The Southern Competitive Region is a developing one with incredibly forward thinking clubs like the Okapi Wanderers to entire leagues that don’t report scores or post rosters and match reports. The DII and DIII nature of the South may give it an identity crisis, maybe its Little Brother Syndrome but they need to understand how important they are in the development of rugby in the US. The weather in the Southeast is ideal for fall through spring rugby and while the five northern CR’s are still digging themselves out of snow-covered pitches or dealing with bitter cold and rain the sun-soaked and mild Southern’s primary concern remains fire-ant hills; if you’ve never been in fire-ant country just trust me on this one. So if you’re not familiar with the Southern CR…let me introduce you.
As mentioned, the highest level of competition is DII which is divided into four leagues; Carolina-Georgia, Florida, True South: North, and True South: South. In DII there are two clubs to pay attention to in particular; while the Life Running Eagles D2, Miami Tridents, Chattanooga Rugby, and Memphis Blues may be more notable clubs the Okapi Wanderers, the Clayton Bootleggers, and Birmingham Vulcans are building academy systems, developing youth, and building for the future in near obscurity. More light needs to be shed on these clubs making huge strides toward US rugby development. The clubs in South CR DII are:
Life Running Eagles D2, Charlotte Rugby, Atlanta Renegades, and Atlanta Old White
Miami Tridents, Boca Raton Buccaneers, Tampa Bay Krewe, Orlando Rugby, Miami Rugby, Naples Hammerheads, Fort Lauderdale Rugby, Jacksonville Rugby, and the Okapi Wanderers.
True South: North:
Chattanooga Rugby, Hopkinsville Headhunters, Knoxville Possums, and Nashville Rugby
True South: South:
Birmingham Vulcans, Memphis Blues, Baton Rouge Rugby, and Jackson Rugby.
Moving on to DIII the leagues change a bit as they are divided into; Carolinas: Coastal, Carolinas: Mountain, Carolinas: North, Florida, Georgia, True South: North, and True South: South. The clubs that comprise these leagues are:
Southern Pines Rugby, Charleston Outlaws, Charlotte Barbarians, Columbia Olde Grey, and the Hilton Head Gators.
Greenville Griffins, Asheville Rugby, Triad Rugby, Tri Cities Mountaineers, and the Clinch River Crusaders.
Chapel Hill Warriors, Cape Fear Rugby, Camp Lejeune Misfits, Clayton Bootleggers, and Fort Bragg Rugby.
Gainesville Hogs, Sarasota Rugby, Palm Beach Panthers , Brevard Old Red Eye, Daytona Beach Coconuts, Bay Area Pelicans, Indian River Raptors, and the Tallahassee Conquistadors.
Savannah Shamrocks, Atlanta Renegades D3, North Atlanta Norsemen, High Country Rugby, Atlanta Old White D3, Gwinnett Lions, Augusta Maddogs, Athens Eagles, Columbus/Fort Benning Rugby, Atlanta Bucks, and Macon Love.
Red River Competitive RegionIt’s been more than a few weeks since I last reviewed the Frontier Competitive Region (CR) and I figured it has been long past time to move on to the Red River Competitive Region (CR).
Made up of three men’s divisions (DI-DIII) and 42 teams the Red River CR consists of four States; Texas, Oklahoma, and the eastern parts of Arkansas and Louisiana. As I review and cover club rugby I’ve come to discover the Red River Rugby Conference does just about everything right. Scores updated in a timely manner, a web site with regular updates, three of the five DI clubs have squads in each lower division, and an organized USA Rugby sanctioned Elite competition with the Midwest Conference known as the Gold Cup. Could it be because the Red River CR is the only competitive region made up entirely from a single Union, the Texas Rugby Union? Maybe but no matter the reason it clear it is the elite in the country.
DI consists of the Austin Huns, Austin Blacks, Dallas Rugby, Dallas Harlequin, and Houston Athletic. The level of rugby played in the Red River CR is reflected in the fact that the Austin Huns will be part of the future Major League Rugby professional competition as well as the leagues participation in the high-level Gold Cup as previously mentioned.
DII is made up of three leagues with all of the D2 squads from DI side in 1B and all carrying the DI side name; Austin Blacks D2, Dallas Rugby D2, Austin Huns D2, Houston Athletic D2, and the Dallas Harlequins D2. Beyond that is the North with the Little Rock Stormers, Tulsa Rugby, Dallas Athletic, Euless Texans, Fort Worth Rugby, and the Oklahoma City Crusaders. The South consists of Houston United, Katy Lions, San Antonio Rugby, The Woodlands Rugby, and Alamo City Rugby. Both Houston United and San Antonio have D3 squads as well.
DIII is broken up into three divisions as well with the Central made up by the San Marcos Greys, McAllen Knights, Austin Blacks D3, San Antonio Rugby D3, Fort Hood Phantoms, Corpus Christi Crabs, Austin Huns D3, and the Corpus Christi Dogfish. In the North you’ll find Shreveport Rugby, Dallas Rugby D3, Grand Prairie Mavericks, Alliance Rugby, Abilene Rugby, Dallas Diablos, and Denton Rugby. In the South you’ve got Lone Star Rugby, Houston United D3, Bay Area Rugby, Kingwood Crusaders, Galveston Rugby, and the Houston Arrows.
Geographically the Midwest Competitive Region (CR) is among the largest spanning 11 States and is made up entirely of Local Area Unions, nine in fact; Michigan, Minnesota (Minnesota and North Dakota), Iowa, Wisconsin, Chicago Area, Illinois, Ohio (Ohio and Kentucky), Indiana, and Allegheny (West Virginia and western Pennsylvania) LAU’s. The Midwest CR is one of the three CR’s with four divisions (DI-DIV) and is comprised of 102 clubs in all.
When the Professional Rugby Organization placed the Ohio Aviators in Obetz, Ohio it should not have been a surprise to anyone as the Midwest is a booming rugby hot bed for club, college, and high school. It is arguable, based on the numbers above, that the Midwest is more populated with ruggers and rugby fans than any other Competitive Region.
The Midwest CR’s DI competition is made up of some of the best known clubs in rugby and makes up the second half (Red River CR is the other) of the USA Rugby sanctioned Elite competition known as the Gold Cup. The Chicago Lions, Chicago Griffins, Columbus Rugby, Metropolis Rugby, Cincinnati Wolfhounds, Kansas City Blues, Palmer College Dragons, and Milwaukee Barbarians are all highly accomplished DI clubs; two of these clubs, the Lions and Blues, will be among the inaugural nine Major League Rugby clubs. Surprisingly none of the clubs have a squad at all four levels, only Metropolis has as many as three (DI-II/IV).
Midwest DII is divided into three separate leagues. The Midwest Men’s D2 Central with Lincoln Park Rugby, Indianapolis Impalas, Chicago Blaze, South Side Irish, and the Fox Valley Maoris. In Midwest Men’s D2 East the Detroit Tradesmen, Cleveland Crusaders, Pittsburgh Rugby, and Grand Rapids Gazelles compete. Lastly in Midwest Men’s D2 West there are Wisconsin Rugby, Green Bay Celtics, Eastside Banshees, Metropolis Rugby D2, and the St. Paul Jazz Pigs.
Moving on to Midwest CR DIII where there are 47 teams broken out into eight leagues one of which is further divided into two divisions.
Beginning with Chicago-Wisconsin: North the league consists of Oconomowoc Rugby, Milwaukee Barbarians D3, Milwaukee Black & Blue, Fond du Lac Wolfpac, and Milwaukee Rugby.
Chicago-Wisconsin: South has the Chicago Riot, Illiana Misfits, Lake County Gladiators, Lincoln Park Rugby D3, and the Northwest Indiana Exiles.
In Chicago-Wisconsin: West you’ll find Wisconsin Rugby D3, Northwest Woodsmen, Rockford Ravens, Chicago Westside Condors, and the Chicago Griffins D3.
In the East league there is the Pittsburgh Highlanders, Cleveland Crusaders D3, Cleveland Rovers, Pittsburgh Rugby D3, Akron Rugby, South Pittsburgh Hooligans, and the Greensburg Maulers.
