New Look Raptors Ready to Contend in 2020
Change can be scary.
This is true for anyone, but the stakes are higher when the direction of an entire organization rides on the decisions that are made.
Following a 7-7-2 season that slotted them in 6th place in Major League Rugby's 2019 table, the Colorado Raptors have immersed themselves in change heading into the 2020 season.
The Raptors' 2019 season was all over the place. After dropping matches to the defending champion Seattle Seawolves and NOLA Gold on the road, the Raptors picked up three wins and two draws over the course of their next five contests. They went 4-2 over the course of their next six matches and positioned themselves to make a push for the playoffs over the course of the final month of the season, but that all changed when they ran into a Seawolves team that was out to prove a point.
The 53-36 loss to the Seawolves not only served as the first match the Raptors had lost at Infinity Park since joining the MLR, it also took any wind that was going to propel them into the playoffs out of their sails. The Raptors dropped their final two matches and found themselves watching the 2019 MLR playoffs from an unfamiliar place: their couch.
That wasn't what bothered Mark Bullock, the Colorado Raptors director of rugby, though.
"Our record was fine, but what slipped in my view, in particular, was the culture and the buy-in of the players in the program," Bullock said of the 2019 season. "We needed to correct that slippage. We needed to get back to that consistency."
Consistency is something that the Raptors have built their club on. If you are a fan of Northern American rugby, you're aware of the success that the Raptors have had in the various competitions they've competed in.
That consistency is something that Bullock is rightfully proud of, and ultimately what he would like to help the club return to in 2020.
"We started in 2006 and we just played anyone that we could play," Bullock said of the club. "In 2007, we jumped from a second or third division team and we competed at the DI level. In that 2007 National Championship at the DI level, we got beat by one point by Life Rugby Club on a drop goal at the end of the game. Since that time, we've been a very successful rugby club both on the men's and women's side and we've had what I consider to be a tradition of excellence and that slipped a bit last year."
To go from competing for the first-ever MLR Championship Shield in 2018 to missing the playoffs by two table positions in 2019, it was apparent that something needed to change.
After head coach David Williams was relieved of his duties at the end of the season, Bullock and director of amateur rugby and newly appointed defense coach, Luke Gross, sat down to have a conversation about the direction that they wanted to take the club. As they bounced ideas off of each other and a few other people, they stumbled upon a pleasant surprise.
"Luke and I were meeting about organizing and what we were going to do to with our program and, in my opinion, how we were going to bring it back to where we were before," Bullock explained.
It was during this conversation that they asked Peter Borlase to come into the room to exchange ideas. From that moment on, Bullock and Gross were convinced that they had their guy.
"We asked Peter to come in and meet and as we were talking, it became very apparent to us that Peter was the guy," Bullock explained of the decision to hire Borlase. "During this two-hour meeting, we're just talking about rugby in general and where we wanted to go, and as we were doing that, Luke and I kept looking at each other and going, 'You know what, this might be the guy.' We weren't saying that, but we were thinking the same thing. So at the end of that meeting, we asked Peter to leave the room and Luke and I conversed and said, 'You know what, this person really has a good handle on what it is we want to accomplish and how we want to get our culture what we had before.' That was kind of the crux of the whole thing. That's really how that came about."
Borlase is no stranger to professional rugby, whether abroad or in North America. Having played for Canterbury, Munster, Connacht, and Hawke's Bay, with a stop with the Crusaders of Super Rugby jammed in there, he's also spent time in both PRO Rugby's lone season and on Williams' staff with the Raptors. All of that experience, combined with his vision for the club, made Bullock's decision an easy one.
"Pete is a fantastic coach," Raptors sixth-year forward Luke White said of his new coach. "He himself has a lot of experience with professional setups. Himself, being a player in Super Rugby and overseas in various professional setups. The wealth of knowledge that he brings is why he's been involved with us over the years. His knowledge is so valuable to us."
In a letter he penned for the Raptors website, Borlase led with this sentence:
"As soon as I was named head coach of the Raptors, I was very excited to start implementing big changes - changes not necessarily to the team, but to the culture."
Changing the culture can mean a lot of different things. For Bullock, it came down to a collaborative effort and empowering the players.
