By John Arthur
Following a statistically impressive but ultimately disappointing conclusion to their inaugural Major League Rugby debut season, the Glendale Raptors have all hands on deck for 2019. As an exhibition schedule and official preseason loom ever nearer, Raptors Head Coach David Williams explains how hard his side is working to make sure the MLR Championship Shield comes to Glendale next year.
After a short July break, the Raptors are back to regular season training levels. With a focus on what Williams puts simply as “building bigger, better, more powerful bodies,” the squad is hitting the gym five days a week. Off-season preparation is focused on individual development, skills improvement, and patterns. With a reasonable timeframe to get into shape before league play starts, the Raptors should be able to integrate new talent onto the squad and prepare the players being called up to the USA Eagles side for the national team’s four-game November tour.
Long characterized by veteran players, the Raptors are not short on opportunities to recruit new talent. Infinity Park hosted a camp for the Collegiate All-Americans in mid-August, an event that saw nearly one hundred of the best college-level rugby players in the country come to compete. Split divisionally, East and West, the group was pared to the top selections, later playing against the Raptors MLR side. Glendale Head Coach Williams explains that the camp is a recruitment tool: “It doesn’t just give us a shot at early pre-season play, it also allows our coaching staff and the rest of the MLR coaches a chance to see the next generation of talent in action.” Outside of U.S. potentials, international signings within the league point to the talent that MLR is attracting, and add further value and legitimacy to American professional rugby.
Asked about signings to look for in the off-season, Williams, who is notoriously tight-lipped about both players he’s courting and game day strategy, was reluctant to divulge specifics, but said with a laugh that more than half of his job as Raptors Head Coach is recruitment. “I’m looking all the time. Seeing which players are off contract, speaking to agents, keeping connections around the world. We are always building our squad to be bigger and better for next year. A lot of players contact us. This is an environment where they can improve and prosper and they understand that.”
Camps and relationships are an important aspect of making sure Williams is able to continue to attract fresh faces, but Glendale has another leg up on most of the competition: the Raptors Academy. A European-style feeder system for young players to mature for professional or divisional play, the Academy has already produced one impressive MLR player: the Raptors’ break out player Mika Kruse. Entering professional play at 19 years of age, Kruse was a regular on highlight reels throughout the inaugural season. Williams has nothing but praise for the young player: “He is definitely someone fans need to look for next year. He is a rising star in U.S. Rugby without a shadow of a doubt. How he plays, how he prepares, how he trains, his skills: it’s awesome. Simple as that. He’s only going to grow.” Asked about the evolving Academy programming, Williams is reflective: “It’s an interesting proposition,” he said. “The Academy is a long-term solution for supplying the Raptors with ongoing talent. We always want to build a bigger player base. The Academy does that and provides an opportunity for players to train professionally and develop their game. We’re one of the few clubs that have an Academy program and is developing these younger players.”
Outside of developing new players, the Raptors are, of course, training their exceptionally talented existing squad. Back on a regular season training regimen, the team is exploring nutrition and mental conditioning in addition to their rigorous physical preparation. With a full time mental skills coach, and continued education on nutrition, Glendale is building what promises to be a 2019 powerhouse. Williams says that education is key to making his team the best next season: “The boys do a huge amount of work in the gym and on the pitch, but there’s more to the game. The more education on prep and recovery we have, the better players we have at the end of the day.”
Glendale remains an MLR favorite going into 2019. Rugby-specific facilities and top-tier talent set the team apart from the crowd, but the Raptors have something to prove in their second professional season. Statistics won’t cut it this year for Williams, or for the rest of the squad: they want to bring home the big win. Though the inaugural season is just behind them, preparations are underway for the team to leave their stamp on Major League Rugby, beginning with fall exhibitions. As Williams succinctly puts it: “The standard has to improve year on year. That will happen in 2019.”