The Indiana league has Fort Wayne Rugby, Columbus Rhinos, Michiana Moose, Westside Outcasts, and White River Rugby.
The Iowa league consists of Bremer County Bucks, Clinton Muddy River, Des Moines Rugby, and the Iowa City Ducks.
In the South league there’s the Columbus Castaways, Cincinnati Kelts, Louisville Rugby, Dayton Flying Pigs, Cincinnati Wolfhounds D3, Lexington Blackstones, and Queen City Rugby.
The Michigan league is the one divided into two divisions; beginning with Midwest Men’s D3 Michigan East you’ll find the Toledo Celtics, Detroit Rugby, Detroit Tradesmen D3, and Michigan Rugby.
The Midwest Men’s D3 Michigan West has the Tri-City Barbarians, Kalamazoo Dogs, Traverse Bay Blues, and the Flint Rogues.
It doesn’t end with DIII as Midwest DIV has an extensive array of clubs as well; 34 clubs spread out over seven States in six leagues.
Starting with the Buckeye league which consists of the Canton Maddogs, Dayton Flying Pigs D4, Columbus Rugby D4, Youngstown Steel Valley, and Columbus Coyotes.
The Chicago league is home to the Chicago Ducks, Chicago Dragons, Chicago Riot D4, County Will Shamrocks, and Chicago Wolves.
In the Illinois you’ll find the Peoria Pigs, Springfield Celts, Bloomington Crash, and the Champaign County Flatlanders.
The Iowa league has Iowa Falls Rugby, Northeast Iowa Barbarians, Bremer County Bucks D4, River City Rugby, and the Cedar Rapids Headhunters.
In the Michigan league are the East Side Anchormen, Findlay Scars, Jackson Fenians, Capital Area Crisis, Battle Creek Griffons, Toledo Celtics D4, Downriver Sharks, Fort Wayne Rugby D4, and the Grand Rapids Gazelles D4.
Last but not least is the Minnesota league, home to the Eastside Banshees D4, St. Cloud Bottom Feeders, Rochester Rogues, St. Paul Jazz Pigs D4, Faribault Bokspring, and Metropolis Rugby D4.
If you don’t know who he is already let me introduce you to Hanco Germishuys (pronounced ger-mis-huys) the South African-born USA Capped Eagle I’ve nicknamed ‘The Hammer.’ Why ‘The Hammer?’ Well, if you’re asking that you’ve obviously never seen him play; the Austin Huns alternate Captain is a beast on the field. From hooker to flanker he plays with speed like a winger and power like a center and is equally adept on attack as he is on defense.
Rugby Nation USA had the pleasure of interviewing one of our favorites…Eagle #489 is a future star on the International stage and it’s time to get to know Hanco ‘The Hammer’ Germishuys.
Rugby Nation USA (RN): Several know your story but for those who may not; how did a South African born guy end up in the US?
Hanco Germishuys (HG): Well, my father moved here about 11 years ago now and then I followed about 5 years ago and I told him I’ll only come if he finds me a school that has rugby and so he did.
RN: Did you play rugby in South Africa? If so, what age did you begin playing?
HG: I did play rugby in South Africa and started playing from the age of 6. South Africans are born with rugby in their blood.
RN: I believe your first club in the US was West Omaha; what did you think of the club environment compared to South Africa?
HG: It was a lot different and the level of rugby wasn’t that good but I adapted to that and started teaching some of my teammates the knowledge I had of the game and we won 3 state championships.
RN: What was the rugby landscape like in Omaha? Are there several teams, experience levels of local players, local fan base understanding of the game?
HG: Rugby was slowly growing when I first got to Omaha there were about 6 high school teams and by the time I was done with high school there were about 12 so it growing.
RN: Who is the best player you’ve ever taken the pitch with?
HG: I would say Pedrie [Wannenburg] because I learn so much from him as a player. He passed a lot of his knowledge down to me.
RN: Who has been your most influential rugby mentor and why?
HG: My high school coach David Synnott he’s been there since I moved to America and he’s always pushed me to do better and be the best I can be.
RN: What was your experience like in Gloucester?
HG: Being in Gloucester was a great experience I learned so much more about the game and how I can be a better player in my position and I learn a lot about small skills that you can use in the game.
RN: Is there anything in the US that compares to your overseas experience?
HG: The closest thing that would compare to my experience was the pro rugby last year with Denver. It fell like a full time environment and there was a lot of good players.
RN: You’ve had the great opportunity to play for both Glendale and Austin, two leaders in rugby’s growth in the US. What are they doing right?
HG: Glendale and Austin are doing a great job at developing their players and strengthening all the core skills of rugby.
RN: What are the similarities between the Austin and Glendale communities?
HG: Both team are growing the game and trying to be the best team out there.
RN: What are their differences?
HG: Glendale is a little more advanced then Austin at the moment with their stadium and gym set up they have.
RN: What’s it like being in the Austin environment as they grow towards professionalism?
HG: It’s good because I can see how we are improving as a team and how the Huns field is getting better and starting to move in the right direction.
RN: What’s your opinion on how we as a rugby nation can improve our youth development?
HG: I think we should focus on the youth because in 10 years they will be the ones playing the game when rugby is big in America.
RN: Is there a coaching career in The Hammer’s future?
HG: I have no clue on that one yet but I wouldn’t mind passing on my knowledge to the youth of rugby.
RN: Finally, which of your teammates is most likely to be a standup comic on open mic night?
HG: I would definitely have to say Martin [Knoetz].
RN: Thank you Hanco, we all look forward to seeing you on the pitch this summer with the Eagles!
Meet the Birmingham Vulcans, named after the Roman God of fire and forge, a symbol for the Magic City’s history as a steel town. The Vulcans are true to their name, forging a rugby environment in the heart of football crazed Alabama.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Laney, Vice President of Operations to talk all things Vulcans; their club, the growth, their youth program, a scholarship program, and hopes for the future.
Rugby Nation USA (RN): How long have the Birmingham Vulcans been around?
Michael Laney (ML): Since 1967. We are having multiple special events this year to celebrate our 50th Anniversary, so if you are in the Birmingham area check our website and Facebook.
RN: Who are the Vulcans leadership and what’s their rugby background?
ML: We have five officer positions. They are President, VP of Operations, VP of General Affairs, Match Secretary, and Treasurer. We also have a large number of other positions, some of which are board positions. Examples of other roles are: Director of Rugby, Publicity Director and Head of Social Media, Youth Rugby Director, Tournament Director, Health and Safety Director, Special Events Coordinator, and members of the Coaching Staff. Each teammember also has to be on one of the following committees: Merchandise Coordinator, Field Committee, Phone Hotline, Practice Committee, Recruitment Committee, Social Committee, Fitness Committee, Hydration Committee, Fund Raising Committee, and Discipline Committee. Not all of our players joined the team with rugby experience, but at the moment, all of our officers started playing rugby in college before playing for the Birmingham Vulcans.
RN: Anyone a sports convert (football/soccer/etc)?
ML: Almost all of our players came from other sports. We have had converts that ranged from church league basketball to an Olympic rowing team. Obviously we have a lot of converts from American football due to the nature of the game and because we are in Alabama. By the way, personally I think former wrestlers are often the best tacklers.
RN: What’s the rugby environment like in Birmingham and Alabama in general?
ML: Per capita, there are not as many rugby teams in Alabama as many parts of the country, or certainly many other countries. However, recently we’ve added a few more college teams, Gadsden’s Men’s team is growing strong, and with Rugby 7s being added to the Olympics, there is much more interest from kids who want to see if they have what it takes to represent the USA. I would say most of the players in Alabama approach rugby as if they’re playing a semi-pro sport. That may not have been their goal when they started, but they enjoyed it so much it became more than just a game. We are extremely passionate about the sport and extremely loyal to our fellow ruggers. That comradery spans across teams as well. In my opinion the friendships and respect betweenplayers of opposing rugby teams is unlike that of any other sport in the world. It’s like a combined fraternity and sorority that spans worldwide, not just in Alabama. Having said all of that, it’s surprising how many people think we’re “the sport with the sticks.”
RN: I understand you run a youth program, is it part of Rugby Alabama?
RN: How do you recruit your players, youth and adult, in “football” country?
