There’s a saying that goes ‘everything is bigger in Texas’ and it’s something that can even be said of the state’s rugby teams. It’s especially true of its burgeoning clubs in Austin, including Division One National Championship runners-up the Austin Blacks.
The Austin Blacks rugby club is one steeped in history. As tighthead prop Sam Rooke explains: “This is my first year with the Blacks but I have known about them for a long time. They have a long standing history of success and passion in Texas and USA rugby. The Austin Blacks have been to the Division 1 final five times now.”
Hats off to a very good Mystic River team. Doesn’t kill the dream, we have another job to do!
— Austin Blacks Rugby (@AustinBlacks) June 5, 2016
It’s a record that holds mixed feelings for Rooke after the Blacks yet again made it to the Division One National Championship final this year, only to lose out to Massachusetts’ Mystic River 45 – 33.
“Disappointed is an understatement; the whole team is heartbroken, we really put a lot in to this season and came up just short. All credit to Mystic River as they really showed up and played an absolute blinder. I think from a neutral’s perspective, the fans must have been thrilled with the intensity, quality, and high scoring affair that the final was.”
Always the bridesmaid but never the bride, the Austin Blacks will be hoping to go one better next season. “It may sound greedy but the fact is our goals don’t change year-to-year. We want to win the national titles across all three divisions across our three teams. It is our 50th anniversary as a club and we want to have the trophies.”
As rugby union continues to grow across the United States, the Austin Blacks continue to be one of the best non-professional sides in the country: “There are 100+ Division One teams across the USA all separated by regional competitions. This year was truly the best of the best in the history of the Championship in the USA.
“It was incredibly well supported and the facilities and the final hosted at Infinity Park in Glendale, Denver were top-notch. USA rugby does a fantastic job supporting the grassroots game, and it’s great to see this exponential growth of the game here stateside.”
With the Rio Olympics set to shake up the perception of sevens rugby across the globe, the Austin Blacks already have a summer sevens programme in place. “The success of the US 7’s team has also really helped with the games acceptance and growth,” claims Rooke.
Moreover, the club is using a wealth of knowledge from abroad to improve the quality of its rugby.
“We have excellent coaching in Tane Jericevich and Stevie Swindall, both from Scotland. The club believes in natural growth and brings in domestic talent from local and national universities. We also foster relationships with international clubs and have had some fantastic talent from abroad come and supplement the local talent. Good examples from this year are Stephen Jones (a fly half from England), Ngoako Rallepelle (a South African back rower) and Johnny Clery (an Irish hooker).”
Rooke himself was born and spent most of his early life in Britain, before heading to the US during his teenage years. “When I moved to the states at 16 I used online resources to find a local club and joined immediately. Nowadays with the push of rugby clubs into local high schools and junior schools, the access is even greater. Local rugby bodies and clubs are really working hard to grow the game and get more kids involved. I think if USA rugby continue on its trend towards success there will be even more progression than we are seeing right now.”
As Japan prepares to host the first Rugby World Cup in Asia in 2019, Rooke believes hosting the sport’s flagship tournament in the States would make a huge impact on the growth of the game in the US: “In my opinion the best thing that can happen to US rugby is for a World Cup to be hosted here. The USA has the best athletic facilities in the world bar none. The exposure a World Cup would give the game would be inspiring.”
Steps are already being taken to push forward the development of US rugby with the introduction of the country’s first fully-professional tournament, the PRO Rugby competition. “It’s another level for a player to strive towards. The standard of rugby is very high in the tournament and the end product has really been very well accepted. I hope they continue to build on the great success that they have already had.”
Austin Blacks Rugby Club is fiercely Texan and the scale and scope of its set-up and its ambitions fit perfectly into the concept of being Texas-sized. Everything’s bigger in Texas and that’s true of its rugby teams as well.
You can find out more about Austin Blacks Rugby Club here.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena