Aaron Mclelland: From Gisborne NZ, to rugby across the World!
Following the recent success of the USA 7s and the buzz surrounding the Major League Rugby (MLR) season launch, I was keen to gain a deeper insight into the development of rugby over in the North American continent. My curiosity led me to Vancouver and 23 year-old Aaron Mclelland, who left his hometown on the East Coast of New Zealand to embark on a remarkable journey filled with very impressive rugby experiences. Aaron now has his sights set on the MLR and here's what he had to tell GRM.
1. Where are you currently playing rugby?
"I’m currently playing with the UBC Old Boys (known as the Ravens) based in Vancouver, Canada. Back in January this year the Ravens travelled to Texas and defeated the Houston Sabercats, a newly formed Major League Rugby team.
Provincially, I play for the British Columbia Bears and have played for the Canadian development sevens team. Things really took off for me on the back of a good 2014 season in Canterbury and I have been enjoying playing rugby abroad ever since. I am currently playing for the Ontario Arrows squad, who are aiming for inclusion in the 2019 US Major League Rugby".
2. How else are you involved in the sport?
"Aside from playing rugby I am involved in coaching at Saint George’s Senior School. I will be coaching the provincial Under-18 BC team this summer and am involved with Rookie Rugby, Elementary school development, my club junior system and the BC provincial junior academy. I find coaching a great way for continued learning and an excellent way of developing rugby perspective. My coaching experiences have enabled me to reflect on the coaching I am exposed to as a player. I have had mixed experiences. I would encourage all senior players to consider involvement in junior age grade coaching. It will help to further your understanding and appreciation of the coaching profession. There are numerous opportunities to grow and develop our game with junior coaching as a starting point for continued involvement after hanging up the boots.
3. Before settling in Canada you played in tournaments all over the World, how did you get involved in these tournaments and which one did you enjoy the most?
"I have been playing rugby since I was 5 years old and haven’t missed a season in the last 18 years. In my younger years, I played for some regional teams but never really excelled at rugby, while focusing on playing numerous other sports. Other sports have helped me develop a diverse skill set and I found after maturing later in my teenage years I was more physically ready for the demands of senior rugby. I first travelled abroad with a rugby agency called Inside Running when I was 19-years-old. I was placed in Doha, Qatar where I enjoyed 2 years playing for Doha RFC and met my Canadian girlfriend. My experience with Inside Running was very smooth and I would recommend using them to anyone who is looking to travel abroad and play.
"Qatar provided me with the opportunity to immerse myself into a vibrantly cultural environment. I learned a lot about myself and grew tremendously in my two seasons with Doha RFC. Highlights included playing in the club final at Dubai sevens, being introduced to Nando’s, coaching at Doha College, and travelling around the Middle East to play. We were the only club based in Qatar which required us to travel to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Muscat, Bahrain, Kuwait and Al Ain every other weekend to play our matches. Crossing borders and early airport meet times became a regular occurrence. In 2015, after winning the League, we beat out Kandy from Sri Lanka to become the West Asia club champions. Those were the days!
"I wasn’t exposed to seven-a-side rugby until my final year of High School at Mount Albert Grammar in Auckland, New Zealand. I was fortunate enough to have Rocky Khan, New Zealand Sevens Legend, as my coach. Aside from his successful playing career, he has helped develop a lot of junior talent. I was named in the NZ Secondary Schools Condor sevens team in 2012, under Rocky Khan’s coaching, which is still the highlight of my sevens playing career to date. From that tournament team a number of those players have played Super Rugby (Akira Ioane –Blues and current All Black, Mitchell Drummond – Crusaders, Nathaniel Apa – Crusaders, Jamie Booth - Hurricanes), NZ sevens (Isaac Te-Tamaki, Akira Ioane) and NRL Rugby League (Tui Lolohea – NZ Warriors and Kiwis, Brody Lam – Newcastle Knights U20’s).
4. The USA recently won the hugely popular HSBC 7s World Series in Vegas, why do you think Rugby sevens is such a popular style of rugby over in the states?