ML: It’s very hard to recruit football players. Often the players and coaches have the misconception that they are more likely to get injured playing rugby than football because of the lack of pads. However, as more and more high level coaches like Pete Carroll openly seek out advice from rugby teams on safer and more effective tackling techniques, that perception is starting to shift. We do what we can as far as radio and TV appearances, yard signs, social media, and even word of mouth, but what we really need is someone to donate billboard space or funding for said space. Even shared space would work. I have seen first-hand how quickly numbers grew on a certain team from Tennessee soon after they got a deal on billboard space on a major highway.
RN: What age groups and gender groups participate in the program?
ML: We have opportunities for males and females age 6 and up to play. Even if you don’t want to commit to being a part of the team you can still come to our “Second Sunday Touch” for free. Every second Sunday of every month we welcome anyone to come play two hand touch rugby at 2pm. It’s at Krebs Field at Erskine Ramsay Park. This is a co-ed event. We welcome any ages, but typically anyone under the age of 6 does not get much out of it unless they just want to get some private lessons on how to throw and catch the ball. Our co-ed U12 flag rugby team and our U15 boys and U19 boys teams play 7s in May and June. Our senior men’steam plays all year. We are always trying to get enough females interested to start new teams, but at the moment we’re lacking in that department. We had a full women’s 15s team from about 2000 till 2003 who did well. In fact, I married their scrum half. Since 2003, we have only had a few years when we could field a women’s 7s team to compete in a few tournaments. Even thenwe had to combine with players from colleges like Alabama and Auburn. I should also mention we were heavily involved in starting the UAB men’s rugby team in 2011 and their 7s team did extremely well this year. We still have a very close relationship with the Blazers.
RN: What do you want the country to know about your youth program?
RN: Is your youth program an academy style program?
ML: For the youth we don’t have enough players to be an academy style program. Our youth program here in Birmingham, which we call Central Alabama Youth Rugby (CAYR), does have enough members to field at least one 7s team in each age group, but that’s about it for now.
ML: You can read about that or apply at http://birminghamrugby.com/scholarship/ Our need based youth rugby scholarship is set up to assist families/players who demonstrate a financial need. This pays for full or partial season dues, the player’s uniform, and tournament entry fees. While scholarship decisions are based primarily on need, consideration is also given to the ways players embody rugby’s core values: Passion, Solidarity, Integrity, Discipline, and Respect.
RN: How can people help or donate to the program?
ML: We are a 501c3 so we will give you a receipt for your tax deduction when you donate. Anyone can make a donation or read about our sponsorship packages at http://birminghamrugby.com/sponsors/
RN: What’s the short term goals for your overall youth programs?
ML: Have enough players available to add a fall and/or spring 15s season for the youth age groups so they can compete in the more established leagues in either Georgia or Tennessee. Beyond that, we would really like to have enough teams in Alabama to reduce travel.
RN: Is there anything about national development you would like to see changed or further advanced to improve the game in our country?
ML: Oh wow, there’s a lot I could say about that. Let me just say I like the “Rookie Rugby” program that is aimed at elementary school aged kids, but I would like to see more in the way of targeting high school students. Trust me, I know that’s easier said than done, but that’s something I would like.
RN: How about the organization as a whole?
ML: Same answer as above really.
RN: Any plans to push for DI in the Southern Competitive Region?
ML: We are always pushing ourselves to improve every day. Right now we are focused on going as far into the D2 playoffs as we can and chasing the dream of a national championship. If that is in D2, then great. If we are ever good enough to get bumped up to D1, then great. Considering how few teams in the South are D1 though, I wouldn’t say pushing for D1 is a high priority for us right now though.
RN: Any players or coaches you’d like to highlight, any one having a great season or a young coach with Eagle coach potential?
ML: I know you asked for one, but I’m going to list multiple players who have earned spots on various USA South Panthers select side squads:
We have a lot of additional talent on the Birmingham and UAB teams not listed above, but those are our current Panthers.
RN: What else would you like the rest of the nation to know about the Birmingham Vulcans?
ML: The main thing I want people to know is we are seeking out more teams for our U12, U15, and U19 teams to play against in May and June 7s tournaments. They can contact us if they are interested in meeting up at our tournament 6/24/17 or elsewhere. You can reach our Youth Rugby Director Patti Bennett at email@example.com
RN: I want to thank you very much for you time and I truly appreciate you joining Rugby Nation USA!
I’ve been a lot of places in my life, traversed the globe during my US Air Force career and not much is left on my bucket list but I’ll tell you one thing that has recently been added; I’m watching a rugby match in Alaska at the Alaska Mountain Rugby Grounds someday.
Rugby has always intrigued me and I had the opportunity to talk a bit to David Delozier about both rugby in Alaska and the amazing pitch built in the shadows of the Alaskan mountains.
Rugby Nation USA (RN): How long have you been involved in rugby and what got you started?
David Delozier (DD): I’ve been involved with Rugby since playing the British that were part of the CTF (RN: Combined Task Force) stationed at Incirlik in 1993, fell in love with it then and never looked back. By the way, I just retired from AD (active duty) USAF, loved that as well.
RN: How does the Alaska Rugby Union (ARU) fit into USA Rugby? I don’t see you represented in the competitive structure.
DD: Its an outsider and not by design but strictly from playing season. We are limited to a summer only season which makes college sides impossible (students out of school). This season we start 27 May and end 19 August. We actually have more playing days left in the tank in September and October but wrap up early versus having a double CIPP season. USA rugby starts each season 1 Sept.
RN: What’s the rugby environment like in Alaska (club, youth, high school)?
DD: The Union has been in existence since 1973 and youth was founded in 2014. Both levels are thriving at the moment. The Mountain Grounds was a catalyst fora lot of this growth, the place is a rugby goldmine and the word is spreading. we host (will host) Golden Oldies, Adult Men and Women and HS groups using the AKMRG as a perfect venue for visitors. We got caught up in the 2016 Olympics and that was a boost to numbersand we were blessed with resident superstar Alev Kelter coming back to her home state in between matches to facilitate more growth. ATAVUS and her were pivotal in the Eagles ladies team working up here in 2015, and we expect them back before the 2018 world cup 7s ramp up. We also just had World Rugby staying up on the site and expect a piece released soon. they captured the site, Alev with family, and our youth playing a snow rugby match.
RN: How many clubs (men and women) are in the ARU?
DD: There’s 13 teams total; 8 men and 5 women. Youth has 4 clubs and each has HS 7s, U14 7s, U12/U9/U6 playing Rippa rugby. Most based in Anchorage but we have a men’s club in Kenai and both men and women 350 miles north in Fairbanks our old boys boasts 282 players.
RN:,How do you go about recruiting players?
DD: Websites, Facebook, club community events (Polar plunge for Special Olympics and Scottish Highland games etc) and good old word of mouth.
RN: What division level does ARU have; D-I to D-IV?
DD: We have two divisions, but nothing like lower 48. We call it D1 and D2 to delineate experienced and newer member clubs but if I was to compare it to lower 48 play, it would be D2/D3 equivalent. We do have some studs in our ranks though, Samoan national camp players, All-Army players, an Olympic hopeful, and previous D1 players, so can combine as the Alaska All-Stars and give any visiting side a go.
RN: Tell me about the Midnight Sun 7s? Who usually participates?
DD: Historically Midnight Sun was just a fun tourney for the local clubs and some of our Canadian brothers, so much fun that new teams would form for it. Dirty 30s for older guys and the Belugas for our….ahem, larger players weighing over 240 each. this year, the 22nd annual, we stepped up our game based on a suggestion from Andrew Locke and created an elite division. This season we have Talavalu (Amerika Samoa), Army Rugby, Stars 7s, Manu Bears committed. we created this new division in October 2016 and most of the world elite clubs already had their budget solidified. we expect many more in 2018 and beyond. The clubs still play and visiting clubs can choose the level they want to enter.
RN: The Alaska Mountain Rugby Grounds is a beautiful facility, watching a match there is on my bucket list; what was the genesis of building such a rugby destination in Alaska?
DD: Read The Dream. Quite a vision from my buddy Justin!
RN: Has USAR reached out to hold a tournament at AMRG?
