindset to change sports and be able to make a mistake and learn from it. When they make a mistake they must move on and not dwell on the error. I like to use the analogy of ‘flush it down the toilet.’ Time will only tell how they progress both as players and as a team and it should be very interesting to watch.

Merlins Selects at Ruggerfest

Photo by Sara Wright

Coaches Blog, Glendale Rugby Date 9.13.18, the location – Glendale’s Infinity Park Stadium

Well, this is the last practice before we head up to Aspen Ruggerfest. I am not only thrilled with how these guys have picked up the game, but how they have come together as a team. We are so excited to get the players out on the pitch in Aspen and show them what a real rugby game feels like. This weeklong camp has, of course, highlighted the inclusive ethos of rugby and the camaraderie developed between veterans and newcomers alike, but there’s nothing quite like Aspen’s Ruggerfest to showcase the best of what rugby has to offer, both on the social side, but also in the level of competition.

We have also brought in several of our current Raptors Under-23 Academy players, plus a couple of veteran rugby players from our D1 side to add to our team. Furthermore, this camp was also serving as an opportunity for a couple of new recruits looking to make an impression on our Glendale coaches so they may also make it as a professional player on our Raptors side.

All in all, this camp has already exceeded my expectations and I can’t wait to see how they perform in Aspen. We always hope to be setting the standard for American rugby and we would like to use this camp as a lightning rod for the talented athletes that will fill the sport’s ranks for years to come.

Merlins Selects at Ruggerfest

Photo by Sara Wright

Coaches Blog, Glendale Rugby Date 9.16.18, the location – Wagner Park, Aspen, CO

Today marks our final day in Aspen and we couldn’t have asked for a better weekend of rugby. We played three matches yesterday, starting off against the men from the Boulder Rugby Club at noon. We started strong against them, putting up a 12-5 lead at halftime, but the inexperience started to show through in the second half and the Boulder side put up three converted tries in 20 minutes, finishing with a 26-19 win over our Merlin Selects team.

I have found that when you are new to rugby you tend to play with physicality, but not in the most productive manner, and that can take a toll on the ability to continue running at the same pace as the game wears on. In addition, we are playing at 8,000 feet and several of our bigger former football players were exhausted by the end of that first match. As stated at the end of the match, “Welcome to rugby. No matter how fit you are you are never fit enough for the first match.” With this being 70% of the team’s first match ever, we knew we would have our share of mistakes, but would also have a high learning curve heading into the later matches.

In the second match of the tournament, we played the Misfits Dark & Stormy Team, arguably the strongest team in Aspen and the past Ruggerfest Champions for two years running. This would be a challenge as we knew this side had stocked their team with the top international, national and professional rugby players, plus this match kicked off immediately after our first match. The final score of 42-31 was one of the best results of the day against this Misfits All-Star team and I couldn’t have been prouder.

The guys got a little rest after that match and with 0-2 record in pool play, they went into Plate Bracket seeded 7th and had a chance to redeem themselves against the Boulder RFC. The Merlin’s didn’t disappoint, as they incorporated all they had learned and bested the Boulder side 21-10, earning a shot to play for the Plate today.

In the Plate Championships, we got to see it all come together. The guys blew the competition out of the water, beating the Heart of America, 63-7. The players applied the experiences of Saturday’s three matches to this match and performed by running our pattern and attack and defensive structures as if they had been playing rugby longer than their week of camp and competition. It was an enlightening experience to observe how the players continued to learn, improve and add their own spin to the game.

For a lot of the players, this is just the first step in what we hope will become a life-long love of the sport. Many are headed back home after Aspen, but there are several who have already been offered spots on our Academy or offered opportunities to come train in Glendale and build their rugby IQ. In fact, one player, Trevion Clark, a recent addition to our Academy, has been offered the opportunity to attend and train with the USA Sevens team in Chula Vista, Calif., next week. Furthermore, as we had hoped, there are one or two rugby players whom have proven themselves ready to step up to the professional level – and I can’t wait to see them in the Raptors jerseys come 2019!