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The Irishman leading the mile-high rugby revolution in sports-mad Denver

Sean O’Leary is head coach of the newly-formed professional side in the city.

“IT HAD TO be right now. Professional rugby had to start here now.”

For decades rugby has threatened to burst into the American sporting mainstream with progress proving difficult and slow, a tale of false dawns and promising leagues ultimately coming to nothing.

news_denver_sean_oleary Source: Prorugby

Irishman Sean O’Leary has been leading the push to grow the game for the last 20 years and is currently the head coach of the Denver franchise in the newly formed PRO Rugby, a professional rugby union competition in the United States.

“In any new franchise, there’s going to be mistakes along the way. As long as we learn from them, correct them and move forward it’ll work,” says O’Leary, whose side have started with three wins in a row.

“I think it’s been a brilliant start. We’ve had a few headaches along the way but nothing fatal and I look at the standard around now, it’s higher than it’s ever been. We’re looking at better facilities, the games are streamed online for free with AOL. It’s about the fan experience and we can cater for that.”

A strong league in America would be a massive benefit for world rugby, and the push is now a concentrated focus to attract new fans to the sport.

“Our goal, which we have seen the effects of, is the new fan. The new sports fan” says O’Leary.

“It’s great when they’re telling us, ‘Oh my god, I love that game. I can’t believe how big they are, how fast they are, the fact they stay on the field without subbing in and out.’ Those things appeal to people, men and women equally.

“It is a sport that we realise is a small niche of ex-players, coaches and family but for us the next step is that new fan, the sports fan, the entertainment fan. The games thus far have been good to watch, apart from ours in Denver on that snowy day, but the games are entertaining. The scores have been good and people want to see that.”

Denver are one of five franchises in the newly-formed competition, created by New York CEO Doug Schoninger. All players are centrally contracted and the season will run from April to July. As participation numbers continue to grow the PRO Rugby league was established to act as a bridging point between club and international rugby.

“Not everyone’s going to feel this was done the right way, but it had to be now,” says O’Leary. “Professional rugby had to start here now, because of the World Cup last year and the Olympics in 90 days.

“It might have looked rushed from the outside but a lot of timing went into this, the timing of this is the absolute most important thing. By the end of May there’s going to be five letters plastered across NBC, those five letters are this sport. They’re going to be leading up to the CRC sevens (Collegiate Rugby Championship) in Philadelphia and then the Olympics; what better time to be involved in pro rugby?”

With the new league, players are exposed to increased standards of the staples of athletic performance such as recovery, diet and even tracking sleep.

 ’That’s the awesome thing’

Tracing the growth of rugby in the US, O’Leary’s influence is immediately evident. After retiring with the Boston Irish Wolfhounds and spending a year coaching at high school level and getting his coaching certificates, USA Rugby saw the work he was doing and asked him to come on as a coach of the then American U19s, now the High School Americans.

“I’ve been involved with a variety of groups,” he says, “coaching high school in Boston and then the age-grade programmes for seven years. One of my conditions when offered this job was I would like to remain coaching, when time allowed, the age-grade programmes because my first love was coaching kids and that connection is terribly important, that a professional head coach can work with the high school Americans because it gets that buzz. I actually have four or five players that I coached when they were 15 years of age now in the high school American programme, that’s the awesome thing about this.”

He moved from there to Notre Dame to take the position of head coach and director of rugby for the restarted men’s and women’s programme.

Being a head coach in a newly-formed league brings with it many challenges, as well as the novelty of playing in a sub-zero snow-stricken Denver one Saturday and a scorching 28°C+ San Diego the next.

Sean feels the label of head coach is wrong, and details the vast array of areas he is responsible for. When travelling he acts as team manager, organising hotels etc while over the course of the season he is concerned with contracts for the stadium, sponsorship, marketing and even managing social media.

“You look at our Facebook page, I try and post a lot of stuff. I recently posted from a session before our game in San Diego. We couldn’t find any grass areas at our hotel so we actually took over a ballroom and did a couple of sessions.

“The reaction I get from new fans is ‘I can’t believe the head coach has to post on social media,’ yet it took my 12 seconds to post the video and I’m watching the guys anyway and two seconds to type in what I want to say and send, so what does it take out of my day?

“It didn’t take anything but it’s a connection with our fans and they can look at it and say the head coach just posted that, it’s just from a minute ago. It’s almost what social media is meant for anyway. An immediate connection between the team, the players and the fans.”

In reality, his current position isn’t all that different from coaching college rugby.

“This is not just looking after the players. This is hands on. The only thing different from Notre Dame is that I don’t have to wash the jerseys any more!”

This season has been described as a ‘beta league’ by those overseeing the competition, and while winning is important to Sean, the real focus is on developing players. “My philosophy and my style is player focused, so that everyone is fully engaged with what we are doing. The development and the opportunity is huge but we include players in the decision making.

“The way I explain it to the players is that smarter people than us described the principles of the game, and the first principle of the game is possession. We pose the question: where do we want to be strongest?

“So they come back focusing on what is important and break it down, so go forward ball is important, then support, then continuity but they all understand what the game of rugby is actually about instead of an athlete becoming a rugby player by only doing what the coach tells them. They understand and increase their rugby IQ, the game becomes easier for them. and they understand it more.”

High numbers

Much like Ireland, the game in the US first developed out of schools rugby with private, Catholic schools the first to embrace the game. Sean still has a link to the schools game via his nephews, talented CBC Monkstown centre and goal kicker James and his younger brother and back-row Jack. Both are supporting Denver from home and striving to stay up late to watch the games.

“About 15 years ago there was a big push and we started to see that rugby was going to take off in this country,” he says. “We now have youth programmes not attached to schools, just stand-alone organisations growing and now you can’t name a state without high school or huge rugby participation. Florida alone has hundreds of thousands of kids playing rugby, it’s the fastest growing high school game over the last two years. It has surpassed all sports of that variety. Right now the numbers are outstandingly high.”

Despite previous drives to get a league going failing, Sean firmly believes this is not a false dawn and is glad to pay some sort of contribution towards that.

“It had to start here at some stage. There’s different ways of peeling an orange and different ways of starting a business. Mistakes are made and you learn from them. When this opportunity came along here, I knew I would rather be on the inside breaking my balls to make this work than be on the outside being critical of it.”

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About the author:

Maurice Brosnan

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