Divisional Development – Rugby’s Evolution in Glendale
Professional debuts, Amateur rugby thrives.
With the 2018 arrival of professional, Major League Rugby in the United States, significant changes are afoot in Glendale’s Rugby Football Club. The Men’s elite team will move forward into the professional league, playing as the Glendale Raptors, while the Women’s Premier League team, the Men’s Division I and II teams, and the new Under-20 team will all fly under the new Glendale Merlins moniker. With the first American professional rugby league bursting onto the scene next spring, fans might be tempted to turn a blind eye to the robust Divisional rugby squads. Doing so would be a mistake.
Photo by Seth McConnell
A large part of what makes Glendale’s rugby programming special is the strong emphasis on developmental programming. Starting with the Glendale Raptors Rugby Academy, transitioning through the new U20 program, and then onto the D1 and D2 teams, Glendale offers rugby players a true pathway from kindergarten to the pros. The Men’s D1 and D2 teams serve as developmental platforms for players aspiring to compete at the highest level.
Glendale’s Division II team has and will continue to compete in the Rocky Mountain Union, a league featuring a combined spring and fall schedule with teams from Colorado and Utah. Last year, the team played in the Frontier Championships, ultimately losing to the St. Louis Bombers in the round of sixteen. New for 2018, the Division I team will be competing in the Red River Conference, a league comprised largely of Texas teams but also featuring clubs from Colorado and Arkansas. In previous years, Glendale has competed in the California-centered Pacific Rugby Premiership. Travel demands on the California teams forced the league to reform, permitting only in-state teams to compete. As Glendale’s Director of Rugby Mark Bullock explains, a dearth of teams in Colorado and Utah has forced the Merlins to look elsewhere: “This is the challenge of Colorado rugby: the great distances we have to travel in order to compete against quality opposition.” According to Bullock, the Red River Conference provides that quality competition and also offers Glendale a path to the national championship playoffs.
A platform to the professional team.
Divisional competition also offers Glendale players and coaches other opportunities. Specifically, divisional teams act not only as support for club-level, semi-pro play, but also as a developmental platform for the new professional team. Director Bullock notes three critical elements of any team sport: quality athletes, players and coaches who understand and are willing and able to fulfill specific roles within a team, and, significantly, depth. He points out that throughout a season players will inherently be lost to injury, personal and professional commitments, and even National Team duty. Divisional players, and even those from the new Under-20 team, provide an additional source of depth, filling in when appropriate.
As the divisional teams move into next year, coaches will focus on increasing players’ skill sets, and also on their ability to make quick decisions under pressure. Bullock notes that training in a professional environment like that of Infinity Park leads to higher quality players on the field, exceptional competition, and, ultimately, greater enjoyment for spectators. For both the divisional competition and the professional league, continued development and improvement has the additional bonus of better preparing athletes for the USA National Team and a potential bid for the next Rugby World Cup.
Glendale’s Men’s Elite team, the players and coaches that will enter Major League Rugby’s professional league next year as the Raptors, enjoyed exceptional success this year. Following an undefeated fall season, Bullock reflects on the future of divisional competition in Glendale: “The D1 team will be the proving ground for players new to Glendale. It will be a vehicle for players who want to play professionally to prove themselves, and it will also serve athletes interested in high-level play, but who have careers and aren’t interested in professional competition.” The D2 team will continue to serve as a social amateur team, providing an opportunity for athletes to enjoy the competition and camaraderie of the game, on and off the field.
Rugby is community centric.
As Glendale’s decade-long relationship with rugby continues to mature, it is important that fans and athletes recognize and embrace the sport’s sometimes-humble beginnings. Divisional competition at Infinity Park is a critical aspect of the Glendale Rugby Football Club organization, not just as a developmental process for professional competition, or as an exceptional platform for high-level play, but as a foundational aspect of rugby’s community centric ethos, and as a means by which the sport will continue to grow and thrive in the United States.