PHILADELPHIA, PA – It has been hard for me to imagine what things are like right now inside a PRO team. So I drove west to take a look at the PRO Rugby Ohio squad in person. The impression I came away with, in regard to where PRO and the Ohio team are, was positive, but there is still a lot of work to do.
Shortly, I will post a team preview which discusses the personnel and Ohio’s chances on the pitch. For now, the focus is on how Ohio is functioning as a team.
The Village of Obetz
Sunday evening, I went to Obetz to get a sense of the place and see where the matches will be. For those not local, the team’s identity will be linked to their home pitch and how it appears on the tv/computer. And I want to be able to make my own mascot suggestions (those gems are at the end), so I needed some specific material. The ground itself, the spot on which the rugby will take place, looks great. There were short flags in, looking like they were ready to line it.
The Obetz Athletic Club is next to the pitch, and that will be used for locker rooms. There is also a picnic pavilion with restrooms. It looks like the pavilion could also serve as a concession stand, though something like pitch-adjacent food trucks would be an enticing option. The one thing this location does not have is any seating. PRO will rent stands. Currently, the plan is for seating for 2,500. Plus, there is room for a VIP tent or beer garden or other ways to watch other than from the bleachers. Before I got there, I was skeptical; now I’m hopeful. 3,000 people in that spot on a sunny afternoon could generate a really fun atmosphere.
Just beyond a fence, you can see the raceway. The Village of Obetz has purchased the raceway and wants to convert it to a sports stadium, a venue that would be appropriate to the Ohio PRO team.
There is something that works for this year and a logical and natural chance to grow and evolve.
The basic structure for most days is morning training (9-11), lunch break, afternoon training (2-3:30/4).
Monday morning, I arrived around 7:40 at the Resolute Athletic Complex in Columbus. This is the kind of facility used for training and playing indoors that dots American suburbia. Everything the team needs is here, but this is not a fancy place with a lounge to kick back and play video games. This setting, and lack of big-names, is helping to foster the sense that Ohio is a group of blue collar underdogs.
Monday was an unusual morning in many respects, but did highlight several realities for PRO league. One important reality is that there is still a lot to be settled.
Hyfn, an agency PRO is working with, was there setting up for player photographs. A handful of players were already there ready to go.
At one end of the field was a set up for headshots. At the other was a green screen, in front of which players were filmed saying their names, some promotional lines, and tossing the ball around. For guys who’ve only played club rugby, this is pretty exciting stuff.
Everything that was happening that morning was happening on the field. The pictures and videos, quiet discussions that seemed to be about players that might be joining the squad, discussions about potential sponsors, discussions about media opportunities – it was all happening in one place and, to a certain extent, at one time. Because the first match is so close and so much is still not completely finalized, that makes sense. On the other hand, for Coach Paule Barford, there is work to be done to keep the focus on rugby. The rest of the Ohio staff is assistant coach Paul Holmes, whose experience working in this area with Tiger Rugby is extremely valuable, and Team Administrator Tom Rooney, who brings years of experience with Ohio State University rugby.
The other assistant coach, Eamonn Hogan, has yet to arrive.
In addition to the paid staff, Ohio and the other PRO teams are going to need the help of people who are simply motivated by their desire to see professional rugby in America succeed. Matthew DeBarr is not a paid staff member, but is working to get local media exposure for the Ohio PRO team. There is a media day scheduled next week and he expects a good turnout. His hope is to have highlights from the Ohio matches shown on the local evening news. The Ohio media day was scheduled with the hope that Jamie Mackintosh will have arrived. DeBarr pointed out that the All Blacks are a recognized brand, so telling a reporter, “We have an All Black you can interview” means something. Everyone is excited for the arrival of Mr. Mackintosh.
No one seemed bothered by everything that was happening. When most of the players who were there had their photos taken, they started warming up. The lights were still off because there were still a few last pictures being taken. Then, the cameras had to remain set up in order to take photos and video of a player who was coming from his other job.
Hyfyn spoke to the players about social media and gave direction to make it about community and team and not about the individual. The fact that the players are being asked to present themselves in a way that is good for the league and emphasizes the things the league wants associated with it (things like camaraderie, community) did not bother the players at all. Matt Hughston said, “We’re here to be ambassadors and servants of the game.” Hughston went on: “We all have to kind of worry about it [how they present themselves online]…. It is kind of all on us to make it what we want it to be. See how far we can take it.” They know that part of what they are doing is working to help the league succeed. A big part of that is how well they play on the field, but the league’s success won’t just be determined by how well they play.
