NOLA Reloads Ahead of Season Two
By: Colton Strickler, MLR Correspondent
Building a winner is tough.
As Major League Rugby gears up for the second season, clubs everywhere are doing what they can to build on the winning ways they established during the inaugural season, while others are trying to put themselves in a position to establish their own winning ways.
In what has turned out to be a race to reload talent, the splashes that the NOLA Gold have made over the last few months have put them near the front of the pack.
Coming off a season in which they missed out on a playoff spot by just five points and finished the inaugural season in sixth place, head coach Nate Osborne and his side have done just about everything they could in the personnel department to ensure a successful second season.
“For us, we got through season one and we sat down and looked at our board and identified some weaknesses that we thought were spots that we needed to improve in and different things like that,” Osborne said. “Then we sort of cast our net out a little bit and got in contact with some people that we knew.”
Two places in particular that Osborne and the Gold directed their attention to were the centres and the back row. If experience and professionalism were what they were mining for, Gold is what they struck.
“I think we really targeted the second row and centre,” Osborne explained of his team’s offseason efforts. “Those were two of the spots that I thought we needed more, whether it was depth or bigger bodies there. That’s something that we went out and did. The back row kind of fell into place with us not being able to come to terms with a couple of guys which forced our hand to go after a couple of guys. Certain times you want to keep a player, but you can’t keep him because someone else is going to offer him more money, or he has got something different in mind, or he feels like he’s worth more than what you’re offering. That kind of forced our hand into making some of those changes. We really targeted those second rows and centres this year. That was a big spot that I felt we needed to have a look at.”
All you have to do is spend a few minutes browsing around the Gold’s social media pages to see what kind of talent their search produced. Osborne and the Gold searched far and wide for world class rugby players ready to take NOLA to the next level, and that’s exactly what they’ve found. There is no substitute for experience, and the new-look Gold has a surplus of it.
“If we were looking at Kane Thomspon, Cam Dolan, Ignacio Dotti, Nikola Bursic and Kyle Baillie in that back five, we are looking at over 100 test caps,” centre and team captain Taylor Howden explained. “We’ve definitely added a bucket load of experience.”
When teams line up to play against the Gold in 2019, every way they turn they’ll bump into another world-class talent, and that’s something that excited Osborne and Howden alike. After arguably getting bitten by the injury bug the hardest in 2018 – which included losing one of their leading scorers, J.P. Eloff, for an extended period of time to chemical meningitis – they are ready to see what kind of noise they can make with a little bit of depth behind them.
“We sat down and kind of said that we really wanted to bring the floor up and increase the depth in our squad,” Howden said. “Obviously with those injuries and losing two of our back row players this season to other teams, we definitely wanted to solidify those spots. We’ve brought in some good young guys from the All-American group, and obviously some international experience in those positions.”
“I think it straight away adds competition and it straight away adds depth,” Osborne said. “So, you’ve got a lot of the guys that started last year for us coming back, but then you add these additions in and now there is a fight for spots, which automatically adds competition which is good for training, and it also adds that depth that we are looking for. If someone did get hurt, the guy that was starting in that position can step in rather than pulling from our academies so early in the season.”
One of the players that they will rely on for the experience and professionalism that they are looking for is Australian centre Con Foley . The 26-year-old, who won the 2013 Australian Sevens Player of the Year, jumped a t the opportunity to join his friend Scott Gale, another Australian back that the Gold were able to come to terms with, in the Crescent City this season.
“I think the good thing about NOLA is the history of the club,” Foley said. “It’s a great thing to have an old club that can enter into a new competition like this. Just with the history and with the basis that the club’s got, I think it’s a real positive.”
Foley knows that the organization is going to rely heavily on his experience as a pro, and that’s a role that he is willing to accept. Despite being only 26 years old, Foley has played more than his fair share of rugby. Having played with Australia Sevens side since 2011, Foley has also spent time with the University of Queensland, Northern Suburbs, North Harbour Rays, and Brisbane City.
“I think having played professionally before, I can bring that professional attitude to the club,” Foley said. “I think just bringing that experience will be one of the things that I am looking forward to bringing to the team.”
While additions like Thompson and Foley are great, the Gold knows their biggest signing of the season came in the form of Cam Dolan. “I’d say that if you look at some of the people that we’ve acquired, obviously there are some very experienced dudes coming in,” Howden said. “Cam Dolan is one of them. He’s an Eagle, Eagle captain and has played some professional rugby overseas. USA born and bred, so I’m pretty excited to have a run around with him.”
Dolan received First Team All-MLR honors as the 8-man for a San Diego Legion that finished third in the standings last season before being bounced by the eventual champion Seattle Seawolves in the semi-finals. When Dolan became available, Osborne jumped at the opportunity to add him to the club.
“I think it’s a massive signing for us,” Osborne said. “I think Cam is well known in the U.S. and he’s one of the top players for the Eagles. Having an American born player like that join your club is a big deal. When I was coaching with the Eagles set up in the last World Cup, Cam was there so I knew Cam already. I knew what he could do and knew what he could bring. He adds another lineout threat for us which is something that I think we need to do better from last year and also a ballcarrier that we desperately needed in our outside channels.”
“I reckon that’s probably our biggest signing of all,” Howden said of his new teammate. “Just for the fact that he’s well established as an American rugby player. He’s consistently putting in good performances for the Eagles, and he’s just a good bloke as well. I think he’ll bring some leadership. He’ll bring a presence in the set piece and the lineout, something that we looked at this offseason and we wanted to make better. He’ll be invaluable both around his experience and the leadership qualities that he brings.”
With so much new artillery on the way, it’s tough for Osborne, Howden and even Foley to narrow their excitement down to just one player. Between Dolan, Thompson, and Foley, it’s not hard for Gold fans to get excited about their potential in 2019.
Is a run at the MLR Championship Shield out of the question? Osborne doesn’t believe so. With a year of MLR experience under his belt, he’s got his sights set on a title in 2019.
“I actually definitely do,” Osborne said. “I think last year we weren’t too far away, only a couple of points out of the playoffs. There was a stretch of those injuries that we talked about that hurt us to key positions early on in the season, that really hurt us and we didn’t quite have the depth that we do this year. So, I think the additions that we added, plus the depth that we are going to have, we are a legitimate competition threat for sure.”
Howden, who is no stranger to American rugby, is on board with his head coach.
“100 percent,” Howden said. “I think that we’re definitely going to be a contender this year with the amount of the former professionals coming in mixed in with some of the youth that we’ve also brought in. If you look at some of the academy guys that we are going to be rolling out here at the beginning of December, I think we’ve really got the opportunity to be a title contender.”
It’s too early to tell whether or not the Gold has constructed a winning side, but it will sure be fun to find out.
Colton can be reached at email@example.com.
Written by: Colton Strickler. Photos (in order): Craig Boudreaux, Craig Boudreaux, Dave Snook, Paradeigm, Dave Snook, Craig Boudreaux
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