The Glendale side aim to produce rugby stars capable of playing for the US

American Raptors and the hunt for crossover rugby stars

For many, it felt like a handbrake moment when Glendale Raptors decided to pull out of Major League Rugby in 2020. A founding member, they were the first team to completely walk away. But talk to those involved in the rugby organisation in Colorado today and they are still fired up about creating elite rugby players. 

Their focus now? Known as American Raptors, their business is developing crossover athletes who can come from the traditional sports at the heart of American culture and grow into pro rugby. And they’ve gotten pretty good at it. 

“Around the time we left the MLR, with that many foreigners playing, it just wasn’t meeting the mission statement of the City of Glendale, which is to develop American rugby players,” explains general manager Peter Pasque. “But it’s gone great.

“We reach out to high-level football players, high-level basketball players, wrestlers, even track people. The amount of football players in the US is just crazy, right? It’s three to four thousand graduates every year that have basically been in five-year programmes at all different levels. Division One, Division Two. And 300 of those guys go to the NFL, so the rest are really looking for things to do.

American Raptors and the hunt for crossover rugby stars

A match against Outlaws (American Raptors)

“There’s a good group of a thousand or more guys that we reach out to online or through coaches or combines. We let them know there’s another opportunity to continue to play sport and make a difference in a sport in the US, to be a part of something that may be really special and help us become relevant and then, hopefully, win a World Cup at some point.”

It’s an interesting idea, right? A 15s side made up purely of converts. Some guys have ventured out to try training with other teams, to sample what it’s like to churn grass with MLR-calibre players and operate under different coaches.

But when they come back, Pasque says, there’s a real buzz about raising standards as a group. As he adds, “I think if we can keep a large group of these guys together for two to three years and continue to add more depth and more of them, then it could be a really unique, fun project for sure.”

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The proof of concept must have hit home when players of theirs began moving into MLR rosters. Dallas Jackals took on Campbell Johnstone, Shawn Clark, Tommy Madaras and Sam Phillips. Austin Gilgronis welcomed in Casey McDermott Vai, while Rugby New York formed a relationship with Kaleb Geiger. Just this month, Pono Davis joined Houston SabreCats and former Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Tani Tupou signed with the Seawolves.

Former Eagles and Dragons back Paul Emerick is the head coach at Raptors, having joined in January. But according to Pasque, the driving force behind focusing on a crossover academy side came from Glendale mayor Mike Dunafon and director of rugby Mark Bullock. A RugbyTown documentary series helps fund some of this, but the vast majority of the project is bankrolled the same way rugby in Glendale has been for the last 20 years. 

American Raptors and the hunt for crossover rugby stars

Tani Tupou (centre left, for Seahawks) is a prop now (Getty Images)

A lot of the recruitment can be done for free on social media and through a network of contacts. There’s also the potential to form partnerships. Pasque raises the point that for a project like this to be totally successful, there really should be other hubs elsewhere in that vast nation. By the same token, after one year of the Raptors project, the group are pleased. 

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A goal is to play in a professional league somewhere in the world in the near future – Súper Liga Americana de Rugby (SLAR) or “other international leagues” get a shoutout, and in November the team enjoyed a tour in Uruguay. But it’s also about producing Eagles out of crossover rugby stars. They are very proud of David Still coming through Glendale on the way to the sevens, for example.

It helps that their Infinity Park home is also the National Training Centre for the men’s and women’s 15s sides. Eagles boss Gary Gold has coached the odd session and some might be on his wider radar. Perhaps the Eagles hierarchy could help with some recruitment suggestions, or with camps. 

Is it weird at all developing players that other teams may benefit from, though?

American Raptors and the hunt for crossover rugby stars

Taking a lineout against Seattle RFC (Seth McConnell/American Raptors)

“Our goal is that they represent our country,” says Pasque. “So to make the US sevens or to make US 15s teams is what we’re doing. Obviously, we’re more of a 15s-based programme, but I would never want to take away the idea of a guy getting (an Olympic) gold medal, if it’s what he wants to do. We just want to be open.

“And, you know, when we’re talking to these guys, they’re coming from football culture. So when we’re first on the phone with them, we have to tell them that we think there’s an ability to get paid playing rugby.

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“If somebody internationally or abroad comes and looks at them, that’s an option. We want them to have opportunities and options in rugby because then more of them will come. And if the best option and opportunities are with us, that’s great. If there’s a better opportunity or option somewhere else then that’s great as well. We’ll continue to recruit.”

The Raptors have two training windows, really, so they have the capacity to welcome back players after the short MLR season. But recruitment is always a big driver. As Pasque adds of the potential benefit to the Eagles: “It forces us to be really, really good at recruiting.

“Because to make a massive effort like trying to win the 2027 World Cup, we need to bring in 40 high-quality new players every year at a minimum so that by then there’s hundreds of them. Then hopefully we can somehow have enough depth to make a big impact.”

It’s not that they hope to lose players. If they can raise their pay and be a competitive outfit, the desire to stay a Raptor could be there. But they have also promised guys the opportunity to thrive. What they don’t want is players holding hit shields every week elsewhere. What they do want is US talent thriving, wherever they may be.

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