"Sevens enables more self- expression as a player and magnifies the extent of your involvement in each game. According to Andy Friend (Australian Men’s sevens coach) in the same hour and half of a 15-a-side game vs an hour of half of 7-a-side rugby, you will be 6x more involved in the 7-a-side game. This makes 7-a-side rugby an excellent platform for junior introduction and skill development. Arguably a reduced amount of contact, but 6 times as many tackles, rucks, passes and touches on the ball. The combination of space and speed makes the seven-a-side format highly entertaining. I have been fortunate enough to play in a few invitational tournaments including - Dubai, Amsterdam, Vegas and Vancouver. Dubai is the one which stands out most for me. The interaction between the professional circuit players and the invitational tournament in Dubai is something that is rarely experienced in any professional sport. The Dubai tournament is one of the biggest invitational Sevens tournaments in the world. Its run in a huge facility in the middle of the dessert.
5. What's your long term goal in Rugby?
"Sevens enables more self- expression as a player and magnifies the extent of your involvement in each game. According to Andy Friend (Australian Men’s sevens coach) in the same hour and half of a 15-a-side game vs an hour of half of 7-a-side rugby, you will be 6x more involved in the 7-a-side game. This makes 7-a-side rugby an excellent platform for junior introduction and skill development. Arguably a reduced amount of contact, but 6 times as many tackles, rucks, passes and touches on the ball. The combination of space and speed makes the seven-a-side format highly entertaining. I have been fortunate enough to play in a few invitational tournaments including - Dubai, Amsterdam, Vegas and Vancouver. Dubai is the one which stands out most for me. The interaction between the professional circuit players and the invitational tournament in Dubai is something that is rarely experienced in any professional sport. The Dubai tournament is one of the biggest invitational Sevens tournaments in the world. Its run in a huge facility in the middle of the dessert."
6. With the MLR starting up, what do you think the next step should be to develop the game?
"In my opinion, USA’s recent success is a tribute to their vision and effectiveness as a national organisation. The administration at USA rugby have done an excellent job of promoting the sport nationwide. The conversion of players like Perry Baker has established a realistic pathway for cross-sport athletes. He has developed into a really impressive rugby player in the past few years. I think USA rugby have been working very hard as an organisation, for a long-time now and are finally reaping the benefits. Their vision and focus on player development, coach development and rallying new supporters through the US sanctioned Major League Rugby shows clear vision. Unfortunately, here in Canada things are not as well polished right now. There is no lack of intent or interest, just a general lack of direction and cohesion. There are a number of individuals and emerging organisations that are pushing professionalisation and working tirelessly to improve the format of the current system. I have a feeling that a few key changes could ignite and rekindle the successes of past years. Canada faces some unique challenges. The weather and interest in other sport often appears the main culprits. Professionalisation could be the key to attracting young and emerging athletes away from the major sports, such as Football, Hockey, Basketball, Lacrosse and Soccer.
The USA led MLR initiative has provided a realistic pathway for professionalisation in rugby. The longevity and sustainability of the league is still in its infancy, but this is the leading rugby initiative in North American rugby right now. In Canada, the support systems for emerging players and coaches are few and far between right now. Provincial and National rep rugby, up to Under 19’s, is pay to play. The disconnection between club, provincial and national level rugby is clearly evident. On the positive note, it is common to play against/ with the best domestic players in Men’s club rugby. In my opinion, the major differences between rugby in New Zealand and Canada relates to skill set. Canadian rugby Is centred around strength and physicality, often at the expense of micro skills that kiwis develop at a young age through sports like touch rugby. In Canada, we play a varied form of touch rugby, but perhaps there is room for a structured league.
7. What advice would you give to young american's or Canadians who are considering taking up rugby?
" To all young and emerging rugby players in North America, exciting times lay ahead. The opportunities are improving to more closely align to the other major sports. To parents, rugby will instill unteachable values and create citizenship in your children. The prospect of competing for an Olympic Gold medal or at a Rugby World Cup for your country, are realistic goals for high performance players. The relationships, friendships and networks you will create by playing rugby at any level, will be long reaching and long lasting. This I guarantee. I am looking forward to the opportunities developing in North American rugby. In the meantime, I am biding my time in Canada and enjoying everything Vancouver has to offer."
Thanks for taking the time out to speak to us Aaron! All the best with your playing career!
Written by Shawn Boatin
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