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Smith Tracking Down International Ops

  • 01 Nov 2018
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Smith during WPL nationals / Photos: Jackie Finlan

Kelli Smith’s introduction into rugby is unlike anyone else’s. After winning the women’s rugby portion of the 2017 Next Olympic Hopeful – the series’ first season – the former track star and football player took up residence in Chula Vista. Smith trained within the USA 7s program and represented the USA Falcons in Las Vegas and Japan, but then residency ended.

“Play more international rugby,” Smith said of the advice bestowed on her.

Good direction, but for Smith, who had zero experience navigating the rugby landscape, it was daunting. Fortunately the 24-year-old landed with American Rugby Pro Training Center (ARPTC), which is rooted in Little Rock, Ark., and well versed in opportunities outside of the states. Smith spent summer 2018 as a full-time resident at the National Development Academy, which culminated with the ARPTC Blue team finishing fourth at club 7s nationals. It was time for another move, and more uncharted territory for Smith.

Smith with the USA Falcons against the Aussie Pearls / Photo: Jackie Finlan

Mere Baker, who also spent the summer in Little Rock as an APRTC coach, was also named head coach of Beantown’s Women’s Premier League (WPL) team.

“She invited me to play 15s with Beantown, and I said, ‘I’m willing to try it as long as you’re willing to teach me the game,’” Smith recounted. “Most people I know started with 15s and then we to 7s. I feel like I started backward, but I’m doing things my way.”

Smith slotted into the back three, mostly fullback, and played in eight WPL games by season’s end.

“There’s a lot of waiting,” Smith said contrasted roles between 7s and 15s. “I have to stay back and watch, but I can direct people and help them out. I’m also last-minute defense so if someone’s getting beat then I can come in and help.

Photo: Jackie Finlan

“I do find that I have to work on my timing a lot more in 15s,” Smith continued. “The ball can go through so many more people [than in 7s] before it gets to me, so I have to wait for them to set something up or try to anticipate it. Whereas in 7s, it’s, ‘I’m open, get it to me now.’ You have more space to move around.”

During WPL nationals, Smith’s natural talents were on full display: comfortable and confident in open-field defense, weapon in the chase, and quick acceleration with ball in hand. Smith scored three tries against the D.C. Furies last Sunday.

The series of firsts continues, and on Wednesday, Smith boarded a plane for Spain and will spend the next six months with Getxo, a club situated in Bilbao in Basque country. This season, ARPTC has also placed Lindsay Mahoney in Ireland and Jess Wooden with England’s Richmond Lions, where former Stanford coach Jonathan Griffin is posted.

Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim in Bilbao / Photo: Petr Meissner

“I know ‘baño,’ ‘gracias’ and ‘de nada,’” Smith laughed. “But I put in the effort. I’ve downloaded apps and there’s Google Translate, and I’m doing my best to remember all the Spanish I learned in grade school.”

“I’m so grateful for the opportunity and looking forward to playing and progressing in the game,” Smith said.

Should Smith return to ARPTC, then more opportunity awaits. The NDA announced that it will be taking three international tours in summer 2019. Until then, Smith will keep staying in-season and hope the effort is rewarded with an invitation back to Chula Vista.

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