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Sunday 5 February 2023 Dublin: -3°C
# US Rugby
'Rubbing shoulders with Botha, O'Connell - it's something you can't buy'
Former Munster Peter Borlase is assistant coach of the Denver Stampede, winners of PRO Rugby.

THE INAUGURAL SEASON of the USA’s professional rugby league finished two weeks ago, with Denver Stampede emerging as the first-ever victors of PRO Rugby.

Irishman Sean O’Leary head coached Denver to their title success, with former Ulster back row Pedrie Wannenburg captaining the side from number eight.

There was a further link to Ireland in the Stampede’s coaching staff, as former Munster prop Peter Borlase took up the role of assistant coach, with particular focus on the forwards.

Peter Borlase Dan Sheridan / INPHO Borlase played in Munster's win over Australia in 2010. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Borlase, who is only 31, believes PRO Rugby managed to get off to a fine start in 2016.

“Overall, it was a success,” says the New Zealander. “I think we brought in a few more people from outside the rugby community, which was great.”

Borlase – who was with Munster from 2010 until 2012, spending a loan stint at Connacht too – and his fellow PRO Rugby coaches are currently involved in a review of the first season, which involved five teams and ran from April until late July.

Attendances in Denver, Ohio, San Diego, San Francisco and Sacramento averaged just over 1,700, but there is major confidence that the league will grow in the coming years.

While PRO Rugby bears a ‘professional’ tag, last season wasn’t exactly that, with Denver being a case in point. Some of the clubs’ rosters included 28 full-time players, but the Stampede had only 14, meaning their training sessions took place in the evening to allow part-time players to complete regular work commitments.

Borlase, O’Leary and co. plan for that to be rectified in 2017.

Many of those who attended the games in the US, or watched on the free live streams, were pleasantly surprised by the attacking ambition of the rugby on display. The quality will surely rise with each season, but the intent and ideas are there.

“It’s like any league; your brand of rugby grows the support base and the game in the country,” says Borlase. “We had an idea of the brand of rugby we wanted to play, a confrontational game but also with a lot of width.

denver_team PRO Rugby Borlase and the Denver squad. PRO Rugby

“We ended up playing quite an expansive game and the fans did really buy into it.”

Wannenburg was the strongest Irish link in Denver’s playing squad – the 35-year-old will play on next season, before turning to coaching – but there were players of interest in the other clubs’ rosters.

Corkman and US international John Quill captained Sacramento, Blackrock College alumni Pierce Dargan and Dylan Fawsitt were with second-placed Ohio, while former Munster academy coach Ray Egan was in charge of San Diego.

Borlase is hopeful there will be more Irish involvement in 2017.

“Before I lived in Ireland, I hadn’t realised how close New York was to Shannon,” says Borlase with a laugh. “It would be great to form that connection and guys could come over.

“Even if it’s bridging into guys that aren’t getting time in the Pro12 for the provinces getting game time here and sharing their experience from Europe, I’d love to see a lot more Irish coming across the ditch. It would make sense and I’m sure there’s a few more who have American passports to get them into the country a little easier as well.”

The league has provided Borlase with the opportunity to further his own burgeoning coaching career, which was kick-started when he was forced to retire from playing at the age of 28.

The Kiwi originally broke into Canterbury’s ITM Cup side in 2007, going on to play a part in their three consecutive titles from 2008 to 2010. He earned two Super Rugby caps for the Crusaders in 2010, but with the Franks brothers and others ahead of him, Borlase looked for a move.

Paul O'Connell and Peter Borlase Dan Sheridan / INPHO Borlase says he learned huge amounts at Munster. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The offer of a two-year project player deal with Munster, including the option for the third year that would have qualified him for Ireland, brought Borlase to Ireland in late 2010.

The tighthead made his debut in November and earned a further five league appearances for Tony McGahan’s side that season but says his time with Munster was ultimately one frustrated by injuries.

“I just couldn’t get momentum, couldn’t get going,” says Borlase, who played once for Connacht in a loan spell with the western province late in the 2011/12 season.

Despite the lack of success, the Kiwi believes his playing experiences are now invaluable to his coaching career.

“I didn’t get 100 caps for the Crusaders or Munster, but I think one of the benefits from not being a centurion is that you’re always learning in these environments where you’re taking in so much insight,” says Borlase.

“Looking back, I was always a bit of a sponge and now I get to gather that information together and feed it into my coaching. I’m enjoying this new chapter.”

“A lot that I learned from Munster was around their confrontational forward play – the dynamic that Munster bring to the game, drilling in the basics. With the weather, European rugby is gainline-orientated so it’s a lot of direct play.

“That was great and I try to mix in some of what I learned in Canterbury and the Crusaders’ system, with that expansive game. Everyone wants to go wide but you’ve got to get that go-forward up front. Rubbing shoulders with BJ Botha, Paul O’Connell, Mick O’Driscoll – what you can learn by being involved with them is something you can’t buy.

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Peter Borlase surrounded by fans after the game James Crombie / INPHO Borlase with Munster fans after beating Australia. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“I made a lot of good friends and, as much as the injuries were a pain in the backside, I look back on my time in Ireland very fondly. What I learned there, not only on the pitch, but off the pitch as a person, is invaluable in my day-to-day life now.”

Borlase headed home to New Zealand in 2012 and, having managed to get injury-free again, enjoyed a fine ITM Cup season with Hawke’s Bay. Disaster struck, however, in the final game of the season, a Ranfurly Shield clash against Waikato.

Borlase’s knee caved in again. This time, it was game over.

He spent three months “scratching my head and wondering what I’d do,” before his friend James Paterson – a former Canterbury teammate and US international – invited Borlase to the States to clear his head.

Borlase soon met his now fiancée in the US, and launched into the world of coaching, something he had often pondered while playing. The 2013/14 season saw Borlase head to Spain to coach Gernika, before he returned to the States and took over the Denver Harlequins in 2014.

As well as earning a PRO Rugby job this year, Borlase has been an assistant coach with the USA U20s since 2015 and says his greatest pleasure is playing a small part in the growth of the sport he loves so much.

“I really get a kick out of developing the young guys coming through their college programmes. I think rugby is moving forward here.

“None of the coaches are doing it for the money, I can tell you that. It’s often ex-players who love their footy and want to see these guys develop. These American kids are like sponges, they are respectful and they want to learn. When you’re training with them, you can get them ahead a lot quicker.”

Peter Borlase takes on Johnathan Edwards Gareth Everett Borlase had a loan spell at Connacht. Gareth Everett

Indeed, Borlase can see a brighter future for rugby in the US and plans for Denver to continue to be a major part of that.

“I’m set on helping to grow this league in America, and I can only see it getting bigger,” says Borlase.

“It’s starting to pick up momentum and hopefully in four or five years’ time we will be saying, ‘Wow, this is a big deal.’”

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