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 Atlanta that 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 coaches like 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 have to 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.
Mar 27: Atlanta Youth Rugby Pt 2
Apr 3: Nampa Rugby Head Coach Chris Kovac