If you are a club player in your mid to late 20s, play lock for a great program and you are going to start your professional career with a head coach who was a international lock you have think of yourself as lucky! And most would, but that is what sets this player apart from others. Some would think they’ve arrived and then you get a guy like Robert Meeson who knows that playing professionally is very much a real dream, as they (dreams) all end at some point. How do you make the most of that time?
We spoke with Robert Meeson, the 29yr old, 6’4” lock for t the Sacramento Express to learn more about him, what is like to play professionally here in the States, and what it takes to stay there.
If you played in NorCal (D2 or D1 in recent years you’ve seen Robert play). He’s hard to miss at his height and his team has been a consistent challenger in NorCal’s D2 and D1 for the past five to six years all of which Meeson was a part of until starting play for PRO Rugby this year.
Meeson is impressive at 6’4”. What is also impressive with Meeson is his fluidly for such a tall player and his aggressive play (as loosies and locks should be). Meeson’s parents and family hail from England so the game was nothing new to him. His father played rugby in to his 50s, his brothers played, as well as a number of family back in England. However for Meeson, while he was exposed to the game early on he didn’t start playing organized rugby until high school (2004-05) at Elsie Allen High School in Santa Rosa as his school did not have team. Meeson was 18 when took up the game formally. Meeson went on to play rugby at UC Davis (whose men and women both won National Championships this past spring). After school Meeson returned to the Santa Rosa and join Santa Rosa RFC.
Below is your interview with Robert Meeson.
The Rugby Republic (RR): How did you come to the attention of PRO Rugby? Did they reach out to you or your coaches? Or did you just opt to tryout at the combine?
Robert Meeson (RM): I was invited to train and play with the Northern California Pelican's (Select Sides) during the 2014-2015 rugby season. From this exposure I was initially invited to preliminary PRO Rugby activities run by the PRO Rugby San Francisco Head Coaches, Paul Keeler & Adrian Ferris, who were the NorCal Pelicans coaching staff prior to the inception of PRO Rugby. I was contacted by Ben Parker who knew me from my days at Elsie Allen HS, and he strongly urged me to go to the Northern California combine. I attended, met several of the coaches in the league, and here I am now.
RR: How has playing for a head coach like Luke Gross a highly capped international lock helped your game?
RM: Perspective and attitude towards being a professional player have been the greatest assets that Luke has provided me with. He is extremely approachable and has been very forthcoming in his vision for my development as a lock and advice in day to day positional skill work.
RR: You are a very well rounded player (ability to run in the open, good speed, passing) were you always a lock or did you grow into that. Were those things you've worked on?
RM: When I first started playing, I was initially brought into the fold at Elsie Allen because I was a 6'3'' lad, nothing short on height. Moving forward from there I spent time playing lock, flanker and 8-man at UC Davis. The skills you mention have been worked on over many years; I've always focused on being a cerebral player and practicing my key capabilities. I'm very much a kinesthetic/visual learner: every practice was an opportunity to work on my skills and get better at my craft - even to this day.
RR: So Robert, as lock were there any players you've modeled your game/play after (i.e. Victor Matfield, Paul O'Connell, Richie Gray, etc)?
RM: During my first few years playing rugby I was mostly playing flanker so I paid more attention to that position. I was always in awe of Tom Croft as a flanker as our builds were very similar - tall, great speed, good defensive work. I also enjoyed watching Lewis Moody, in his competition for the ball - his pressure on Australia kicking the ball in the final moments of the 2003 World Cup final set England up with great field position.
Playing lock for the last year now, I've been very focused on Brodie Retallick (you don't become IRB Player of the Year for no reason) as well as Maro Itoje who is an up and coming lock for England at the moment. I tend to watch a lot of blindside flankers at the professional level as their builds are closer to mine in terms of height/weight.
RR: How much of a time commitment has playing professionally been? (Estimated time hours you spend training, preparing etc.?). i.e. Gym, training, what is your day like.
RM: A typical week is four days of training during our season. We'll have an 8am morning training session ranging from 60 to 90 minutes. At 10am we'll get over to our gym facilities at Innovative Strength & Conditioning. Depending on what our individual focus is for this session (strength/agility/conditioning), we'll breakout into our different workout groups. After gym, we'll get back to the training facilities and meeting rooms for lunch at 12pm. Afternoon meetings start around 1:30pm where we'll go over our afternoon training or do a bit of film study. We'll train for another 60 to 90 minutes and then finish up with a pool session and ice baths. We finish up around 4pm every day.
RR: Do you spend any additional time on your own, training, running, watching film?
RM: After certain sessions, players will do additional "work-ons" such as line-out skills, ball handling, decision making etc. I spend a good amount of time watching film of our games and our opponents, additionally watching other professional leagues such as Super Rugby and English Premiership. Now that the summer international tests have started, its an even higher caliber to analyze and study from. My conditioning and fitness have been noted as high for our group so I hold off on burning extra calories in my off days. I usually try to reserve off days as "gain days" to eat as much food as possible honestly.
