29 Nov 2021 | 10:50
It was less than two months before the 2021 season that the Dallas Jackals made the decision to move their inaugural season in Major League Rugby to 2022.
A variety of factors surrounded the decision and across the last nine months plenty has changed at Choctaw Stadium. One such sees Elaine Vassie take on the role of General Manager, who is now overseeing the final preparations for the 2022 season.
Assembling a new squad for the team’s first foray into MLR, with various members of the original team having dispersed after the opt out, Vassie has also recruited a new Head Coach in the form of Michael Hodge and established league talent.
She and back-row forward, Bronson Teles, spoke to majorleague.rugby about how the organization has changed, as well as hopes for 2022.
WHAT HAS CHANGED
Vassie is by no means new to a challenge. As the first woman to hold a Head Coach position in National League Rugby with Manchester Rugby Club, she had what was coined “the hardest job in rugby” when trying to keep the side competitive following a poor start to the season.
Since then, the Scotswoman has been an assistant coach with Scotland Women’s 7s but has called Texas home for seven years. Coaching the Dallas Griffins, Texas Selects and the Dallas Harlequins, Vassie has overseen much of the changes with the team these past months.
“What it (missing out on 2021) has allowed us to do is to have a real review and refocus on what our focus is,” Vassie said.
Photo by Davey Wilson
“We want to be an entertaining experience for people in their exposure for the game, because that is what is going to drive the growth of the audience, their exposure to what rugby values are and I think the on-field component is a big part of that. And we want to develop domestic talent.
“There has been a lot of time on the planning element of that, there has been a lot of time spent on the people we work with. So, when we are looking at the people we are recruiting to be involved with us, there has been an awful lot of thought put into who is the right person and are they excited for the journey that we want to go on with them?”
Drafted by Dallas in 2020, when the team chose not to compete of 2021, Bronson Teles found his way to Houston. This was no bad thing; the former University of Arizona man having called the city home for some time now and jumped in at the deep end of professional rugby quickly.
It was hardly a year to remember for Houston, who finished at the bottom of the Western Conference, Teles played in 11 games across the season. But, while several players have decided not to return to the team after being dispersed, Teles has returned.
“It was easy, because the Dallas organization is full of great people,” Teles said. “Elaine Vassie is a wonderful leader and she is doing great things for the sport. All of the staff at Dallas made it very welcoming.
“Just moving to a new city, and bringing rugby with that, it is something I thought was a great opportunity and a great stepping stone in life, not just rugby. I am looking at it as a new journey and a new chapter. I am excited.”
THE FUTURE OF NORTH AMERICAN RUGBY
Like in 2020, the Jackals have signed a number of development players to the team. This will give them the chance to train alongside the professional squad and test themselves at the elite level.
But what is the point of training if you don’t play a game at the weekend?
With three Division 1 clubs in the Dallas area, the development players will go to Dallas RFC, Dallas Harlequins and Grand Prairie Mavericks all affiliate clubs for the Jackals.
“I think we are in a relatively unique position,” Vassie said. “In that we have got a relatively established club rugby program and with three Division 1 teams, giving our development players the opportunity to get some game time away from MLR, is fantastic.
“It is really about immersing them in a professional environment to see how much support we can give them, and see how that translates. Outside of that, we are asking what we can do to offer some support to players while they are still in the club environment.
“That will mean putting a number of players on a performance pathway with us, giving them professional S&C programs and support, monthly sessions with them from January. Then, they can go back to their club and continue driving development that way.
“There are a lot more clubs in our area, so there is the opportunity for players to grow and to have an impact on community rugby too.”
This hope of promoting the game is something that appeals to Teles also. As he knows, when rugby gets its claws into you, there is no other choice then to engage with it in all its glory.
As a player, the 23-year-old has spent time in Australia with the University of Queensland honing his craft before returning to the USA in order to complete his studies in Arizona. Teles is also understanding that his role as a player extends far beyond the playing field, and that he, Mike Matarazzo, Aaron Gray and Alex Tucci are all role models for the game as American rugby players.
“They want to promote rugby in the best of ways and in the most supportive ways in Dallas,” Teles said. “From when I joined in June 2020 to now, it is that same mindset and it is that same mindset that gets me up in the morning and gets me excited.
“It is the same mantra. The mantra is still the same, so it is something I am looking to be part of in 2022.”
THE HEAD COACH
In recent weeks, it was announced that former England, Ireland and Bath Rugby coach Brian Ashton would be a rugby consultant and Premiership Rugby stalwarts Henry Trinder and Chris Pennell would be making their own moves to the Lone Star State.
Michael Hodge was announced as the man to be leading the Jackals in their first year. Still just 32-years-old, Hodge’s playing career ended early, and he has since built a reputation as a high-performance coach with Sydney University FC, following a stint with Cranbrook School.
In the press release that announced the Australian’s appointment, Vassie underlined the team’s vision to play an exciting brand of rugby, but how he looks to engage his players above anything else.
“We really value the relational aspect of coaching,” Vassie said. “I think that is a core component of who Michael is; it is about the relationship and the person first.
“He had a desire to have players involved in that learning process, in that environment we are trying to create, which fit in with what we were looking for. It is the players on the field with the most relevant information in front of them at any moment of time, so it is a waste of resource if we are not engaging with them.
“He is passionate about his players being involved, with what they are seeing, their understanding and why they want to explore something and why they are making a decision in a positive way.”
HOPES FOR 2022
As was seen in the most recent MLR season, it was two expansion sides who battled it out to reach the Championship Final. Whether or not Dallas will replicate what we saw the LA Giltinis achieve in August remains to be seen.
The second player announced as joining the Jackals, Teles will be bringing his experiences from the SaberCats to the Jackals. Picked by Dallas in the second round of the 2020 MLR Draft, the former University of Arizona captain is hopeful of making an impact for the team that showed him such faith last year.
“Firstly, I just want to make an impact every game,” the 23-year-old said. “I also want to do everything that I can for Dallas to win every game. Secondly, I want to get the Jackals in the Dallas spotlight for sports.
Photo by Big Shots Snap Shots
“Dallas is a very successful sporting city, so I definitely want to help and be part of a that team that makes an impact on the city. Thirdly, I want to be a great guy in the organization; to be a great leader and a great representative.”
“That’s truly what I want to bring.”
With the squad yet to assemble, or even play a game, it is difficult to know what to expect from MLR’s newest franchise, with Vassie hoping that both the players and supporters enjoy themselves above all else.
“We are going to be competitive; we are going to be credible, but there is a far bigger picture,” Vassie said. “This is in terms of challenging how the game is played, in terms of playing exciting rugby, giving our players a framework and a freedom to express themselves.
“We want our people to be enjoying the experience and feel like they are getting development. We want our community to be engaged in that journey with us, we want people that have never seen rugby before to come and enjoy the experience.
“If we are looking for those things in year one and if we do them, then that is an awesome achievement for us.”