DD: USAR and many of the who’s who of USA rugby have spent some time at the place and if they haven’t been up they have an open invitation; its a great place for a retreat or smaller tourneys.
RN: How large of a tournament can the AMRG support?
DD: It is only one pitch, we have 5 more pitches in the local area, but the grounds stands alone. Great for semi-finals or finals if there was a larger tourney or elite pool play.
RN: What else would you like people to know about rugby in Alaska and the AMRG?
DD: We’re open for everyone! If you love rugby we love you. From a single visitor to clubs that travel with old boys, open side, and youth together for a huge Alaskan adventure we’re here. We have a rugby intern program that allows people to live there for the summer while playing rugby locally, so much better than couch surfing! People can choose to stay downtown nearnightlife or stay at the property. This July we are hosting Mangatainoka RFC, a club comprised of Classic All-Blacks and Super 18 players, and we have the Classic Eagles taking on the Classic Canadians at the same time and I have to mention Justin’s other rugby dream that is very close to happening; a Saracens vs Crusaders match played up on the site while both clubs live in the to–be built hotels on the site.
RN: I want to thank you so much for your time. I can’t wait to visit the AMRG.
DD: We are excited to share, you are welcome anytime!
Many of you likely have not heard of the Okapi Wanderers but you should be familiar with founder and head coach Gavin McLeavy from his work on beIN Sports.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Gavin who talked about the big family atmosphere, professional rugby and Doug Schoninger, running the Wanderers like a professional club and the benefit of being a Domestic Non Profit Corporation.
Their overall approach to developing rugby in south Florida is remarkable and if you’re even remotely interested in building or reshaping a rugby club into a powerful youth base organization to grow your future then this is a must read.
Rugby Nation USA (RN): Rugby is a growing sport in the US as we reestablish our rugby roots; what’s your rugby background and why Weston?
Gavin McLeavy (GM): Yes, it’s really growing. South Florida has seen teams pop up all over Broward and Miami Dade County in the last few years. At Okapi Wanderers RFC we have 26 coaches and 9 administrators from all over the world; Argentina, the UK and Ireland, France, and then a smattering of southern hemisphere countries are represented too. I played Rugby League in the North of England as a kid and then traveled around playing for different Rugby Union teams in the likes of Spain and the Caribbean. As I’m from the grim end of England I developed an addiction for interesting and exotic locations and nice weather. Weston being a 20 minute drive to Miami and Fort Lauderdale beaches was a no brainer.
RN: How would you describe the structure of your organization?
GM: Bottom heavy (youth focused) is the idea and we are getting there. We have between 2 to 3 coaches per age group and a parent as a team manager for logistics and non-coaching work. When we first formed the club, we noticed that many clubs struggled because they focused on senior men’s teams or High School ages but didn’t have a long term youth program in place; consequently, these teams run around every year trying to find 20 or more playerswilling to play a game that have no idea how to play. Youth is what will feed the club quality players in the long run, so we decided to go the slow and methodical route. We also saw that often-times an individual coach would start a club, and, almost immediately, be up to his eyeballs in admin; so much so that they wouldn’t be able to coach properly (Interruptions by parents asking about kit, fields, dues, game times etc) so we askedthe parents to get involved to spread the work load. Just like any good business, we try to put the right people in the correct place and let them do their job; those folks who wanted to help just a little bit would organize something simpler, again so the coach could focus on guiding the team during a game. It seems simple but who can see how a game is being played and fill water bottles at the same time?
For those that wanted to roll up their sleeves we have them coordinate bigger projects like the website being updated, social media, accounting, budgeting, etc. Social media is a daily task, with training cancellations, uploading pictures from games, videos, and anything that has direct correlation with the club activities; thisalone needs a massive amount of man (or, mostly, woman) hours: we post everything across multiple platforms as well as keeping parents up-to-date with Whatsapp groups for each division. The time-investment creates an interest in the community which in turn grows your club.
So now we have divisions in all age groups from U8 through Old boys. The Old boys make up the core of our coaches. This has allowed us to create a big base of kids being coached by people that know what they are doing, are happy to be involved as their kids are playing and get to play themselves a few times a year and relive their youth! It has helped to create a real family atmosphere that so many players fromaround the world remember from their own home-clubs. What’s really exciting is that this year about 10 of our Varsity players that will age out; some will go off to college but those that stick around will be the base of our newest project, the Men’s U20s.
RN: Who are the leaders of your club?
GM: Myself as the head coach and founder.
Matthew Hayden coaches the Men’s team and founder.
Mariana Gallo general manager and founder that coordinates the team managers and Social Media.
Mariano Gallo founder.
In all we have 26 coaches, 9 team managers and countless volunteers who work tirelessly – and that’s just scratching the surface in terms of club leadership. It’s a real team effort!
We have created the structure based on RFU guidelines for the rest of the organization.
RN: The Wanderers seem to have grown out of nowhere; how long have the Okapi Wanderers been around?
GM: We started in October 2014 when another local club that some of us helped to start decided they didn’t want a high school age team. We had about 32 kids from all ages that had already been playing Rugby 2 or 3 years, didn’t want to stop playing but didn’t have anywhere to play. There has always been a small Rugby community in Weston but nothing cohesive; we wanted to build something that would last.
RN: You have one of the most expansive youth structures I’ve seen; 6 youth squads ranging U-8/U-10/U-12/U-14/Jr Varsity/Varsity and 3 adult sides. How do you recruit?
GM: It really comes down to creating an atmosphere that people want to be involved with. We make sure that it’s all about having fun at the U12 level and below. Then when they get to U14 we turn up the pressure and the Varsity guys are treated almost like professionals. The last summer our director of coaching held coaching clinics and we gave fitness programs to the varsity division to get themfit .We are trying to get the culture to be involved all year round with the club , so players do not migrate to other sports; we get involved with the community by taking the children to work on different community projects.
One such project involved our Varsity players studying for a coaching course with World Rugby so they could spend their summer volunteering for our Rugby Summer camp. We were approached by the Weston YMCA because kids were asking for a rugby program. Much to our surprise it wasn’t our players, it was just other kids that had seen Rugby on TV and wanted to try it out. So we set up the summer camp. The YMCA promoted it of course and all of a sudden you have a marketing machine from a big organization doing the job . The kids that would have probably done the flag football or soccer camp ended up trying out Rugby and loved it. You thinkthose kids wanted to stop playing Rugby after 10 weeks of fun in the summer? Hell no, they wanted to join our club. I think I had a week of office work after the summer and people started calling asking when preseason was starting. On top of that the campers (mostly 8-12 year olds) were idolizing the 16 and 17 year olds thatwere volunteering. Some of our volunteers are guys getting picked for the State All Star team, EIRA and USA South Panthers etc. so they know their Rugby and they have the physiques and “cool factor” to inspire little kids.
RN: I notice your website doesn’t identify any girls/women’s teams; any plans to develop female squads?
GM: Okapi Wanderers RFC is a work-in-progress and it is definitely on the agenda. We’ve had a few girls ask about having a team over the last year but they were from different ages, ranging from 10 to 22 years old; so, at this point, it would be difficult but there’s definitely an interest. We have been talking in depth with a few mothers involved with the club who want the sistersof players to play Field Hockey so we may end up going the Field Hockey route to provide an equally competitive sport for the girls if we don’t get enough girls for Rugby. We get a little frustrated that we don’t have girls team yet but we have to remind ourselves what we have done in just a couple ofyears, it’ll come with time. We have to rein ourselves in occasionally.
RN: What are some of the challenges you face with nine different squads?
GM: In the beginning it was simply man power. Not enough coaches to spread around. All of our coaches are volunteers and the club pays for all their registration with USA Rugby and to get their coaching certifications level 200, we are trying tomake it as professional as possible. So far we have only one Level 300 Coach, but we are in the process of registering 3 more 300 Level coaches. Every time a course comes through from USA Rugby we make sure we ask everyone to improve their coaching skills.
Logistics is another big thing. Trying to get all age-groups to play on the same day can be quite a task; it hasn’t worked out too often due to clubs not having a full range of age groups but when we pull it off it is spectacular! It’s a full Club-Day with one game after another and each age getting to watch the older ones play right after them is fabulous. Our socials have become a real family day and I think those days arehelping us become a very tight, albeit, very big family.
