The Runner Sports

Houston Strikers’ Justin Fitzpatrick Talks Developing Rugby In Houston

“Inspiring Houston to fall in love with Rugby.” These are the words Houston Strikers head coach Justin Fitzpatrick uses in his email signature block, a message to all what the Strikers intend to do in bringing rugby to Houston.

I had the pleasure of interviewing coach Fitzpatrick and he talked Major League Rugby, the Strikers’ combine, and rugby in Houston.

Jason Graves: A little about you coach; what is your overall coaching philosophy?

Justin Fitzpatrick: I believe in a continuity based game with individual players from 1-15 having the ability to take on an opponent and beat them, when coupled with a dominate set piece and an efficient defense you have the makings of a highly competitive team that plays exciting and engaging rugby for the players to play and the fans to enjoy.


Jason: What is your style of attack?

Justin: I love to see the ball played up off of the deck with point of contact moved quickly. When this is coupled with an uncompromising physicality you have some very attractive and winning rugby.


Jason: What’s your preferred defensive system?

Justin: Simply put, I believe in an efficient defense with players making their tackles, that sounds simplistic but the is often not given the focus it deserves with players owning making their own tackles and having the technical skills to complete those actions. In terms of systems, in an ideal world, teams can move between different systems for different opponents, conditions and field positions etc. That is a process of development however when you start from the basis that players take responsibility for making their individual tackles then all things are possible.


Jason: What is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered so far regarding setting up a new professional rugby club?

Justin: Its all a challenge but a very exciting one. It was a very strong factor in my taking this role was the fact that this has never been done before, as far as I’m aware. When you think of new teams that have formed in the past like ACT Brumbies or the Western Force that has happened with the guiding hand and finance of an NGB [national governing body]. The Strikers is a private entity and thus really paving new ground.


Jason: There is a lot of focus on player development but what about coaches; what would you like to see changed in regard to coaching development in the US?

Justin: Player and coach development are both critical and we are committed to helping where we can in both areas. This was spoken loud and clear by our community and we have listened and will deliver.


Jason: The Raptors and Huns have been building player developmental programs internally; how are the Strikers addressing the MLR’s development requirement?

Justin: I do believe and rightly so that each team and region will approach this conundrum in a slightly different way. We are committed to working with our community to help them and have a positive impact on both player and coach development.


Jason: What is the Strikers’ relationship like with clubs in the region?

Justin: We have excellent relationships with each and every club in the greater Houston area. We want to support the good work, they are in their areas and have been avidly listening to their wants and needs and feel confident we can support the local rugby community so that we can help grow the game in Houston together.


Jason: Speaking of Glendale; with the launch of their U20 squad do you foresee a MLR U20 league like the Aviva Premiership’s A League?

Justin: I am a huge fan of the U20 competition level it is a great bridging point for those that need it into senior rugby from High School and youth programs and helping them develop at the appropriate rate for the individual.


Jason: The Strikers have made several big signings; any local club talent emerging we should know about?

Justin: There is a lot of local talent in the Houston area we have already signed three local players Jackson Slater and Chris Slater from the Lone Star Rugby Club and Jack Riley from West Houston Rugby Club. We feel confident that our combine series will uncover some more gems.


Jason: How does Houston go about recruiting players?

Justin: There will be multiple entry points into the Strikers program, that could mean being identified at a combine, recommendation from a coach or through our network of scouts around the country and further afield or simply just reaching out to us on social media and saying ‘hey coach pick me!’ You would be surprised how many rugby players and athletes contact us on a daily basis looking for an opportunity.


Jason: Tell me a bit about the Strikers’ upcoming combine; what are you looking for in a potential Striker?

Justin: We are looking for athletes with or without current exposure to rugby that have the physical and or the technical skills coupled with the ability to be quick learners.


Jason: What do you think it will take to bring our nation’s top talent back home from overseas?

Justin: Having moved as a player and as a coach around the world I understand that people move for different reasons at different points of their life. It can be for money, prestige, family, lifestyle or as an opportunity to work with a certain coach or play for a certain team. It is our responsibility to make sure we can tick as many of those boxes as we can so that should an overseas player want to return to the US then the Strikers is at the heart of the conversation and thought process.


Jason: How do you see the MLR changing the future of rugby in the US?

Justin: I think that MLR is [an] incredibly important piece of the equation to help grow the game in the USA. As members, we have all committed to helping grow rugby and support our communities, which the Strikers and myself are passionate about delivering on. Having athletes in year-round training environments where they can compete daily to be better and compete against their peers around the country in an exciting nationwide competition and be paid to do so is game changing in its scope and will help us close the game internationally.