"I think the big part about for us, at least where we're going, is that there is more involvement across the board within our staff," Bullock said of some of the changes Borlase has made thus far. "I think we have collaboration across the board on our entire staff. A second part of that is we really are looking at player empowerment. Within our group with our players, we have allowed them to be involved in what we are doing. We have certain, specific expectations for performance and behavior and that's with the coaches and players, so we have to be able to hold people accountable in an effective manner. Those are the kind of things that we are talking about."
Borlase immediately began to lay the groundwork for these changes. The work that he's already put in over the course of his four months on the job has Bullock, White and the rest of the club excited about what's to come.
"As time goes on, organizations change and maybe there was a change in feeling but moving forward, the changes are very exciting," White said. "All of these changes are being made because of him and the effort he's put in in the offseason. He's done a great job to make the boys feel confident moving forward. The ship is being led in the right way. We are very excited for what he's putting together for us in that drive of professionalism for the group."
The second stage of changes came in the form of some big-name signings. According to Bullock, the culture that the Raptors have worked hard to establish played a major role when it came to landing players like former All Black, Rene Ranger, and former Wallaby, Digby Ioane.
"Rene Ranger, we've been courting for four months," Bullock said. "How we got him again comes down to culture and his opportunity to be a leader within the context of our team. We have a lot of young - and when I say young, I'm talking 21-year-old backs - that we need to help because we see these backs as potential guys for the U.S. team in the next World Cup in four years. We need guys like Rene Ranger and Digby Ioane to be role models and leaders that have been professionals."
The extra level of professionals that some of the new signings will bring is something that both Bullock and White are extremely excited about.
"As coaches, we can talk about being professional, but if you've got these guys that have done it, there's no better way to drive that home," Bullock said. "What's interesting is that these young players, they knew that we've been courting him and once they signed, they were really excited. Now think about it, he's really excited but they play the same position. A lot of guys would go, 'Oh geez, now I'm not going to get to play.' But our guys are like, 'Here is an opportunity for us to learn from the best.' That's part of developing that culture that we are all in this together. That's what we are looking at."
"This is some more of the work that's been put in by the staff in the offseason," White said of the new signings. "Something that we may have lacked in the last couple of years is a bit of seniority and leadership from guys who have been doing it for a long time at a high level. We've got a big group of young guys on the squad and bringing in those types of players, with their knowledge and their experience, will help us grow immensely as a team on and off the field."
Finally, the biggest change the Raptors made this offseason had nothing to do with rugby. They made the decision to change out "Glendale" for "Colorado" to represent not only the state, but the entire region as well.
"It's something that the players pushed for and is something that we've been pushing for for a couple of years now," White said of the rebrand. "It's just to help broaden our fan base and our awareness. Glendale is our home and Glendale has established a great rugby identity in the U.S. and now it is time to turn regional and represent the state of Colorado. It definitely broadens our ability to attract more fans."
"When we started the Glendale Raptors and building the stadium, the point of that was to rebrand the City of Glendale," Bullock said. "We've accomplished that. That rebranding has changed the city in terms of upgrades and just modernizing the city. It was about rugby, but it was also about rebranding the city. We've taken the moniker of RugbyTown USA."
Now, he hopes the rebrand will help draw fans from all over.
"It's obviously kind of a small town that's not well known, and from our standpoint, we're really the only team, other than to the West, in the Rocky Mountains. Regionally, we have a lot of pull from Montana, and Nebraska, and Kansas and New Mexico so we thought, it had a better regional pull from a standpoint of who we really represent."
Regardless of what happens in 2020, you can't blame the Raptors for not trying. When the players reported on Monday, December 2, they did so with a new man at the helm, new players on the pitch, and a new name across the front of their jerseys.
All of that change has created a different kind of feeling around the Raptors heading into their third season, and they want to make sure they have a shield to show for it come June.
"This new, renewed energy that the club and the team has with the steps and the processes that are being put in place really has us excited," White said of his team's chances at a title. "There is no reason why we can't go back to finals contention and winning that shield. Every year it's something that you want to do. It's obviously the main goal at the end of it. I'm sure that everything that is being put in place is going to help us get there."
Colton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Lead MLR Correspondent, Colton Strickler
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Major League Rugby Stories from December 6, 2019
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