Can American football talent become rugby gold? One Colorado city says yes | Rugby union

“To be honest,” says Garrald McDowell, “I thought it was, like, a scam.”

Someone contacted him via Instagram last year, to ask if he was interested in becoming a professional rugby union player. It was a genuine question, never mind that McDowell is a former college American football player who knew nothing about the game.

Now he has swapped touchdowns for tries and scrums as part of a grand experiment in a tiny Colorado city run by a rugby-besotted former Denver Broncos NFL player who has duetted with Wyclef Jean on a pro-cannabis rap.

The RugbyTown Crossover Academy aims to mould raw recruits into promising players in a matter of months. Athletic excellence is a must but rugby experience is not required. The lofty ambition is to build a pipeline to the US national team and a squad capable of competing against European clubs.

McDowell, from Louisiana, was a defensive lineman at college and signed with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League before the 2020 season was cancelled. The 26-year-old is training to become a tighthead prop in Glendale, which has long branded itself as RugbyTown USA, after impressing at a camp last November.

“Every day I just got better and better and I just fell in love with it,” he says. “So far, I’m just perfecting my craft with some great coaches. The bond with the teammates, all that stuff is coming along.”

The multi-billion dollar industry that is US college sports develops thousands of exceptional athletes each year but the vast majority do not forge professional careers. There are notably few opportunities in American football beyond the NFL.

The academy’s backers – who until last year ran the Colorado Raptors team in Major League Rugby (MLR) – are betting that skills are transferable to rugby through a systematic, rigorous training programme, and that there is vast growth potential in a nation of about 330 million that is ranked 16th in the world.

The academy has recruited 27 players so far, with trials ongoing. Most have played college football. Taniela Tupou – who shares his name with an Australian rugby international – was on the books of three NFL teams. DJ Stewart has a background in bobsleigh.

Before the pandemic, Gelen Robinson was a defensive tackle for the Dallas Renegades of the XFL. As well as playing football he was a wrestler and shot-putter at college. In Colorado the 25-year-old is learning front row positions, studying footage of the New Zealand All Blacks for inspiration and education – and coping without helmets and pads.

“If you try to tackle like a football player you could end up seriously hurting yourself or getting knocked out,” he says. “Thankfully, with my wrestling background it’s a little easier to pick it up. Scrum is very new to me but I picked it up extremely fast.”

‘They’ll be physically dominant’

Patrick Guthrie, Glendale’s director of sports broadcast and development, had a minority stake in the city’s MLR team – and has spoken to the Guardian before about what he felt went wrong.

Chase Stehling, formerly of the offensive line for Western Carolina University, on the charge. Photograph: Justin Thomas Purdy/City of Glendale

Of his new project with the academy, he said: “I think that we’ll by 2023 we’ll safely produce five to 10 players for the US national team who will be the standout players in the team. They will be the game-breakers, they’ll be the guys who, like [USA sevens star and former wide receiver] Perry Baker, if they get the ball they’ll run away from everyone else. They’ll just be physically dominant.

“Even further down the road from that, our ambition is to win the Rugby World Cup in 2027. That’s it, full stop. We’re not there to make up the numbers.”

This, clearly, is a tall order. The Eagles have not played since the 2019 World Cup, when they lost to England, France, Argentina and Tonga. But Guthrie hopes the academy could reach pro standard after a couple of years honing its skills against youth and B-team opposition, perhaps even joining the Pro14 and competing against teams from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Italy and South Africa.

“We’ve had [brief, preliminary] discussions with Martin Anayi about perhaps joining the Pro14 at some point maybe in ’23 or ’24,” Guthrie says.

Anayi, the Pro14 chief executive, has explored US expansion before, in talks with groups from Washington and Houston in 2017. Contacted for this article, a Pro14 spokesman did not provide comment.

‘You have to be creative’

The crossover concept might be heretical to purists – but Glendale is a heterodox sort of place. That an enclave of about 5,000 inhabitants over 369 acres near downtown Denver can claim to be the capital of US rugby is thanks to the vision of its characterful mayor, Mike Dunafon. The former Broncos player discovered rugby in the Caribbean in 1978 and later oversaw construction of Infinity Park, a complex with a 5,000-capacity stadium.

Head coach Peter Borlase, a former prop for Canterbury in New Zealand, works with his new charges.
Head coach Peter Borlase, a former prop for Canterbury in New Zealand, works with his new charges. Photograph: Justin Thomas Purdy/City of Glendale

Crossover Academy players are paid $1,500 a month and given rent-free use of two-bedroom apartments, three meals a day and insurance coverage. The city is funding the estimated $3m annual cost of the project and seeking sponsors.

“You have to be creative in coming up with ways to bring people into your city and for Glendale that way has been to build a rugby stadium and to produce rugby programming here,” says Linda Cassaday, the city manager.

The academy is fostering relations with USA Rugby and has invited the Eagles’ coach, Gary Gold, to sessions. USA Rugby’s governing body is also based in Glendale. Its chief executive, Ross Young, is understood to be watching with interest, open to any initiative that might help deepen the talent pool.

MLR, the 12-team competition that began play in 2018, would seem to be the most logical incubator. But Glendale’s split with the league was not an amicable one, driven by divisions over politics and finance, and the academy’s backers argue that MLR’s international recruitment strategy restricts opportunities for domestic players.

“Our goal is not to support the development of the MLR in any way,” Guthrie says. “Not that we’re against the MLR, but it’s just the MLR have gone a different direction.”

There are a lot of domestic players in MLR – and a lot of foreign talent. Guthrie contends the academy’s recruits are “better athletes to begin with than the MLR players. What I think is far more likely is that they’ll be recruited by the leading European sides because they will be viewed as game-changers athletically.”

MLR did not return a request for comment.

‘They adapt quickly’

Glendale’s director of rugby, Mark Bullock, is himself a football-to-rugby convert.

Glendale director of rugby Mark Bullock explains the big idea behind the crossover academy.

“They’ve not played rugby and some of them never really have seen it,” he says of his new charges, “and what we’re finding is we’ll introduce an activity or a drill and the first part of the drill is pretty messy. Across the board, forwards and backs, they pick up what we’re doing really quickly.”

Their first game is scheduled for 6 March against an academy side from the LA Giltinis – an expansion team due to join MLR when it kicks off season four later that month. There are tentative plans to face youth teams from Welsh and Irish clubs later in the year.

“I know that it can be done,” says Bullock. “No one’s ever done this in a concerted effort, like an organised effort.”

To Gelen Robinson, out on the field, learning to tackle and scrummage, “There are guys out there who want to compete but they don’t know about the game of rugby. There is so much talent out there that is untapped.”

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