RN: How do you manage game pitches for so many squads and practice time?
GM: We were able to be approved to have a seat at the decision-making table with the City of Weston and The Sport Alliance of Weston – although we are considered the strange new brother to all the other sports in town. The City of Weston and The Sports Alliance of Weston have bent over backwards to accommodate us as we grow. We train on one or two baseball outfields from 6-8pm on Wednesdays and Fridays with all the kids. That can be a lot of kids in a tight space on the occasions that we only have one field available, so we adapt the training accordingly: we have a scrum sled off the field and we rotate the forwards from JV and Varsity to clear space, this allows thebacks to train with extra room to throw the ball around. The younger teams are easier because the field space they need to mark out is smaller so coaches work really well with each other to cordon off appropriate sized areas. The Men and Old boys come later at 8-10pm and get to use that whole field.
This year has been a particular problem as the City had scheduled to replace two fields with artificial turf. The work started in October just when we were starting our pre-season so we have had to bounce around a lot for home games and occasionally had to rent a fields in a neighboring town. We aren’t called the Wanderers for nothing. The fields are almost completed and that will be greataddition. The City of Weston has made an enormous investment and have even gone so far as ensuring that the kind of turf they are laying on one field is World Rugby Compliant.
RN: Many club systems have a common attack and defense philosophy throughout the system, does your organization follow that model and if so what are your club philosophies?
GM: We didn’t have a universal system until this year. We just let the coaches from each group influence their team in the first year. The only prerequisite that it was asked from them was little guys should have fun and everyone should play ongame day. Once they get to Middle school and High school age the guys that show up to training and the best players get picked. On 2016 we appointed a Director of Rugby, our Level 300 Coach, is the one that has prepared the “identity” of style of rugby that is being taught. This year we have started to implement the system in Varsityand that is shadowed by JV and more recently by middle school. The idea is to have everyone utlizing the same training style and game plan so we can just “plug and play” as kids move up and as players develop. We used the Exeter Chiefs as an example when explaining that to ourmembers and coaches. They were a 2nd tier team in England with no money. Their head coach, Rob Baxter, took them to the premiership a couple of years ago and he is now putting them in the playoffsconsistently and his young first team players are getting international honors on a regular basis for England, Scotland Wales and Ireland.
RN: With your success in development what advice would you give USA Rugby regarding national development?
GM: I attended the NDS in Baltimore this year and I saw USA Rugby release a chart saying that they want to increase the size of the base of the pyramid and shift focus from High School and College to Youth and Middle school but the fact is they are still getting sucked into cutting youth and female budgets to cover the expense of the men’s national teams. It looks like falsepromises so far, then again maybe I shouldn’t believe everything I read on the internet.
My advice if anyone up there is listening; you’ve got to get lots of teams playing in small areas ( rec league style). That way you get more kids playing the game every Saturday in their own neighborhood rather than having to travel across state every weekend for a competitive game: it’s more attractive due to easy access. From that you can find the kids that want to take it more seriously and will be willing to sacrifice totravel and then you’ll get your next USA players able to compete because they’ve been playing the game for the same length of time (all their life).
RN: You have several sponsors in a rugby landscape where clubs are struggling for sponsorship; any tips you’d like to share?
GM: Get parents involved. Spread the workload, see above.
RN: Your YouTube channel, the content is on par with many across the country; any plans to develop production and groom broadcasters?
GM: We hired an ex-player to work for us last year to film the games, he enjoys it and gets paid, again we share the burden from dues and sponsors. We believe that is very important to have our kids being shown somehow, it is a very big country and it gives access to recruiters and other coaches to see how they play. I guess with my background at Bein Sports I could do the commentating but I’d rather coach unless, ESPN needs someone of course.
RN: I see some decent crowds at your matches on YouTube; what is the rugby environment like in Weston and Southern Florida?
GM: Broward County has the most teams around in Florida. It means the legitimate Rugby players are spreading thinner in the short term but its good because more teams means more kids will organically get involved as there will be a need to fill rosters. Teams that try hard to recruit will swim the others will sink or join the next nearest team. We’ve seen it happen a few times this season. We have had a few localderby’s over the last year or two and the occasional Friday night game under lights is always popular. I’m almost tempted to push that to happen more often for games against neighbors. It just creates such a great atmosphere.
RN: Why do you think the Greater Miami area has given rise to such a strong youth program?
GM: In my opinion it hasn’t, Broward and Palm Beach Counties have started to make some strides. Miami RFC joined Key Biscayne this season at the high school level but north of the border in Broward and Palm Beach the coaches seem to be a bit more proactive about youth. It boils down to the senior teams that have been aroundlonger to start the same work we are doing. Youth system usually falls apart every other year and others simply have neither High school nor youth. Our Men’s team struggled at the beginning of the year – our first season in the top division in Florida – but we will be beating these teams on a regular basis inthe next year or two because we are investing our time and energy in the kids. Key Biscayne, Wellington and Boca Raton are on the right path too, they are modeling similar structures. Time will tell if what we are doing is right but I’m going to back modernthinking every time, especially as the old way hasn’t worked out so far.
RN: How would you change the current landscape of national US club rugby if you could?
GM: We need to find a way to encourage senior teams and clubs to produce rec leagues for the youngest age groups and clubs start to charge the right amount of money to players to be able to develop it, Rugby seems to be looked at as a cheap sport option. It is a sport, at Okapi Wanderers RFC we train them, suit them up, pay for referees, socials and providethe infrastructure for them to play a sport. We believe that if we can transform it in a sport in which coaches are able to get paid (Like other sports) it would be much easier to find more willing participants.
It should be mandatory to develop youth in every club to be part of a union. I said this at a meeting a while back and everyone laughed. It’s stupid not to, plain and simple. We look at our U10 team that won state championship last year and after less than2 years of playing together their basic skills are better than many age groups. Most of them tackle with confidence, they pass the ball only when they have drawn a player, rucking is low, driven and bound on. We can’t say the same for the men’s team, whom most ofwhich have been playing the same amount of time as the little guys. U10’s are a clean slate, it’s easier to teach and get them hooked into rugby as they have no bad habits yet.
The structure isn’t that bad on a national level, size of the country is the problem and we can’t change that. The likes of ATAVUS and EIRA try to identify the best players, but they are unable to reach all of them, either because cost or distance. It goes backto gathering large amounts of kids in local neighborhoods. The structure is simply top heavy. A more in-depth structure at the lower levels will feed the higher level structure. Again, going back to investment in local neighborhoods.
RN: I see you are a Domestic Non Profit Corporation; how does this benefit the club?
GM: It makes it a lot easier to get donations from sponsors as they are tax deductible. Plenty of companies and government organizations have grants and scholarships available for this kind of organization. It’s very proces- oriented and time-consuming work but if you keep searching you’ll come across a lot of available funds that can beused for youth sports or education. We haven’t been successful yet in receiving those grants yet but we’ve applied for a few and we are in the learning process to be able to acquire. We learn from it every time so we can try again each year and eventually I’m sure we’ll get something that will help us grow the game more professionally and withappropriate backing. More importantly it was set up like that so the club will outlive it’s founders and can continue on as part of the community. I always tell one of the founders (who will remain anonymous) that when he dies I’ll have a statue made of him outside the “Okapi stadium” so nobody forgets the founders of the club, but he is kind of angry looking so he might scare away the fans.
RN: What are your thoughts on clubs like Austin and Glendale moving toward professionalism?
GM: I’ve Interviewed Doug Schoninger (owner of Pro Rugby) a couple of times while working at Bein Sports TV and he wasn’t too happy about other leagues and team franchises popping up to compete with Pro Rugby. From a USA standpoint I understand his take on it, sports are done a little differently here from the rest of theworld. However, at the end of the day It’s normal all over the world for the best amateur teams to start paying their players sooner or later. I look back at when I was a kid and the top amateur clubs in England always paid a few of the best players. Conversely some ofthe lower level pro teams didn’t have a fully pro roster. They used to use something called “amateur forms” which basically meant if you made the first team but didn’t have a contract you’d get “game day” money but you wouldn’t get contract money like the topplayers. That said, if amateur clubs can figure out a way to pay players why shouldn’t they?
I grew up in the North of England and the story of the split between League and Union Rugby is common knowledge. In the early 1900’s teams in the South of England around London had players that were maybe accountants, lawyers and business owners…upper middle class, but in the North players were coal miners and shipbuilders, lower income folk. The guys in the North had to take the day off work to train and/or travel Friday and Saturday and weren’t being compensated. That’s tough to swallow when there were 100,000 people paying to get into a stadium and watch a game. The guys in the South didn’t need the moneybut those in the North couldn’t feed their kids if they took time off work to play Rugby for free. That’s when the club owners in the North met and created the break away Rugby League which still exists today. Now you have The Super League and the famous NRL in Australia. Professionalism is the natural progression.
RN: Would the Wanderers ever have any interest in joining the yet to be officially announced Major League Rugby competition as a professional club?
GM: We have spoken about that amongst the board at the club all the time. We know that in order to continue growing we need to buy a piece of land and build a stadium. The problem is South Florida is a bit pricey in the real estate world. We need to have a crack with David Beckham and see if he’ll let us use his stadium when it’s built! I alsomade it very clear to Doug that if he expanded Pro Rugby that we would want Okapi Wanderers RFC involved in a Florida team if it were to happen, but it seems like that ship may have sailed. He has told me that he will be doing something moving forwardbut he is keeping his cards close to his chest right now.
GM: It sells well! I had a mate of mine in England go on their not long ago to buy a replica jersey and he saw a bunch of our hoodies and baseball caps. He called me to ask if we had bought an Aviva premiership franchise or something. We are in negotiations to move to another supplier that has offered us more products andmore revenue sharing. That money will go to fundraising for tournaments that we want to send the players to participate, buy more equipment, subsidize dues for kids that maybe can’t afford to pay and more coaches to get trained and certified.
RN: Marketing, advertising, sponsorships, an academy system…what is the long term goal of the Okapi Wanderers?
GM: We have a pretty advanced marketing and advertising system in place in comparison to most Rugby clubs in the USA and its constantly evolving. Sponsorships only come if you go looking for them and I worry if the next generation of club leaders aren’t as hard working as the current group it might just dry up. For that we made this year a sustainable budget for the years tocome. We plan on developing our U20 team next season treating it a bit like an academy system for college age kids. U20 teams are in the plans of USA Rugby so it will be a good stepping stone for High school kids going to adult Rugby if they don’t go to college or go to local colleges so we want to grow that and filter them up to the 2nd division team eventually. Building a clubhouse on our own piece of land with a real rugby field isn’t farfetched and will happen within a few years. We would love to see us with our fields and our guys playing professionally within 10 years.
RN: In 2016 13,591 showed up in Ft. Lauderdale to watch USA vs Chile during the Americas Rugby Championship; where do you see the future of rugby going in south Florida?
GM: Yes, we had the Chilean National Team training and interacting with our youth players at our location in Weston, Florida and our little guys played an exhibition game during halftime. It was a great day! Fort Lauderdale RFC were hostingRuggerfest the same weekend so there were a lot of Rugby clubs from all over the country and the Caribbean in town. I think the combination of the local Rugby community, Ruggerfest visiting teams and then add to that the fact that South Florida is a major holiday attractionall added to it’s success. Who doesn’t want to get away from Chicago, Boston, New York for a weekend in the sun, play a few friendly games then go watch the national team? Sunday, lots of people went to the beach and then flew back home for work on Monday. South Florida is famous for producing NFL players and Florida Rugby teams have produced a fewcurrent Rugby stars like Cam Dolan and Perry Baker. Guys like this are two a penny down here. They are just playing other sports. If teams like Okapi Wanderers RFC continue to provide a good environment the kids will come and try it out. We all know that if a kid comes and tries out Rugby at Okapi Wanderers RFC they get hooked. They get more game time than Football. There’s more places on a squad than basketball so more opportunity to play. It’s fast paced so that pulls in frustrated baseball players. Soccer playersthat prefer a bit more “BOSH” come over. Furthermore, the parents recognize the values we instill. Smack talk and attitude are nipped in the bud at a young age. Parents worry about who is raising their kid when they aren’t around. It makes sense that parents want to put their kidswith Rugby coaches. We are from a more traditional and humble part of society. Rugby is just another animal in terms of conduct in sports, people want to be around good people. There will be a professional team in the near future andplenty of leagues to supply it with talent. It’s just around the corner everything is set up to be successful.
RN: Coaches, administrators, managers; I’m sure your entire organization is full of people who excel but is there anyone you’d like to highlight?
GM: No, We are a club made up of great volunteers that dedicate their time for the betterment of it’s people as players and human beings. Everyone plays a part that is necessary for this club to move forward. It would be unjust to single out anyone.
RN: Finally, is there anything you’d like to let everyone know about the Okapi Wanderers?
GM: Ourname was made up by the kids that play here. Wanderers, because we didn’t have a home at the time. Additionally, the parents come here from all over the world to work in Miami andFort Lauderdale so wandering and cultural differences are a massive part of who we are. Imagine, the coaching staff alone is American, Argentine, British and French among others. Look at the political and Rugby history between those countries and we get on great and that’s how Rugby is. We make fun of each other all the time but get on really well. The style of Rugby those coaches teach is very reflective of the country they come from and you can see it when the kids play. An Okapi is a mix of several animals in appearance; it looks part Giraffe, Zebra, Mule. Much like our family members. So I think the name is an important part of our culture as a club. Something that I hope will carry forward forever.
RN: Thank you so much for your time, Gavin, this has been a great interview!
Meet Nampa Head Coach Chris Kovac. If you ask him about his impact on rugby in Idaho you’ll get a modest answer something along the lines of I’m just a coach but if you ask people who know him you’ll realize his influence runs much deeper. Idaho is on the rise as a rugby State and Coach Kovac played a significant role in that whether he’ll acknowledge it or not.
The Australian-born, US transplant, who grew up playing League talked to me about rugby in the US and how football is impacting rugby’s growth.
Rugby Nation USA (RN): Please tell me a bit about your rugby background and your journey to the US from Australia.
Chris Kovac (CK): I grew up playing Rugby League from the time I was 5. It wasn’t until I was about 16 that I started playing Rugby. Even then I was training with my Rugby League team during the week and playing Rugby League on Saturdays. I would turn up on Sundays at our local Rugby club and if they needed players I would play. I played for Canley Vale High School in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Our school team made it to the top 4 in a knock out competition with over 200 schools competing. We had a redhot team.
Once I became an adult, I played First Grade league in Melbourne for a year in 1997 for the Croydon Sea Eagles club and A Grade League in Sydney in 1998 for Sheridan Sharks. I also played Rugby for Merrylands in Sydney that same year. I had an industrial accident which forced me into retirement at 26 years of age. That’s when I started coaching and taking on administrative roles. I coached u/10‘s, u/17‘s and u/19‘s as well as mens Rugby League. I also was the Secretary of the SheridanSharks A Grade mens team and Vice President of the Merrylands Rams.
I came to the US in 2009 with my wife and kids. By 2012 I was feeling incredibly homesick and started looking for League or Rugby teams that I could join to help overcome my homesickness. I google searched my local area and found the Nampa Rugby Club. Back then it was called Canyon County Rugby. I took over as Head Coach in 2013 and aquired a girls team after the 2014 season. That’s when I changed the name to Nampa Rugby Club. When I took over in 2013, we only had 18boys playing, today I believe there are approximately 30 girls registered and 25 boys registered.
RN: What challenges did you face as you developed the Nampa Rugby Club?
CK: Hands down, without a doubt, High School Football coaches. I have lost count how many times I have heard kids tell me their football coach told them if they play rugby instead of running track, they wont be able to play football. It’s just down and out bullying by these coaches. It just blows my mind that the football coaches stop their players from tackling, running with a ball in their hands, getting conditionedand being in a team environment to have them run around in circles. This is a very sore topic with me.
RN: How do you recruit players?
CK: Through word of mouth by the players and their parents. I make sure the players have a great time while they play rugby and I make sure the communication line between myself and their parents is strong. Both players and parents would tell their friends how much fun they have during the rugby season and it just grew from there.
