Rugby Nation USA Profile: Head Coach Pat Abernathey 

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by Jason Graves

Colorado, arguably the Mecca of rugby in the US. Just miles from RugbyTown USA is the city of Boulder where true to Colorado’s rugby tradition great things are happening in regard to developmental rugby. Coach Pat Abernathey (@PatAbernathey) of Boulder Rugby tell Rugby Nation USA about some of the great things going on in his neck of an ever growing rugby neighborhood. 

Rugby Nation USA (RN): Tell us a little about your rugby background.

Pat Abernathey (PA): I began playing in 1995 in Denton, Texas. I played in the back line for Denton RFC, Brazos Celtic Exiles RFC (defunct team in College Station, TX), San Antonio Rugby and Boulder Rugby. I still play occasional D4 games and Old Boys games for Boulder Rugby.

Along with Jay Sanchez, I started the San Antonio RFC high school team, and coached them for three years. 

I served as president of the San Antonio RFC for several years.

I began coaching Boulder Rugby’s high school boys team in 2014, this is my third season with the team.

I am a Level 200 certified coach with USA Rugby, and am currently finishing my Level 300.

RN: What is your overall coaching philosophy?

PA: Fun. Safe. Educational. I want rugby players to enjoy their experience, and grow in the game as I have.

If it ain’t fun, why do it?

However, it is more fun to win. So we want to work hard, while having fun.

RN: Do you have a preferred attaching style?

PA: Go forward. Move the ball wide. Be fast, but be cool (no frenetic stuff). Don’t panic – be precise.

RN:  What’s your defensive philosophy?

PA: Get in their face. Get them on the ground. Get the ball. 

It sounds over simplified, but at this level it really makes sense. We come up hard as a line and let the opposition make mistakes. As far as tackling, we want sure tackles. We focus a lot on tackling basics.

RN: What is your role on the Boulder Rugby Club Board of Directors entail?

PA: I represent the high school teams (we are hoping to start a girls team in the Fall). The high school rep is a voting member of the board, along with the youth rep, men’s rep, women’s rep and old boys rep.

Mainly what I do on the board is help coordinate with the other teams to make sure Boulder Rugby as a whole is being represented properly, and that we are living our mission of providing safe and fun rugby to people of all ages.

RN: You coach in one of our country’s rugby hotbeds (Colorado), what can you tell us about the rugby environment in the Boulder area?

PA: Boulder County is at the forefront of rugby development in the U.S.A. We have roughly 350,000 residents in the county, and we have two large youth programs (Superior and Boulder), a single-school high school program (Monarch) and a high school club (Boulder), plus two men’s teams (North Side Marauders and Boulder Rugby) a women’s team (Boulder Babes) and an active Old Boys team (Boulder).

We have a plan to expand with high school girls, add at least two more youth programs and at least two more high school boys programs. We really want to get more kids involved. We have room to grow here in our own county.

RN: What do you think States trying to start up a high school rugby program need to do first?

PA: Organize. Organize. Organize.

Parents love organization and communication. Have a field. Have times. Have plans. Get an email list started.

Get your safety plan in place. Why should a parent trust their kid to you? How can you prove it?

Once parents trust you to do right by their kids, they will help a lot.

Make a recruiting plan, and execute that plan. Don’t just rely on word of mouth. 

RN: What are going to be their biggest challenges?

PA: Numbers for critical mass. You are going to lose kids throughout the season – lose interest, injuries, etc. – you have to have numbers to maintain a viable team. Numbers allow you to play games, which get the kids hooked. If they can’t play, they will leave.

Getting 20 kids to stick around is tougher than it sounds for a first-year program.

RN: What are your biggest challenges?

PA: Fields. Snow can play havoc with our season – both games and practices. Nothing is worse than having a great week of training, then have a Friday night snow storm wreck the game location. We scramble a lot to reschedule.

