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How Rugby ATL Will Get the Extra 10% They Need to Improve on Last Season

December 28, 2021 - Major League Rugby (MLR) - Rugby ATL News Release

Having had their inaugural Major League Rugby season disrupted by Covid-19, Rugby ATL built on their 2-3 record from 2020 to make the MLR Championship Final the following season.

Beaten by the LA Giltinis 17-31 at the LA Memorial Coliseum, the team proved beyond doubt their professional rugby pedigree.

Now getting ready for the 2022 MLR season, heard from the team's attack coach, Steve Brett, and co-captain, Ryan Nell.


Finishing 2021 with an 11-5 record, Rugby ATL went on to beat Rugby New York in a hotly contested Eastern Conference Final in late July.

Impressing throughout the campaign thanks to their grizzled forward pack, Scott Lawrence's team didn't get off to the best of starts on their road to the Final.

Opening up their season with a 21-14 over the Toronto Arrows, in the four games that followed, the team would win just once more, but lose on three further occasions.

Finishing April with a win over the NOLA Gold, ATL would win nine more games to close out the regular season, even going on a six-game unbeaten run in the midst of that.

Completing their first ever season - following the disruption that Covid-19 brought in 2020 - attack coach Steve Brett, says that despite losing in the final, there were immense positives for he and Coach Lawrence to take from 2021.

"It was disappointing not to cross that final hurdle and to see the hurt on the boys faces at the end of the game was, for us as a coaching staff, was good to see," Brett said.

"Because that shows it means something to them and we have got no superstars on our team, we have got a group of guys that work hard for each other, that care for each other, and they will cross those white lines and go to battle for each other.

"As a coaching staff that is all we really want. We took some learnings out of that final, so hopefully we can put those things in place for this season.

"Teams are going to want to be targeting us, with us reaching the final, so we are always going to have to play our A-game week in and week out."

A leader since his arrival in Georgia in 2020, Ryan Nell's playing time in 2021 was largely hampered due to injury, but the South African did make a return as the push for the Final began, starting both the Eastern Conference Final and Championship Final to close out the season.

When asked about how he evaluated the 2021 campaign, Nell says that much of the success he could see was the team having been able to complete their first season and learn from their errors prior to their next shot at the Shield.

"In a big way it was a success for us," Nell said. "Obviously we didn't lift the trophy at the end, but that is something to improve on. Going through the first season, the first full season for us as a franchise, is a success on its own.

"We took a lot of learnings out of it; I think making the final in your first season can be seen as a way to success. We have looked at last season, taken our learnings out of it and we have already moved on from it, so not a lot of things to reflect on anymore.

"When you look back and you don't win a game, there is always something you want to have done better or differently. You could always see it that way, but for us we take the learning out of it.

"It is a lot of the guys on the team's first experience of playing in a final, with having that pressure and that week's build-up. So, again, the biggest thing for us to take out of it is the learning curve that we took out of Finals rugby and playing a full season together."


When looking at Rugby ATL's roster from last season, it would be fair to say that it was a group without any superstars among it.

It was instead the likes of Jason Damm, Johan Momsen, Viliami Helu and Jeremy Misailegalu who formed the bedrock of the side, with a strong bond having clearly been created throughout the whole playing group.

"There was a high standard set by coach Lawrence and me," Brett said. "Then we had our leadership group who had to buy into those things that we'd set and when you have a leadership group that buy in, then all they have to do is put it across to the rest of the boys and when you get the buy in from them. It makes the job so much easier for us as coaches.

"As a coaching staff, we set really high standards for our players and that is why we ask a lot of them. It is no different for this year, we've set really, really high standards.

"Obviously we want to go that one step further, and if you want to go that one step further, you have got to set really, really high standards and we demanded a lot.

"We will see how it goes, it is going to be an interesting season with all these new teams coming in and the signings teams are making. It is going to be a really good competition this year."


During this summer and early fall, Brett's performances as a coach in 2021 earned him the opportunity to serve as the USA Eagles' assistant coach.

It was a tough campaign for all involved with the setup, the team unable to qualify for the 2023 Rugby World Cup at the first time of asking.

But, as the focus in the new season becomes sharper and sharper, Brett says that he and the rest of Atlanta's coaching staff are sticking to the same goal-setting formula that provided such success the campaign prior.

"It is more that we have been here, we have done this before and what our learnings were from that and what we could have done better if we had that exact same season last year that we can transfer into this season," Brett said.

"They have set goals, like last year, and then we have revisited those goals with the players that have returned to the team this year.

"The biggest thing, actually, is trying to get the group of boys to push past that level they were at last year by giving that extra 10% moving into this season. Because if you are not that 10% better than last year, you are going to fail."

As is customary during the offseason, Rugby ATL have had several comings and goings in Marietta. Chance Wenglewski, Bautista Ezcurra and Mark O'Keeffe have all gone elsewhere for new challenges, leaving Brett and Lawrence with some work to do.

In place of those departures, the duo have recruited both Will Leonard and Evan Mintern from Rugby United New York, Tiaan Erasmus from the Houston SaberCats, while Justin Basson and John-Roy Jenkinson are both arriving from South Africa.

Some of the players already living locally have taken part in conditioning sessions, getting slightly ahead on their preparation for the upcoming season.

Nell is amongst them, having remained in Georgia following the MLR Championship Final. Spending his time coaching the team's development side, Pathway 404. The former South Africa Sevens international says that his teammates are anxious for 2022 to commence, the opportunity to better their previous efforts at the top of their agenda.

"There is a lot of energy and a lot of excitement," Nell said. "You get the feeling that a lot of guys are keen for the season to kick-off already, but this is a good time for us as a group and to be together, because now we start working on those connections and start topping up on fitness and those kinds of things.

"I think everyone has got the same end goal, but we have got a good process that we will follow, that helps us achieve that goal at the end of the day.

"At the moment we are more process oriented than it is achieving a goal. We know that focusing on the process will eventually lead to us achieving a goal."

Written by Joe Harvey

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