Welcome to ‘RugbyTown’: The crossover academy trying to turn American athletes into rugby players

The United States has long been dubbed the sleeping giant of world rugby.

But such has been the slow rate of growth, one wonders whether the giant will actually ever wake from its slumber.

There have, however, been positive signs over the past few years with Major League Rugby bedding down its early roots and then expanding, while the national team recently turned in a credible performance against an understrength England line-up, losing 43-29 at Twickenham.

And now a fledgling program to turn athletes from other sports into rugby players is underway in Glendale, Colorado — aka RugbyTown, USA.

Americans have long claimed to have the best athletes in the world, and given there is a surplus of those who fail to reach the heights of the NFL or NBA, the Colorado XOs rugby squad has been created to try and turn some of those very athletes into rugby players.

RugbyTown is also the name of a 10-part documentary series that charts the journey of the XOs.

“The idea was to create a brand new rugby team of superior athletes from a new stock of athletic talent that will fundamentally change the way that America can compete in rugby going forward,” RugbyTown documentary creator Patrick Guthrie tells ESPN. “To create the foundation of players, a pathway and a program, that can create 50 or 60 players by 2027 to win the World Cup.”

It is certainly a lofty ambition.

But the series, which airs on ESPN on Australia, New Zealand and across the Pacific Islands from this Sunday, certainly makes for compelling television as viewers are taken inside every facet of the athletes’ journey as they start their rugby careers from scratch.

Guthrie describes it as a bit like the NFL’s “Hard Knocks” style of storytelling, with viewers also taken inside the classroom, to players’ homes and inside their family circles; the show riding the ups and downs of injuries, disciplinary incidents, triumphs and defeats.

“From the second episode what we do is we reflect on the weekend’s game, ’23 turnovers, come on guys, how did we go through that’ and that’s Act 1 of a 28-minute show,” Guthrie explains.

“Act 2 is we might go home with Gelen Robinson to see his family, visit his brother who’s an NBA player, we go to his gym and then go to his house and have a big dinner. And that’s a seven-minute segment, so that’s Act 2.

“Act 3 for every episode is always the game and the game is told again by the players and their voices…what we wanted to do is not create a show about rugby, as we figured if we really want rugby to break through in America the show really can’t be about rugby at all. What it has to be about is interesting characters and that’s where I really think we’ve hit the goldmine of RugbyTown season 1.”

Having assembled a group of dedicated and experienced coaches, headed by Mark Bullock, who founded the Glendale Raptors Rugby Club in 2005, and former USA international Luke Gross, the education of the crossover athletes began with an introductory camp last November.

From there, a group was selected to return in January when the Colorado XOs were officially born and the RugbyTown story really began to unfold.

“Just like anybody else starting a new sport or anything new, those first few days were ugly,” XOs hooker and former XFL player Gelen Robinson tells ESPN.

“The first few weeks of me actually trying to get the hang of passing and just getting a handle on the rugby ball, the rules and decision-making that comes along with it, it took me a while. And even to this day, you want to convert back to the past 20 years; me playing [American] football in my head, sometimes I want to go back to it.

“But they are two completely different games in my mind, and although they each have their own strengths and weaknesses, it’s tough because it’s brand new for me and being able to make those decisions don’t come naturally to me yet. I’m working on that still to this day, just making those little decisions and executing them well on the pitch.”

Picking up an entirely new skill set, let alone sport, is always going to represent a huge challenge, particularly in adulthood when so many instincts are already ingrained. But the XOs’ education doesn’t just unfold on the field, with classroom sessions and one-on-one player interviews also brought to life in the RugbyTown series, viewers taken inside each individual’s learning experience, their review sessions and their key work-ons moving forward.

“Those instincts are changing for me, things as simple as running onto the ball hard or supporting your teammate after you’ve passed,” Robinson reflected on his journey. “These very small things that rugby players in other countries have been getting since six years old, those things started clicking for me very early and now they’re really starting to develop,” Robinson says.

“And that’s the growth within the year that I was hoping and expecting to have. So it’s been really cool to see that progress from not being able to read anything on the rugby field, to getting the ball in my hand and making a good decision with a defender in front of me.”

The crossover athlete concept is one that has long been thrown about in the U.S. and while the likes of Perry Baker and Carlin Isles have managed to do it on the sevens field, the transition to XVs is a significantly tougher challenge.

Given six Colorado XOs athletes were then signed to the MLR after their RugbyTown season had concluded, the team in Glendale might really be onto something this time around.

Robinson was among those six players to gain MLR exposure, the hooker signed by LA Giltinis where he got to mix it with Wallabies greats Matt Giteau and Adam Ashley-Cooper.

“I got the call about a week after XOs season had finished, I got that call to go out and finish up the season with the Giltinis,” Robinson said. “It was an opportunity that I’d been hoping for, I didn’t know if it would go through but obviously did, but it was another great experience in my athletic career that I will never forget.

“Playing with legends, the knowledge that you’re able to take away from a program like that, you can’t ask for a better year of introduction for a first year in rugby. It was great to be around those guys and staff; the four weeks that I was there it blew my mind in the world of rugby, just that education that I got.”

Perhaps then the USA can one day actually compete with the big boys of world rugby, so too that crossover athletes will play a key role in helping them do so.

Robinson, for one, is adamant the RugbyTown television series is going to have an impact on the American rugby scene.

“It’ll definitely take some and who knows how long that will be, but I know that we have the athletes to be able to do it,” Robinson tells ESPN. “But it’s just about getting exposure to those athletes and putting rugby in the eyes of guys who are like me, or guys that were like me a year ago, because it’s important for them to know that this is a beautiful sport that you can travel the world with and make a great living.

“So I think this documentary will open the eyes of many young athletes and let them know that this is an amazing sport that needs to be shown, and there’s a lot of potential for guys to be creative and show who they are in this sport. So it’ll definitely be the start of something to get the ball rolling for U.S. rugby.”

A key figure both in the documentary and the XOs concept is Glendale Mayor, Mike Dunafon.

A passionate rugby figure in America, Dunafon keeps a close key on the XOs at the Infinity Park field that he built to give rugby a home in Glendale. He is at the heart of RugbyTown and is all in on the ultimate goal of Rugby World Cup glory.

“Make no mistake, in RugbyTown, our goal is for the United States to win the Rugby World Cup in 2027,” Dunafon told ESPN. “We have the world’s best athletes, together with great American coaching, world class facilities, and a collective desire to achieve greatness by winning the Rugby World Cup in 2027.”

If American rugby talent can one day match American ambition, the Webb Ellis Cup might just be within the Eagles’ reach. And RugbyTown is well worth a look in the meantime.

RugbyTown Episode 1 airs at 8pm [AEST] Sunday August 29 on ESPN in Australia, New Zealand and through the Pacific. Check your electronic planner for details.