Perched to Play: The Glendale Merlins Welcome New Competition at the Division I Level
The coming year will be one of change and evolution for Glendale’s divisional and developmental rugby programs. As the men’s elite team transitions into its role in the forthcoming professional league, Major League Rugby, the remaining Glendale teams will compete under the new Merlins moniker. The changes for the men’s Division I Team won’t end there, however, as for the first time in the team’s ten-year history they will compete in the Texas-based Red River Conference.
Photo by Seth McConnell
For the last several years Glendale has played in the Pacific Rugby Premiership, but changes made by that league’s governing body have forced the Merlins to look for high-level play elsewhere. The decision to move to the Red River Conference is being made in an effort to meet the challenges of finding meaningful rugby competition in the Mountain West, as well as to continue to refine and improve Glendale’s rugby pathway by competing at the highest level of Division I play. The Red River Conference offers participating teams an exceptional level of competition at the D1 level, in addition to a well-established league structure and a significant fan base. In 2018 the conference will feature teams that call Texas, Arkansas, and Colorado home. In addition to regular season matches against teams from Austin, Dallas, and Little Rock, the Merlins will have two non-league games: one facing St. Mary’s College of Moraga, California, and a second against the Chicago Griffins.
New D1 head coach Luke Gross says the team is prepared and ready to face new opponents: “We love rugby and we’ll play wherever we can. The boys are excited.” Gross is a 13-year professional rugby veteran who competed in the U.S. and internationally before working in high-performance development for USA Rugby, and then as a coach on the U.S. Women’s National team that competed in the World Cup. He was previously the head coach for the Sacramento Express in the now defunct PRO Rugby league.
Merlins practice began just after the first of the year, with players completing weight training programs and playing touch rugby in groups in the final weeks of 2017. Coach Gross says that recruitment for the team hasn’t been an issue: “Glendale sells itself. We’ve got guys walking on straight out of college or moving to the area, so there’s an influx of interested players. We also have the benefit of having a pro team: anyone who has the talent and wants to push to the limit, that possibility is a draw. Part of Glendale’s pathway to the pros is the Divisional programs.” Coaches David Williams and Kieran “Ted” Browner of the Raptors professional team have spent time with the Merlins D1 players during training sessions, further demonstrating the close connection between divisional development and a shot at professional competition.
D1 Head Coach & Director of Amateur Rugby
Glendale’s season opens with an away game, pitting the team against the Austin Blacks at Burr Field in Austin, Texas. The Merlins will face the Blacks again on March 10th at their first home game, where the two teams will match up on Infinity Park’s turf field. All Merlins home games will have free admission, and fans are encouraged to bring snacks or a picnic to enjoy with the fast-paced, hard-hitting Division I action.
It is important to acknowledge the passion with which these athletes are playing, particularly when taking into consideration that none of Glendale’s Divisional players are paid. As Gross points out, “Rugby is their passion and their love, but it doesn’t feed them or keep the lights on.” While that sentiment is true for the Merlins players currently, it could change. Gross notes that any D1 player who is capable will move up to train with and eventually play for professional Raptors head coach David Williams. Asked if one of his goals as Merlins head coach is to produce professional-level athletes, Gross is adamant: “Definitely. Always. This is a club; it’s not just one team. Our goal is to help to develop and to find the most talented players.”
The Merlins regular season in the Red River Conference consists of ten matches, and wraps up at the end of April. Following the conclusion of those games, teams will move into finals. Gross is certainly fit for the job in Glendale, and he’s looking forward to the Merlins inaugural season in the Red River Conference. Asked about the team’s future, he’s optimistic: “To have a job here and be a part of a club that you absolutely love is tremendous. I feel very lucky that way.”