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?
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 team member 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 between players 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?
ML: Yes, there is a direct tie into the Rugby Alabama SBRO.
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’s team 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 then we 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?
ML: I want them to go to http://birminghamrugby.com/tournaments/ and sign up a youth rugby team for the 34th Annual Vulcan 7s on June 24, 2017. There are brackets for age 6 and up.
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?
RN: What’s the short term goals for your overall youth programs?
ML: Have more youth sign up at http://birminghamrugby.com/youth-3/ and play 7s during the May/June season.
RN: Long term goals?
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:
USA South Senior 15 = Brendan Smith, David Coleman, and Zach Blalock
USA South U21 = Danny Mwaura
USA South Senior 15 Development = Adam Hicks
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
RN: I want to thank you very much for you time and I truly appreciate you joining Rugby Nation USA!