The American Raptors coach fills us in on the "wild ride" in Súper Rugby Américas
Since November, everyone involved in the project has been on “a wild ride”, according to American Raptors head coach Sarah Chobot.
As she explains to Rugby World: “Our original concept was, you know, finding crossover athletes and tapping into a new pathway. And then now we’re on a table in a very competitive league. So that began the race to find players and fill voids. But it’s been exciting times.”
So let’s recap quickly, for those who’ve never heard of the Raptors. In the first-ever Major League Rugby (MLR) season, what was then the Glendale Raptors finished top of the regular-season pile, before losing in a grand final against the Seattle Seawolves. But in 2020, the team – backed by their city – walked away from the league, deciding instead to focus on converting athletes from other US sports, into rugby.
And they had successes, helping mould athletes with real promise. Yet the dream was to find more regular games for them, the Raptors. Frankly, as fun as the friendlies and tours could be, there was a sense something more might be out there…
This season the Raptors are in Súper Rugby Américas (formerly SLAR), a lone American side in the competition.
So how did Chobot – the rare female head coach in the men’s pro game – create this place for herself?
“So many times, it’s like right place, right time and opportunity,” the 32-cap Eagle tells us. “I never had visions of being a coach. My intent was always play as long as I could and then be done but unfortunately an injury forced my hand.
“I started coaching the PRP (Pacific Rugby Premiership) team, which is the amateur side for Glendale, and I was doing well. And then Mark (Bullock, Raptors director of rugby) brought me on to the staff to do the scrums and then as the seasons progressed, my roles kind of increased and then we’re here today.”
She laughs about her love of set-piece play, considering that the ex-sevens cap was a reluctant front-rower at first. But the drive to play took her all over parks around the country too. The Michigan native honed her craft in Minnesota, played sevens in Virginia, found her feet again after injury at Chicago’s North Shore, and finished up in Colorado.
It’s in Colorado that this project has taken root, where crossover stars are nurtured with the hope of shining in the men’s elite game. In women’s rugby we’ve already seen plenty of athletes cross over into rugby and shine – particularly in sevens.
But in discussing this Raptors project being mirrored in the women’s game, Chobot looks well beyond that, at the game as a whole, seeing North and South America as fertile ground for competitions “to rival the Premier 15s”, however in Colorado the priority is to make the men’s programme a success before considering anything else.
Which brings us to how Chobot feels about being a female head coach in the men’s game.
“I don’t really think about it because there’s so many moving parts,” she begins. “It’s all about being at the place for the best possible growth, the positive experience, but I’d need some time and space away from it (current competition) to give a really good answer on that because right now it’s all in the moment. It’s week by week. And I’ve never been like a super chatty person…
“But I think I’m in a rare position in a lot of ways.
“I use the word youth – not really because of my age, but because of how long I’ve been in an actual coaching role. You add on top of that, being in a very unique role. There are definitely challenges and I tell you what, I’ve never had a bigger learning curve than I have here. Not as a player. Not any sports. But yeah, the importance of it is certainly not lost for me. It’s definitely not lost. I just don’t know if I have the right words…”
When the focus is on her, on being a female head coach in this world, the focus gets pushed elsewhere. Which is understandable. But Chobot isn’t shy of fronting questions on the aims of this project with a twist. Everyone in Glendale walks the tightrope between development and performance. But the team want to see the ‘W’ appear in the results tables and they want to develop leaders who can move things on again next season.
This term, it’s why the crossover crew have been augmented by a batch of South American stars like Martín Landajo, Lucas González Amorosino, Ramiro Moyano, Diego Magno, and Juan Echeverría. Just like everyone else, though, they’re swept up in this first ride.
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