RN: What the rugby environment like in Boise?
CK: Although we’re a small community here when you compare to traditional American sports like Football, Baseball and Basketball, we’re a tight community. There are no heated rivalries between any teams, be it High School boys, girls, mens and womens. Many great friendships have formed from players and coaches from different teams.
As an example, one of my girls has a scary accident last year during a game. At our first training session, all the players from The Furies came to our training session to see our player. They brought her gifts but the best gifts and the both teams had a great afternoon together. From that afternoon, a new tradition was formed between the two girls teams. This year, for the second time, Nampa Girls and The Furies will be playing for the Katie Hilton Cup.
RN: How has the rugby scene grown in the US and Idaho since you first arrived in the US?
CK: Rugby has exploded here in Idaho, in particularly Boise and Eastern Idaho. I remember back in 2012 there were 6 boys teams here in Boise and less girls teams if I remember correctly. Today both boys and girls teams have 2 divisions. The reason why it’s grown so fast is that we have the right people in the right positions at Rugby Idaho. Our Executive Director Mandy Genetti is amazing. We’re lucky to have her in that position. She is the driving forcebehind the rapid growth in Idaho.
RN: If given the opportunity; what would you change about rugby development in the US?
CK: I would introduce full contact at the youngest age possible. I remember when I was 5 being taught how to tackle. Because I learned from a young age, my natural tackling style has always been around the legs. In countries like New Zealand, Australia and England, tackling is taught from a young age.
I think there should be more tools and coaching clinics for youth coaches. I think the current L200 and L300 Coaching courses are disappointing. When I did my L200 last year, it felt like I was going through Rugby Coaching 101. I left the course very disappointed as I was hoping that it would be a lot more advanced than what was delivered.
We have some brilliant rugby coaches here in the US, if I had a position at USA Rugby and had the power to do this, I would tap into the knowledge of these talented coaches as well as look at what is being taught to coaches in New Zealand, Australia and England and put together a product that inexperienced coaches would benefit from.
RN: How can the game be marketed better?
CK: Firstly, when you look at all the 39 positions at the National Head Office, there isn’t a position specific to Marketing. My mind is blown there isn’t a position dedicated to market the game here in the US. That would be my first start.
I would then look at who is the best team that we could market and that would be hands down, the national Mens and Womens Eagles teams. While they have some down time from their various club and national commitments, I’d be sending players and coaches on rugby marketing promotional tours. Hold some coaching clinics for kids and even have both national teams hold their own tam camps at various locations through out the US. I’d also get them on TV as much as possible. From ESPN to local TV stations.
I sat in on a webinar hosted by Kurt Weaver from USA Rugby about the GNC in Portland this year. It’s great that the tournament this year will be held on a Friday and Saturday to accomadate players and families from the LDS faith and also the College scouts that will be there as well but what representation will there be from the mens and womens Eagles? Right now I’d love to know what they are doing during their down time from their club commitments.
RN: What are some of the tournaments your squads participate in?
CK: When I was coaching at Nampa we only participated in the Rugby Idaho pre-season tournament. I really like this set up as no wins and loses are recorded. It’s basically a great opportunity for coaches to let new players get the feel for a real live game and on experimenting with players being moved into various positions without hurting their season. Each team gets 3 games during the day and Im a huge advocate for something like this, especially for players that are new to the game.
RN: Who are some of your peers you feel need recognition for the work they do?
CK: I think every youth coach in Idaho need to be recognized. Coaching at a youth level can be mentally and emotionally draining. All the hard work they put into their teams is amazing. They give up their own time to become an influence in a kid’s life and that’s something that needs to be recognized.
RN: Have you developed any relationships with universities and clubs to provide a pathway for your players?
CK: I stood down from Nampa because I wanted to spend more time with my wife and kids. At the very start of my coaching retirement, I knew it wasnt going to last. I said to myself that if I go back to coaching, it would have to be a good fit for me and the club I go to. I had been approached by several clubs to help them out and I turned them all down. The situations for one reason or another just didn’t fit for me.
I was approached by Vince Spagnolo from the 43rd State Crimson Lions and was offered the coaching position for the newD3 team he was trying to form at the club. Most would look at this as taking the best of the rest type position but I looked at it as more of a developmental team than anything else. Right now, high school boys after they graduate, stop playing unless they go to BSU or ISU. They wont go to the Lions or Snake River Rugby because it’s a little intimidating for these kids to go to a men’s club without knowing someone at that club. What I’ll be doing is using my relationships that I have with the high school coaches as well as the relationships I have built with various players from otherteams and be that bridge of confidence they will have to come to a men’s club. It’ll be easier for them to move into men’s rugby if they have a familiar face there to greet them.
RN: Who are some Nampa coaches you’d like to highlight and why?
CK: Both Jon Buckridge and Joanie Ayotte. They have stepped up as Assistant Coaches and taken on roles as Head Coach for the boys and girls teams respectively. They knew how hard it would be for them after watching what I went through and both are doing tremendously well with their teams. If it weren’t for them, I would have the confidence to leave Nampa Rugby and know that it will grow into a bigger and better club.
RN: What are some of your biggest successes after the development of Nampa Rugby?
CK: Both boys and girls team have featured on State Championship day in the last 2 years. Graduating kids have moved onto college rugby and also mens and womens club rugby. They were definitely highlights but for me, my biggest success story would have to be the closeness of everyone at the club. I take pride in knowing that the club now is 50+ players strong, running like a well oiled machine and has a strong reputation within Rugby Idaho.
RN What’s that rugby moment you’d just like to forget?
CK: Without a doubt when I thought one of my girls last year was paralysed during a game, Even though she’s walking and wants to play again, that afternoon will haunt me forever.
RN: What’s the local media coverage like for your squads?
CK: Basically there is very minimal media coverage. At the moment, media coverage would be a luxury for the game here in Idaho. It could be something Rugby Idaho may look at in the future with more resources to concentrate on that aspect.
RN: Aside from championships; what goals are you still trying to accomplish?
CK: I just want to get as many kids to play rugby as possible and for them to love the game as much as I do.
RN: What are the obstacles you face in achieving those goals?
CK: Football coaches. Until they realise that encouraging their players to play rugby would benefit their program, I think there will always be resistance from them.
RN: Rugby Union competes with League and Aussie Rules back in Australia; what lessons do you take from that to grow rugby here as it competes for space in our sports landscape?
CK: Just worry about what we do and not worry about other sports being a threat. If we concentrate on what we’re doing right to attract the kids and work on what we’re doing wrong, we’ll have a better product to offer parents for.
RN: Finally Coach, what else would you like people to know about Nampa Rugby, rugby in Idaho, or just something in general?
CK: In all honesty, I believe that we have some amazingly talented people here in Idaho. We have some coaches with some of the most brilliant rugby minds here coaching in Idaho. We also have some of the most naturally gifted kids playing here as well. I would love to see USA Rugby bring the Eagles here to run some special practice sessions for the kids here and also some high performance coaching clinics for the coaches. The return that the game in Idaho would get from that would be invaluable.
RN; Thank you very much Coach, I really appreciate your insight and opinions.
In part two of the Rugby Nation USA Profile of Atlanta Youth Rugby (AYR) I interview youth coach Warren Mullis. Many of you may know him as one half of the Red, White, and Black Eye podcast but here you’ll see a slightly different side as he discusses training U-10 rugby players, youth development, and Atlanta Youth Rugby.
Rugby Nation USA (RN): Tell is a little about your rugby background, what got you into the sport?
Warren Mullis (WM): I was lucky enough to be involved in the first attempts of youth rugby in Georgia. I started playing in 2004 for the East Cobb Trojans. We won the first ever High School State Championship. I immediately fell in love with rugby and the rest is history.
RN: What got you into coaching youth rugby?
WM: I wanted to get involved and give back to youth rugby in Georgia. When I heard that AYR was trying to develop rugby outside of just High School, I got really interested. Most youth programs only focus on High School. In my opinion, getting kids in to rugby at a younger age is crucial to growing the game.
RN: You coach AYR U-10, what’s that like?
