Players head south of the equator to fine-tune their skills

D1A Rugby: Players head south of the equator to fine-tune their skills
Photo Credit: Leanna Long (left)

LAFAYETTE, Colo. – The summer months are an excellent time for college students to study abroad. Several of D1A Rugby’s bright young stars will be spending their summers outside of the States, but rather than earning college credit, they’re improving their game in challenging rugby environments.

Lindenwood University’s rugby program provides a varsity environment for its players from the time they arrive at fall camp in August until the time the Lions complete the D1A Playoffs and USA College 7s National Championships in May. Still, the summer months create a void in the rugby calendar, making it an easy decision for Malon Al-Jiboori, Wes Parker, and Chance Wenglewski.

Al-Jiboori and Wenglewski, who both represented the USA at the 2016 U20 Trophy, as well as former U20 standout Parker, are taking their rugby skills to new heights as they train with the ACT Brumbies in Canberra, Australia.

“As current and former U20s, this will serve as a high-caliber immersion program for our players and hopefully future Eagles,” said Lindenwod and Junior All-American Head Coach JD Stephenson.

The California Conference has a host of players currently overseas, as well. The Conference’s Back of the Year and Saint Mary’s center Dylan Audsley is in New Zealand. He was supposed to be joined by teammate and California’s Freshman of the Year, Aaron Matthews, but the hot-stepping underclassman tore his ACL at the USA Rugby College 7s National Championships days before his planned departure.

From Cal Poly, Sean Gorman, Mark Grzanich, and Nathan Sylvia recently landed in Sydney, where they’ll compete with Randwick Rugby Club’s U20 squad. It’s not only Mustang players that will be in Australia, as Cal Poly Head Coach James Tesoriero will immerse himself in a coaching environment, in which he’ll split time learning in both Japan and Sydney.

Staying in Australia, Wyoming’s Lance Elliot is getting match time with Brothers Rugby Club in Queensland as part of an exchange program the Cowboys have Down Under.

San Diego State has shown steady improvement over the past few seasons under Alex Lichtig’s tutelage. The Aztecs are primed for an even better season next year with Johnny Abdulahad, Gil Covey, Chase Pickwell, and Kenny Villafana training at the Auckland Academy for four weeks.

Training two to three times a day, five days a week, the boys from San Diego State can already notice their rugby skills maturing.

“For me personally, the scrum sessions we’ve had at the academy are prime,” said hooker Abdulahad. “They really emphasize the height and footwork in their scrum, so we are definitely going to be taking those drills and techniques back home.”

Like San Diego State, Arizona is a D1A team on the rise after reaching the quarterfinals of the D1A Playoffs, and has a group of players abroad. Junior All-American Steve Branham is in Australia training in Queensland after being awarded the Mark Loane Medal and a rugby scholarship to the University of Queensland. Meanwhile, two of Branham’s college teammates, Kyle and Matt Rogers, will be in good hands when the half backs arrive at the Stellenbosch Academy located in the Western Cape of South Africa.

Of course, it’s not just about becoming better rugby players. Most of these student-athletes are experiencing a different corner of the world for the very first time, and absorbing all that they can away from the pitch, too.

“The culture out here is awesome,” exclaimed Abdulahad. “We get to witness a lot about the culture when we play with our clubs on the weekend. It’s awesome being in a country where their worlds revolve around rugby.”