Lack of lights in our main park. The club owns flood lights, and that is good, but permanent lights would help.

RN: Do you have a pipeline for students to continue playing after HS, either into college or club?

PA: We have several kids playing in college – Colorado School of Mines, University of Colorado, Mesa State – there are a number of Boulder Rugby high school alums playing rugby still. We encourage it heavily. Several of our seniors this year are looking to continue playing in college.

Many of the kids on our team go to college, but for those who may not go that direction, Boulder Rugby actively recruits them to play – usually starting D4 and then they move up as they mature.

RN: If you could change anything about the high school rugby landscape what would it be?

PA: Too much infighting. I would ask coaches to put their egos aside and do what’s best for rugby. Coaches fight over the smallest things. Also, we need more quality coaches. 

RN: If you could sit in a room with Dan Payne (and maybe you have) what would you tell him about rugby development in the US?

PA: I have not had the chance…yet. We do work in the same town – my office is in Lafayette. 

I would tell Dan to keep running the national office like a business. 

Make U-8 age group the most-important age group in the nation. What does that mean? Recruit coaches and teach clubs how to form a youth league – not just a team. Youth 7s leagues (TRY) can be formed so easily if the organizers take the right approach. USA Rugby already does a ton, so don’t let me sound like they are falling down – they have all these resources.

But how to start a league is just as important as how to form a team.

RN: Who are some of your players you’d like to highlight and why?

PA: Isiah Wier-Marsh, Sr., Flyhalf – Niwot High School – Isiah is a top student, good rugger and a great kid. He has played for me for three years and grown tremendously. Loves rugby.

John Goodhew, Sr., Fullback, home schooled – Been playing with Boulder Rugby since middle school (TRY).

Seth Laborde, Sr., Hooker, Boulder High School – team leader. His dad was a hooker. 

Matt McCarthy, Soph., lock, Boulder High School – South African-born. Big, talented. 

I highlight these young men because they would rather play rugby than do just about anything else. They “got the bug” and will play well into their adult years. And, they will be club leaders for a men’s club one day.

RN: What’s been your biggest success this season so far?

PA: We started practice on January 3 with nearly 40 high school kids and nearly 20 middle school kids (the middle school 15s team is new this season). Most of those kids are still with us – and we are adding.

RN: What’s the rugby moment you’d like to forget from 2016?

PA: Blocked clearing kick for a try (which cost us the game) against a rival. Especially since we worked on setting up a safe environment for clearance kicks a lot the week before.

RN: We spend a lot of time talking about the players, is there a pipeline for coaches in the US?

PA: Not really. We need one, badly.

Lack of quality coaches is the second biggest obstacle to our sport growing. No. 1 is lack of referees.

We can recruit kids all day. But we need good coaches to shepherd those kids into loving rugby.

A crappy coach, who may know a lot about the game, will turn kids off quickly.

RN: What would you recommend for potential coaches?

PA: Don’t over complicate the game. It’s run, pass, catch, tackle. Keep it there and let the players grow on their own.

Keep the parents happy (if you are a youth coach).

RN: Everyone has that one dream job, what’s yours?

PA: I love rugby. I had a religious conversion in 1995. I am a missionary for this game. I have been spreading the gospel of rugby for 21 years, and I will never stop.

I do it for free, but getting paid to be a full-time rugby coach would be pretty freaking cool.

RN: Finally Coach, what would you like to tell people about and Boulder Rugby?

PA: Boulder Rugby is building an infrastructure to offer a safe and fun rugby environment to as many people as possible in Boulder County. From U-8s to Old Boys and Old Babes, you could start as an 8 year old with Boulder Rugby and play until you are 80 (or older) with the same club.

Thank you very much for your time Coach. I hope to keep in touch and see the growth of your development program. 


Upcoming RN USA Profiles:

Feb 21: Brian Lemme- HC WVU Women’s Rugby

Feb 28: Ted Hardy- Clayton Bootleggers 

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