WM: Fun and challenging. I learn something every practice/game. I can’t believe how much energy they all have. It’s fun to watch them progress as a team and individual rugby players.
RN: How many players do you currently have in U-10?
WM: 25 players.
RN: Do you find it challenging explaining the game to kids, reprogramming their football minds?
WM: Yes. It’s wild how much of football, American football, the kids have absorbed even at a young age. When they first come out they want to block and throw the ball forward. It take a lot of explaining and drills to break their habits.
RN: At U-10 what skills do you focus on the most?
WM: PASSING. Every kid wants to practicing tackling and kicking. Nobody wants to practice passing! It’s the most important part in my opinion. I always have to remind the players that spin passes are not required.
RN: What drill do the kids like the most?
WM: Sharks and minnows. You start with one “shark” and the rest of the team are minnows with rugby balls. They run up and down the field getting tagged and turning in to sharks. It’s generally how we end the practice as a treat. Again these are young kids so you have to entertain them from time to time.
RN: What are some of the challenges you experience?
WM: For younger kids its keeping things fun and interesting. Drills I would run for a mens club don’t usually work for U-10 Team. Attention Spans are always short so you have to make sure everyone is listening and paying attention.
RN: I’ve witnessed the horror of that dreaded “baseball parent,” do you have run-ins with rugby parents?
WM: I’ve been really lucky and never had that experience (knocking on wood). I think the fact that most parents don’t know much about rugby helps. Its hard to correct a coach if you don’t know much about the sport. I often encourage parents to educate themselves on the game and the community.
RN: How do you go about teaching the U-10 respect of officials?
WM: It starts with never talking to the officials. Our Captains are the only ones allowed to talk to the Sir. If you have an issue you bring it to your Captain. When we run scrimmages if anyone complains it’s a penalty. Complaining generally stops after that.
RN: In regards to coaching, yes it helps to have played but do you need to have playing experience to coach?
WM: No! I have an Assistant Coach, Shawn, who has never played. He is a huge help to our practices. We just need more coaches! People that are willing to set up cones and help keep the kids organized. As long as you are willing to learn the game you can help coach.
RN: Coaching U-10 puts you on the forefront of rugby development in the US, what do you think our country currently doing right and wrong in terms of development?
WM: Loaded question there….10 years ago youth rugby focused on Colleges and Universities. I am seeing that focus now on High School with the growth of High School Tournaments and Tours. I think we need to continue that but start focusing on an even younger age groups. I think we could do a better job around PR for youth rugby. We need to focus on converting parents with younger children. Once parents understand that our U-8’s only play touch and that rugbyisn’t a violent or dangerous sport, like they assumed, they are much more willing to let their kids try it. I think Play Rugby USA and other efforts are really important and we need to keep focusing and expanding on this.
RN: Finally, what would you like to tell people who want to coach but aren’t doing it yet?
WM: Give it a try! Pun intended.
RN: Thank you for your time Coach Mullis, good luck with the rest of the season and I look forward to your podcast.
When you think of rugby hot beds most think of New England, Southern California, Texas, and Colorado. There are other pockets of growth that have quickly begun to emerge; Atlanta, Georgia is one of them.
In this two part interview I get a chance to ask Atlanta Youth Rugby President and Board Chairman Anthony Forbes-Roberts as well as youth coach and Red White and Black Eye podcaster Warren Mullis about the growth of rugby in Atlanta and their challenges and successes.
Rugby Nation USA (RN): The Atlanta Youth Rugby website has a nice bio of you but tell the readers a little bit about what drew you to rugby?
Coach Anton Forbes-Roberts (AR): Growing up in Vancouver, Canada, rugby was more prevalent than football from Middle school on. It was an easy choice for me. Rugby is a fluid game that can’t be played well without real sacrifice for the team, a lesson that I have always appreciated. I’ve played and coached many sports, and rugby builds teamwork like no other.
As an adult many years later, living in Atlanta, I saw an AYR yard sign, contacted Stewart Haddock, found that both my boys could play, and signed them up for the 2014 season.
RN: How long had AYR been around?
AR: Stewart started AYR in 2012 because of his son’s interest in rugby, and recruited a handful of boys. Coach Paul Raio saw them practicing one day and joined in. By the second season they had grown to about 35 players, and had begun our relationship with Life University with first Life student-athlete coach Colton Cariaga.
RN: Has the growth exceeded your expectations?
AR: Based on the potential for Atlanta, we have a long way to go. My first and second years with the club as Advisory Board Chair, we put in a more formal structure and plan including tactics for recruiting, and grew to about 110 players. I was elected President last year, and this season we have about 135 including our new U8 Coed touch side. We have also started after school Rookie Rugby programs at local Boys & Girls Clubs and for the City of Atlantathat have served about 200 kids. We’ve grown the participation of paid Life student-athelte coaches to 3 in our ‘core’ program; and 5 in the after school program, from both the Life Men’s’ and Women’s national champion teams. We’ve added a paid Program Director from Life U – ex-national team player and current Life coach Laura Miller; and Colton Cariaga has joined the AYR Board this year to replace the departed Dan Payne who now runs USA Rugby. And, with the addition of new sides we have a new generation of leadership with coacheslike Warren, who is the perfect blend of rugby and professional organizational skills.
RN: How many teams are there in the Atlanta area?
AR: Rugby Georgia is the SRO that oversees youth rugby here. It was formed last year and a new Board, which I am part of, elected last September. There are many, many dedicated rugby people that have been volunteer leaders for a long time – including Daan Pretorius, Niall Fenton, Randall Joseph, Carrie Harwell, Steve Vermaak, Stevie Roberts, and others. Clubs ebb and flow, but right now there are 8 or so. My goal for Rugby Georgia is to standardize an operating approach, and then make clubs stronger by adding Middle and Elementary sides. Second, we will make the after school programs we developed at AYR scalable to the Metro.
RN: With rugby powerhouse Life University in the area what’s the rugby environment like in Atlanta?
AR: Well, there’s a lot about Life above, and it’s only going to get better. We are institutionalizing our partnership, and with their new Lupo Family field Life is a showcase for events like the RCTs coming up in June. Recently we held a tourney for Rugby Georgia youth teams, you can read about it here:
RN: Is it a challenge to get youth introduced when there are so many other sports in Atlanta with professional leagues.
AR: Well, everything in life is a challenge. You just need to start with the end in mind, have a plan, and execute with the right people.
RN: Recruitment seems to be a common challenge across the country, how are you overcoming the challenges of recruitment?
AR: We have a number of tactics, but it still isn’t a cohesive strategy, especially across all the clubs. In the off-season this year, we want to build an executable ‘toolkit’ that includes online and offline methods.
RN: How many kids do you currently have in the program?
AR: As above about 135 in AYR core and about 200 annually in the after school Rookie Rugby programs, and about 450 in Rugby Georgia.
RN: Aside from recruitment, what are some of your biggest challenges with AYR?
AR: Any organization has to have the right mix of personality and process. Rugby is a ‘lore’ sport, compared to something like football which relies so heavily on set plays. That lore mentality is prevalent in how most rugby clubs are run, by strong personalities. When those personalities leave, the club fails. On the other hand, passion runs very strong in rugby and is the key ingredient to success. So you haveto harness the passion, but create belief in and adherence to structure and process. Some people get it, some people don’t. The ones that don’t are the biggest challenge.
RN: What are some of your biggest successes with AYR?
AR: My goal is to build both AYR and Rugby Georgia into a state where I can leave them in the hands of leaders like Warren. We have over 30 volunteer adults in AYR alone. There’s really no such thing as ‘success’ to me, but the more we can create a foundation that people can say “Sure – give me that to run” and then can actually do it, the better.
RN: What are we as a nation doing right and wrong in terms of rugby development?
AR: Ask Dan Payne – he has been a great sounding board for me and I do believe we think very much alike, but he is the real deal and I’m just a dad who is trying to give back. I’m definitely aligned with his goals to grow Elementary.
RN: Finally, what else would you like the Rugby Nation to know about AYR?
AR: We are about respect. Respect for everyone who is putting their shoulder to the wheel of growing the youth game in America, past, present and future.
RN: Thank you so much for your time and the energy and commitment you put into developing rugby in your area.