After the pictures and the request/advice on social media, there was time for some training. The emphasis, generally speaking, was on reacting from the breakdown. There was attention to detail – hips should be the first thing to move, not hands – that indicated they’ve spoken about these things before and that the details matter. The progression from specific detail to putting that detail into something larger was quick.
The afternoon session started with a discussion of structure and patterns. Barford described himself as a player-centered coach, and this tactical session was evidence of that. Chris Saint and Shaun Davies, who helped create the visual of who goes where when, explained the patterns to the group. When questions were asked, they were answered by other players.
Barford described the process of developing the pattern as player-driven as well. “I gave them a real loose framework and turned them loose and then they filled in the blanks, and we were done. They actually came up with the right structure…now they’ve bought into it, it’s theirs.”
After that, the session was mostly fitness with some running of the patterns discussed at the start mixed in.
There was the typical player-to-player encouragement and shouting of support, but not once did I hear anyone say anything like, “Let’s go, Ohio!” That is a natural product of the still-forming identity.
When the ball was being shifted, I can’t recall seeing any drops or poor passes. Instructions were picked up quickly. It looks like a good standard of training is being established.
Barford did not have choice in selecting the Ohio players. He was unequivocally positive, though, about the group he has. “Normally you expect to have somebody who is just a pain in the butt. I haven’t had that. I’m really, really happy with the players we’ve got.”
The fact that the roster isn’t finalized means that the players who are there now can’t fully know where they will fit in. They haven’t been able to scrummage or do complete lineout work because of missing personnel. Some players are competing for starting spots with players who aren’t there.
On Monday, Roland Suniula was there for his first day, as was Fillipo Ferrarini. But there were no true locks in the squad (though Kyle Baillie is on the way), and Jamie Mackintosh was not there. Ferrarini’s excitement was obvious. “I’ve found people who want to do something great.” When asked about plans beyond this season, he said, “My intention is to stay here.”
I spoke with several players whose only current job is rugby. Shaun Davies, Spike Davis, JP Eloff, Demecus Beach, and Hughston are all guys who don’t have a second job competing for their time and attention. They are also not living the high life. Davis, who is in a house with 5 other Ohio players, said with a smile, it’s “kind of like being in college again.” For these players, they are scheduled to receive their first PRO paychecks this week.
I asked Davies how the standard at training compared to the standard at Life. He mentioned that the Ohio training has been quite intense and that “Everyone puts a lot of pressure on themselves because they know we all have to step up. It’s been good.”
Dominic Pezzutti is in a different situation. He works as a nurse at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. He worked a night shift, came in Monday morning to get his photograph taken, went home to sleep, then came back for the afternoon session. He will get paid per diem if he makes the match day 23.
Anthony Parry is a prop who was already in Columbus and already looking for a job change. He is looking for his next job, which won’t be in the Columbus area, while training. Pierce Dargan, another player whose presence is connected to good timing and personal flexibility, put his graduate studies on hold.
For none of these guys, though, is there a sense of long-term security. They have a great gig for now – no one I spoke with or observed seemed anything less than really excited to be there – but they don’t know how long it will last. They don’t know if they will be good enough, and neither does anyone else.
Until there is enough revenue to fully compensate all the players, PRO will need to rely on players who view the experience as a bit of an adventure and a test.
I spent almost 24 hours in the Obetz/Columbus area, so I’m an expert now. Things I noticed at the pitch in Obetz: there is a pretty little pond near the pitch; there is a train that goes by; there is also the race track next door. That means that any fishing-related nicknames could work. The Ohio Catch and Release? Probably not. Train nicknames? The Ohio Freight! All on board! Then, race care nicknames? The Left Turns, obviously!
Maybe it was because I was coming from the highway, but I noticed quite a few trucking-related businesses not far from the pitch. The Ohio Truckers? How much fun would it be to yell, “C’mon you Truckers!” And their mothers could have shirts that read “Mother Truckers.” And big players could be tagged as “Oversized Load.” So much fun to have with the Ohio Truckers.
While there remain reasons to be anxious about PRO’s progress and the details for all of the teams, there are also lots of reasons to be excited and enthused.
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