Utah Lions, Powered by Atavus, seen here during the LVI /// Photo courtesy Atavus
The Utah Lions Rugby Academy is days away from the tour of a lifetime. On Sunday, the boys’ and girls’ teams will depart for the United World Games (UWG), which has drawn more than 400 teams from 40 countries to the Olympic-like event in Austria. The Academy was invited to the rugby 7s tournament and is the first American side to participate.
Utah Lions Rugby Academy head coach Michael Cressler indicated that the players are keenly aware of what they represent. They know they will be defining “American” and “Utahan” for those with whom they interact, and they’ve internalized that responsibility.
“Last but not least, they know they represent our organization,” Cressler said. “When it comes to the Lions, the kids are fiercely loyal because we do so much for them in return.”
That’s because the Academy is a round experience. The players are invited into the program and in action nearly year-round, taking a break during the club 15s season. Through the Academy’s partnership with Atavus, the players have received additional on-site instruction from USA Women’s 7s coach Richie Walker, Waisale Serevi (who will help coach the UWG team), Shawn Pittman, Shalom Suniula and more.
The devotion to education is equally impressive, and members receive support in maintaining certain academic standards. With the help of a firm that manages junior Olympians, the Academy has set up a system where college coaches can easily access members’ grades, stats and Hudl video. So when recruitment time comes, “It’s not, ‘Who do you have,’ but ‘I want to talk to so-and-so,’” Cressler explained. That seamlessness has seen all but one graduating female receive rugby and/or academic scholarships this year. Central Washington, Lindenwood and Wheeling Jesuit will be inheriting the Lions alumna.
The Academy reassembled on May 1, while the club 15s season was still in action, and held evening practices. Sessions focused on re-establishing 7s fitness and polishing basic skills, which had dulled over the course of the spring.
“It’s not an indictment of the coaches, but most 15s teams are a mix of experienced and brand-spanking-new players,” Cressler explained. “They’re just trying to put a team together that functions and don’t have the luxury of time that we have. When we get them back, their basic skills have fallen off a bit because there is no focus or practice on it. It’s not the 15s teams’ fault; it’s just a function of time.”
The benefit of the 7s and 15s crossover, however, was the immediate feedback. The Academy had access to their players during the week and then evaluated their progress during weekend 15s matches.
“I feel really good about these girls,” Cressler said. “I watched almost every one of our girls compete against each other during the state championships, and their level of intensity was hands and fists over what most of their teammates brought. When we got back to full-time, we weren’t making massive changes, just getting them back into a 7s mindset and playing our style of 7s. They are looking phenomenal.”
There are many familiar names on the roster (see full list below), and they’re coming from the United, Herriman and Snow Canyon backlines, mostly. The United players were last seen at the high school club championships, where the debutantes took third place. That experience will come in handy in Austria, where the Lions will play Esztergoomi Vietezek (Hungary), FC St. Pauli (Germany), Rugby Union Donau Wien (Austria) and the German All-Stars. But Cressler indicated there’s no sense of apprehension, and the players are eager to test themselves against these unknown entities.
“What did it was that win over Auckland Marist at the LVI,” Cressler said of the elite high school 7s competition. “It gave them a massive boost in confidence to where their mindset is: While we know it will be difficult, things don’t get much harder than New Zealand teams.”
When asked of expectations, Cressler began by explaining the team’s goal-setting routine. Borrowed from the New Zealand All Blacks and other legendary programs, the players maintain practice and game notebooks, where they record goals and results for every occurrence. They revisit those pages to understand how they’re progressing and where they need improvement.
“They manage their expectations. It’s not just coming to practice and running around.”
The team replicated the process for tour, and during last week’s classroom session, the players presented their goals to the coaching staff.
“Number one: We will dominate the series,” Cressler recited the team’s goals. “Number two: We will bring home a gold medal. Number three: As a team, we will do all we can to achieve our personal goals.”
The trip to Austria requires some balance. The teams want to achieve their rugby goals and also experience the country. The UWG tour management group has been instrumental in helping plan the trip and itinerary, as well as alleviating coaching staff of non-rugby, off-field concerns. The boys’ and girls’ teams aren’t, for the most part, playing on the same pitch, which is difficult logistically but a blessing in disguise.
“Both teams are massive supporters of each other, and they’re comfortable enough together that they’ll talk to each other about each other’s performance in a constructive way,” Cressler said. “But they’re also distractions. We have a no-dating rule that we’re really strict about, but they’ve become good friends, and they’re teenagers. We want them rooting for each other but don’t want the distraction that can occur between games.”
The girls will play their pool games from Friday-Saturday, June 17-18, and finals will be held Sunday, June 19.
These elite players will return with international experience at the amateur level, and that’s valuable, especially for national age-grade programs selecting squads for international tours. Those coaches will soon have a bigger pool from which to choose, as the Academy will be launching a southern Utah location, and two other states have requested outposts for their athletes. The Utah Lions Rugby Academy is a fantastic model, and its popularity is no surprise.
UTAH LIONS RUGBY ACADEMY