Glendale Continues to Build Avenues for Player Advancement in their Men’s Program

Mark Bullock   29-Apr-2019   Seth McConnell

Understanding the Men’s Player Pathway: Youth Rugby

On the heels of the Major League Rugby announcement regarding the upcoming 2020 season, the Glendale Raptors Rugby program is eager to continue the growth of its player base and our development pipeline. We know that in order to continue to compete at this level, we will have to build relationships with a variety of other competitive programs, and not just in the rugby world.

The Raptors development pathway is displayed (below) and encompasses all levels of rugby within our Glendale program, from introductory youth rugby to professional rugby. We have also broken this down more into classifications that most Americans are familiar with: Major League, AAA, AA and A. Now, it’s good to note that this particular development pathway is envisioned for our Raptors side, so includes only our male rugby players. The WPL will have a similar one, with more focus placed on our Girls H.S. program and camps. But, that is for another time and another blog, so, before I digress, let’s start at our base and begin working our way up through the pyramid.

Player Pathway Pyramid

The Glendale Raptors Youth Rugby program includes all of our K-8 school-aged ruggers, whether they play Try League, Winter Indoor, Spring, Summer Flag or Fall rugby. This is the base of our pyramid, as it is the ideal starting point for a player. Within Glendale, we have been committed to developing this part of our program for more than a decade and the possibilities for growing this player base still appear endless.

Currently, our youth rugby program sees approximately 200 boys (ages 5-14) participate throughout the year. However, it should be noted that at this level (and even in varying degrees throughout the higher levels, as well) we aren’t looking at talent selection, instead we are looking at talent identification and creating a basic knowledge and love for the sport.

In my opinion, many youth sports today spend too much time on talent selection, or choosing players with the current ability to be successful in their sport. But that only seems to yield results today. Here in Glendale, we want to focus on talent identification. The difference? Identification means searching out young athletes, who may not be elite players yet, but possess the physical and psychological attributes to eventually become one.

The hope for me, and for our rugby department as a whole, is to extend our youth program and this philosophy across the greater Denver metro. Allowing for partner programs to pop up in various areas that may not have access to youth rugby enables us to spread the love of this great sport and our local professional rugby team. It may also mean we could have more Colorado kids involved with this sport as they head into the next level of participation, their local high school programs.

Glendale Youth Rugby After School

With that said, we have already partnered with Rugby Colorado to allow athletes from the area high school programs looking for more specific rugby training to join a program called C.O.R.E. (the Center of Rugby Excellence). This program, which is based at the Glendale Rugby training facilities, is managed by Rugby Colorado staff and includes instruction by our Raptors Academy coach, Ata Malifa, our Director of Amateur Rugby, Luke Gross, and our Youth Coordinator, Jamie Burke, all of whom work together with other specialists from the Merlins and Raptors staff to give these high school players an exceptional experience and deeper insight into the game of rugby. Sessions include a comprehensive on-field and off-field rugby education, where the players are still expected to honor their H.S. Rugby season requirements, in addition to the C.O.R.E curriculum. The hope is that this C.O.R.E. program will be the cornerstone for the next generation of Colorado ruggers headed to college, our Raptors Elite Development Academy, or both.

The single ‘A’ level squad is comprised of young adult players (approximately 18-25) who have little experience with the game or cross-over athletes who need a foundational game understanding and a focus on fundamental skills. This level of our pathway includes collegiate rugby players, cross-over athletes and the partnerships we’ve developed with universities and the Vail Rugby Club. Ideally, several collegiate rugby players will join us from Affiliated Collegiate Rugby Programs. Partnerships have already begun with collegiate programs that want a clearer pathway for their top athletes; and as our ‘affiliates’ help us to better identify elite athletes who may be suitable for our Raptors Academy program, we will then select players to send up to Vail for a chance to prove that they are ready for the next level.

There is also an option for cross-over athletes at the collegiate level through these partnerships. Any athletes interested in making the conversion to rugby will also be invited to Vail, where they will train and play at 8,150 feet. Once they are finished competing in the Summer Mountain League, they will have been viewed and assessed by our Glendale coaches and will receive either an invite into our Academy/DI program or will be allowed other options to continue their rugby training. If athletes don’t want to commit to a whole summer there will be a brief camp held in Glendale, in August, specifically created to determine if an athlete has what it takes to make the switch to professional rugby. Our cross-over camp concludes with a trip to Aspen Ruggerfest in September, where they will get a chance to compete at one of the best rugby festivals in the country.

‘AA’ is where we introduce players to the Raptors Elite Development Academy where we look to develop athletes into professional players. The athletes will be supported by Academy staff, specialty coaches, sports psychologists, strength and conditioning personnel and more. Players selected to attend the Academy will be assessed under four main categories:

  • Skills and elements of competence
  • Fitness
  • Tactical and game awareness
  • Personal attitude

Those within our Academy must demonstrate the potential to become a professional rugby player and the mental toughness and desire to be the best. Academy athletes will be expected to put "rugby first" and adopt a lifestyle that will enable them to develop into a professional athlete. Players will compete in various matches throughout the year, but many will not make it to the top level, choosing instead to play rugby at the semi-professional or club level.

Merlins vs Santa Monica

AAA’ is our Glendale Merlins side which competes in the Pacific Rugby Premiership (PRP) competition. This is the launch board for the Raptors, and allows athletes to prove their potential. The aim is to create a well-rounded individual based on hard work, talent and humility, while producing players of the future. This team contains players who are playing at the top level of Division I rugby, those not quite ready for MLR, but still contain the potential to be called up (Academy) and those who are good enough to play MLR, but are being held in reserve and need game time. All three groups of players are brought together to prove themselves in a season that runs congruent to the MLR, but is competing in the PRP. The players within this level can often find themselves training with the Raptors, but then playing with the Merlins. Regardless of who they are playing for on Saturday, they are representing the Glendale Rugby family and are being gauged against the best rugby talent this country has to offer.

That brings us to the top of our development pipeline: the Glendale Raptors, a Major League Rugby team with a storied past and a world-class training facility. Here in Glendale, our elite coaches and training-staff are hard at work developing player skills, reviewing training plans, analyzing video and GPS data taken from practice sessions throughout the week, pushing players through regimented weight and skill training and running full team drills on the training pitch. In the off-season, our staff is busy scouting new talent throughout the U.S. and abroad.

Now that you have seen what each step of our player pathway entails, please don’t hesitate to contact me at mbullock@glendale.co.us, if you know of a program or if you feel you know of an athlete who is ready to join the Raptors Player Pathway. Of course, we are very excited to see where the rest of this season takes us, but we are always looking to the future of our club and the potential MLR Championships to come!

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