Members Of Professional Raptors Squad Faced Rugby Americas Selects
Last Saturday, in the final match of the 2018 Fall Exhibition Season, members of the professional Raptors team, alongside young players from Glendale’s Academy side, took to Infinity Park’s pitch to challenge the Rugby Americas Selects. A team comprised of internationally capped players from South America, Canada, and the United States, the Selects gathered in Glendale as part of a professional combine organized by World Rugby: an initiative designed to expose talented players to the burgeoning professional rugby scene in the U.S. Featured heavily in the weeklong skills and scrimmaging program was the potential for contracts with Major League Rugby (MLR), the first commercially viable professional league in the States, which is entering its second season in 2019.
With coaches and staff from various MLR teams, including members of the Utah Warriors and representatives from an Atlanta squad that will further expand Major League Rugby in 2020, the combine was a roaring success: not just providing high-level rugby action for fans, but also allowing contact between budding international stars and the world of professional U.S. rugby. Although the match was a friendly, with little at stake for the Glendale side – a somewhat experimental group still being tested by Head Coach David Williams – the Selects had much to prove, looking to secure contracts with professional teams.
Structured differently from a traditional rugby union game, Saturday’s match was played in four twenty-minute quarters. The first three quarters of play saw two teams evenly matched, the opening twenty minutes concluding with a score set at 5 apiece. After an equally physically second quarter brought on the halftime break, Glendale trailed 19-12 against the Selects. Coming off the rest, recently signed Raptors newcomer Chad Gough dotted down at 42 minutes, the conversion off Raptors staple Will Magie’s boot bringing things even at 19 each. Not to be outdone, the visiting Selects side then piled things on, scoring three tries in rapid succession to end the third quarter and enter the final 20 minutes of play with a 38-19 advantage.
Back and forth tries in the fourth quarter saw Glendale draw within striking distance, but the Selects refused to be denied a victory, closing the match with back-to-back tries and taking the win 59-31 at the final whistle. The final exhibition match for the Glendale team, Saturday’s contest was less about securing a win and more about exposing Raptors players to exceptional international talent. Asked about the visiting players, Raptors Head Coach David Williams was thrilled for the opportunity to see what was on offer: “We have to give these guys a chance to prove themselves in a professional rugby environment,” he said. “That’s something some of them don’t have currently. We have to make sure we’ve got 40 lads on every squad for the 2019 season, and this is the perfect opportunity for these international players to showcase themselves.” Though nothing has been made official, the Raptors are in active negotiation with several of the visiting combine participants, and hope to announce signings in the coming weeks.
Williams went on to add that the league remains focused on the future: “The more access to talent we get the better. As MLR expands it’s only going to improve our players to train and play with the most talented players we can. There is a definite need for this additional talent to bolster the U.S. teams. It’s very important to look at players not just for the upcoming season, but also for future seasons. If we can take advantage of international talent I’m all for that.” Speaking to the expansion of rugby in the United States, however, he is emphatic: “Growth will never be at the expense of U.S. talent. That is not the aim or my philosophy – if I can get an American player, I’ll choose him any day of the week.” As Major League Rugby continues its meteoric rise, accompanied not just by expansion teams and a spread across North America, but also by the establishment of young players and academy programs like those in Glendale, the Raptors likely won’t have long to wait before signing domestic talent on a regular basis.