Jason: I’ve always said it’s not the rugby player or rugby fan we need to target but those who don’t yet know they love the game; what do you think can be done to improve reaching those would be players/fans?

Justin: We have to get out into the community and win hearts and minds and sell our great game and we all have a role in that. Being active in the community and running school programs is part of that, however the biggest game changer I believe for mainstreaming our sport and making it relevant for the current non-rugby civilians is having the game played in a proper stadium, with a decent seat and the ability to buy a hot dog, a drink, and some team apparel.


Jason: I’m a huge believer that given an opportunity to play professionally young athletes will transition to rugby; are you seeing an increase in local youth interest in rugby?

Justin: From the conversations we have had within our local community we are seeing great growth in the game at high school and youth levels. I believe this growth will only increase especially as cities such as Houston have a professional team to get behind and aspire to play for. It is well documented how many athletes drop out at various levels from traditional American sports and rugby is certainly benefiting from that especially as it is a game for all shapes and sizes.


Jason: With your move from Seattle Saracens to Houston what’s it going to be like heading back to face the SeaWolves?

Justin: I have been a professional player and coach all my adult life moving from one program to another is part of that life. I am incredibly proud of what I achieve and built in collaboration with Seattle Saracens club President Kevin Flynn, we oversaw growth in participation numbers in both the men’s and women’s programs in both 7s and 15s, we produced multiple Eagles both male and female in 7s and 15s alongside winning multiple trophies, leagues, and titles. During my tenure, we partnered with one of the leading rugby programs in the world in the Saracens and created a firm base for the club to operate from so there is much fondness associated with the city. That said the opportunity to move to Houston and be part of the Strikers was and is on a different level and the challenge and opportunity was one not to be overlooked. I do have many friends and happy memories made in Seattle and will look froward to returning to the city and playing the Seattle SeaWolves.


Jason: I’ve got you on my list of ideal interviews as the next Eagle head coach; if USA Rugby comes asking you to replace John Mitchell what do you say?

Justin: I am flattered that I am on your list. I was incredibly proud to coach the USA Eagles as part of Mike Tolkin’s staff, I look back at that time with great fondness that said the biggest help I can be to the national team right now is to build a highly competitive Strikers team that produces Eagles that can compete and win on the world stage. That is good for the Strikers and good for the Eagles and I am committed to do [sic] that.


Jason: We’re two years away from the World Cup; do we have a realistic shot at beating either France, Argentina, or England?

Justin: Just like the last World Cup, we will go as the lowest ranked team in the pool by some considerable way, that said rugby isn’t played on a piece of paper and unlike the last World Cup cycle the national team will have players pulled from domestic professional squads that are playing more games at a higher level and benefiting from being part of daily training environments and that will help no end to make the Eagles more competitive.


Jason: If you could change anything about the current rugby environment in the US what would it be?

Justin: I think Gandhi said it best when he said, ‘be the change you want to see in the world.’ I truly believe that we all have a role to grow our great game. Most of the American ‘family’ are doing a great job whether that’s coaching the under 10s or being the treasurer for the local club. Simply put we all have a role as rugby people practically and as ambassadors to help grow the game and spread the good word of rugby! Must people already do a fantastic job at this to them I say keep going and to the rest I say don’t underestimate your individual power to create positive change for our sport!


Jason: 10 years from now what’s the rugby environment like in the US?

Justin: I would love to see a similar growth of rugby as MLS had in its first 10 years if we achieve that we will be in a great space.


Jason: I hear a lot of negative talk about how big our nation is; do you see it as the challenge so many seem to think it is?

Justin: It is a big country no doubt about that and because of its size we have challenges that other nations bar perhaps Russia and Canada has [sic] to deal with in terms of weather, travel distances, and time changes. That said none of these challenges are impassable and the MLS, NFL, NHL, and NBA seem to have made it work. Many of them can be solved regionally in the community so that solutions can be found that work in a given area and growth can continue.


Jason: What excites you the most about launching the MLR next year?

Justin: What is not to get excited about? There is so much to be excited about as a rugby man! I, like a lot of people, can’t wait for the season to start.


Jason: Finally, coach, what else would you like everyone to know about you and the Strikers?

Justin: We are all incredibly excited about what we are collectively building in Houston and can’t wait for the start of our inaugural season.


-By Jason Graves