RR: What has been the biggest difference on the field from playing D1 club rugby to professional (other than the talent)? Is it more fluid, organized, etc.?
RM: The pace of the game and the margin for error. In a D1 match, if a mistake is made, your team can usually recover immediately (under normal circumstances). When a mistake is made at this level, its 5 points on the scoreboard - guaranteed.
RR: So what has it been like so far to play with and against some of the top players from around county and internationals?
RM: It’s absolutely incredible having the opportunity to play with and against such top tier talent. Specifically to my team, working with Ray Barkwill and Olive Kilifi in the pack is an experience I will never forget. When it comes to forwards unit work, these two bring it 100% every time! The knowledge I have gained from my time with Sacramento is off the charts in great thanks to these two great players. It’s been great to measure my own capabilities against other competition in the league as well. I've had both good and bad moments without a doubt: getting big knock on hits against Jamie Mackintosh and Andrew Suniula are definitely highlights, but I'll never let myself forget getting punked by Ngwenya for his first PRO Rugby try because I went too high for a tackle on him.
RR: How do you prepare for a game? Do you have a routine? Day before/day of?
RM: Nothing too obscure for game preparation. I mostly focus on getting as hydrated as possible 48 hours out with Pedialyte and water. Eat some good foods in that buildup; maybe go for a light swim the day before. On game day our coaching staff has us pretty well sorted with a strict schedule so as to normalize the process as much as possible. That's the secret for the day of: normalcy! We're not trying to get out of sorts in our preparation. Act and perform like it’s another day of work, another run out on the paddock so to speak.
RR: How many charge-downs have you had? It seems like you have one each time we watch? What do you like most; being on the attack with ball or defending? We ask because you seem great on both ends?
RM: I've actually only had two charge downs this year: one against SF which Ryan Thompson recovered and eventually lead to Jope Motokana's try, and another one against a box kick by Shaun Davies of Ohio. Still hunting to get a few more hopefully. Initially, I quite enjoyed being on the defensive side of the ball when we were in play, I would be able to use my speed to cut down the space on the outside and force attackers back inside. After some of the offensive woes in the early part of the season, I much prefer our team to have the ball in hand. I had a good line break against San Diego - going to be looking to setup a few more of those this season.
RR: The Sacramento Express are young team with talent/potential and can complete. What do you think the Express need to get over the hump?
RM: In a word: discipline. We have tremendous athletes capable of playing extremely exciting rugby as we all saw in our opening match of the season. On the other hand we've had the most cards in the league and turnovers have been a clear issue for our boys. Our coaches have been going over some startling statistics about our ball possession and retention - a key point for our team moving forward is the focus on multi-phase play and ball retention. When we can put together long drives and stop putting ourselves in a hole, we'll start getting results that we've fought hard for.
RR: What's been the best part to play/being a part of the Sac Express specifically?
RM: Being immersed in a full time training environment has been an incredible experience for myself, but I would have that opportunity with any of the other teams in the league. The thing that truly sets this environment apart would be the coaching staff's attitude and camaraderie. We have an extra fitness session after training called "red group" and you'll see the coaches, Luke, Freddy, and Kevin all getting involved, running lines with the boys. KB (Kevin Battle) gets stuck into kicking competitions with the backs after training; Freddy is jumping in to play scrum half during live simulations; Luke is jumping in defensive lineup practice. The enthusiasm and commitment these men have is unparalleled in the league.
RR: What are somethings that rugby players should know about playing professionally that they may not know?
RM: As much as we prepare for games on the training field, the biggest jump up is in the off field preparation and attitude I maintain when I'm not with my teammates. It would be easy to be going out on my off days and having a drink in downtown Sacramento, I don't have a personal baby sitter - I'm responsible for what I do to my body 7 days a week and how I prepare for each and every day. I've probably spent 95% of my paychecks outside of rent/utilities on protein supplements, vitamins, healthy good foods in order to build up my body as best as I can. I know that this opportunity is once in a lifetime for me and if I want to make it a few more years in this league I can't have a mistake or a misstep otherwise I'll be benched in favor of someone who is preparing better than I am or possibly cut altogether. I don't want to lose out on this, and so I'm willing to do anything to stay here and continue playing at this level. I think that's the thing that all these rugby players should know: this opportunity requires steadfast dedication and commitment, otherwise its just a recreational sport and we shouldn't be getting paid for that.
With those great words of wisdom and insight we will end our feature on Robert Meeson of the Sacramento Express. We want to thank Robert for his time and openness in the interview. Thanks to his old coach Alen Petty for connecting us, and thanks to PRO Rugby for allowing the media to access their players. Next time you are watching the games check out Robert Meeson (he’s not hard to find) and measure his work-rate.