Major League Rugby proves the land of opportunity
“You don’t ever really have all the answers in rugby, you can always keep developing and looking for different ways to succeed.”
Coaching out of your comfort zone has long been seen as key to not only personal development but also career prospects for the sport’s leading lights.
The risk that comes with relocating across the globe is often balanced out by the rewards in terms of the knowledge that is accumulated – but it is a significantly more daunting prospect when the coach boasts more experience of the pro game than the country that is his destination.
However, it is a gamble that some are clearly willing to take – including Rob Hoadley.
The former Wasps and London Irish centre is currently gearing up for the start of Major League Rugby in the United States as head coach of San Diego Legion, one of seven sides that will compete in the new professional competition that is it is hoped will capture the imagination of the American sporting public.
“I was always intrigued by the potential of the American rugby landscape,” said Hoadley, a Premiership and European Cup winner with Wasps during his playing career in England.
“There were not many coaching positions but I had a good friend at Stanford University, Matt Sherman, who is now with Army here in America, and he created a position for me to join him full time.”
Hoadley clearly made an impression and his efforts were rewarded with the chance to work with the national side under then head coach John Mitchell and he would later link up with San Diego Breakers in PRO Rugby, the last – and short lived – attempt to establish a pro league in America.
It was at that point he would have to lean heavily on his coaching journey that has begun a few years and a few million air miles before he was lured Stateside.
“At the end of my playing time I was very lucky that Wasps basically created a job for me,” recalled the 38-year-old.
“There wasn’t a coaching role there but (defence coach) Shaun Edwards was working between Wasps and Wales at that stage and I think he needed some extra cover so they created a position where I could help him and at the same time learn from him and it worked out amazingly well.”
Hoadley would eventually take on Edwards’ role when his long-time mentor opted to take on the Wales job full time and he would also later secure some valuable international experience himself with Wales Under 20s but he wanted more.
“I spoke to a few people in the game and I felt the opportunity to expand my horizons could be something that would really pay dividends in the long term,” he said.
“I had spoken to (former team-mate) Alex King who had moved from Wasps to Clermont and I just remember Kingy saying that it was the best thing that he had ever done in terms of his personal development, to go away and learn a whole new style."
“At Wasps we had such a good time, in my first five years we won a trophy every year, we thought we had the answers but you don’t ever really have all the answers in rugby, you can keep developing and looking for different ways to succeed.”
That desire to learn – and a timely invite from former Wasps coach Leon Holden – led to a move to Japan with Ricoh Black Rams.
“I had two years out there in the Top League working with some incredible people like Stephen Larkham,” enthused Hoadley, “and then after that I was just looking for a new challenge.”
From there it was a venture in the unknown in the States and ultimately the head coach role at the Legion. But how do you learn from an environment that is more interested in learning from you? For Hoadley, that was part of the appeal.
“The European rugby landscape is amazing, I love it,” insisted Hoadley. “I look back on some big Premiership games and European games which were incredible, but essentially you are doing the same thing over and over again. We had such a great experience at Irish and Wasps and then you go to another club and try and recreate the same thing, that same success."
“Here it is a whole new landscape. You can pick and choose what you think are the best elements from around the world and create your own vision of how you want to do it and then apply that to the American sporting landscape that is completely unique in itself.”
Hoadley is busy accumulating knowledge just as quickly as he is passing it on as both he and the Legion plan for long-term success.
“As an example, when you are studying how to build your academy, you could build like Saracens,” he explained. “All their Lions players came through their academy where they work with a relatively small group."
“Or you could go to South Africa and study the Sharks who also have a successful academy but they have a much wider net of something like 100 players. There are different ways of doing it around the world, both successful for those sides, we have to apply what works for us.”
Hoadley is not the only coach striving to wake what is so often labelled a ‘sleeping giant’ of the game and he is part of a joined up approach including USA Eagles head coach Gary Gold, who he worked under at Irish, and USA 7s coach Mike Friday.
“Gary is a great man and has already had a great impact on the USA team,” he explained. “They want back-to-back in the Americas Rugby Championship for the first time and it was the first time they have gone unbeaten in the tournament an effectively won the ‘Grand Slam’."
“The same weekend Mike Friday’s team won the title in Las Vegas. It’s incredibly encouraging and we want to create a dream and a pathway for our players that they can play professional rugby and then go on and represent the Eagles and that vision is something that guys can get behind and we’ll start attracting more and more of the best athletes which should help create success for the Legion, success for American rugby a great product that people around the world want to be involved with.”
Together they are trying to bridge the gap that exists between the majority of American players and the best elsewhere in the rugby globe.
“If you look at the challenge facing Gary, it’s to execute skills at a pace above what the players are used to."
“For us at the moment in training, we are also pushing and exceeding the limits of the players."
“Skill acquisition is only useful if you can execute under intense pressure. I think that has been the problem in the past for USA rugby, we’ve had good players but there hasn’t been the ability to execute in the 60th, 70th, 80th minute of a match under extreme pressure."
“A big thing for us is to build that capability and it will take time but now the guys are in a full-time environment there is no excuse for not implementing that.”
It will take time. Hoadley currently has only 15 full time professionals under his charge with another 12 part-time players on ‘associate contracts’ although the Legion do benefit from a relationship with the USA 7s programme that is based locally at Chula Vista.
That is not the only trump card that Hoadley and co have at their disposal.
“Here in San Diego we train at EXOS, a human performance centre that must be one of the best training facilities in World Rugby,” he said. “They’ve just finished working with a group of 50 players training for the NFL Combine, it’s cutting edge and they are training the best athletes in the world."
“We also train in that facility with their experts, they have got a depth of knowledge that isn’t available in Europe, it’s different, and now we must just apply their knowledge to rugby. But that is an insight into the different kind of opportunities available here in America.”
Hoadley is grateful for those same opportunities and is adamant that the Legion is not just a stepping stone to a more high-profile appointment back in the UK.
“I take a very different view of what is success, I think there is more than one way to the top and I think having a broader horizon will eventually pay dividends.”
But if a Premiership club came calling? “I’ve had opportunities to go back to Premiership roles,” he revealed. “The goal is to build a Premiership standard side here within a number of years, so instead we will be bringing that Premiership standard to American rugby,” he said.