These Outlaws Ain't Whistling Dixie...

Ventura vs HB in the 2016 SCRFU Championship Game. Photo by Michael Zublach 2016. 

Ventura vs HB in the 2016 SCRFU Championship Game. Photo by Michael Zublach 2016. 

The 15s season is kicking off and up and down the golden state most clubs are starting practices and getting into their pre-season swing of things. This is no different for Ventura County Rugby  Club. The Ventura County Outlaws women’s side have been in the mix for conference titles and making a run at nationals the past few years. The boys for Ventura though it was time for them to also get in on the action and last year put together a great run in SCRFU’s D2 making it all the way to the conference final before falling to Huntington Beach in the championship game.

We do need to clarify that the men’s and women’s rugby sides for Ventura both share the name, logo, etc. but they are separate individual programs. We are covering the men in this story (we’ll be trying to cover the women in a separate story hopefully soon).

Through some mutual rugby contacts we were able to get in touch with the Ventura County Outlaw’s prop Paul Gagliardi (who served as an club officer and captain last season).

Below is our interview with him and the insights we got to the Ventura County Outlaws.

The Rugby Republic (RR): Ventura had great success last year with both the men’s and women’s sides. What contributed the your guys’ success last year?

Paul Gagliardi for Ventura County (VC):The Men's club has been in existence for six years. We started out with a very solid group of players and over that time have grown in general experience as well as experience playing with each other. Over the years we have picked up some solid contributors, both on and off the field. With a solid foundation and some great additions you've got a recipe for success. The majority of the club members picked up the game in their college years. As such, you see a youthful exuberance towards success and growth both on and off the field. Many of the members are young professionals, just beginning to blossom in their careers.  The club system offers some great experience from a management skill, teamwork, problem solving, and social interaction perspective. Many find that very rewarding and transferable to their day to day jobs, and draw on that fulfilling experience.

Back to last year, last year the pieces all fell together nicely. Many of the players had five seasons of playing together under their belt. We imported two very strong foreign players from Brazil and another from Argentina. Quickly we knew we had a solid team to compete with and once you feel you are competitive as a team on the field, it snowballs into success as a club overall.  Winning is contagious and once that ball starts rolling you get more people buying in and wanting to be a part of it.

RR: How does Ventura get its players? From the local youth programs? Local high schools, any college recruitment?

VC-No question recruiting is the most difficult part of managing a rugby club, especially at the division 2 level.  While Ventura County is a broad area, we find it very difficult to attract new players to the sport. Moreover, it is even more difficult to retain newly recruited players due to the landscape of our league. To elaborate on that, it has a lot to do with B side games, or the lack thereof. Each year we have 10 regular season games, each of those games should have a B side game associated with it. In the past year we may have had three B side games, which were less than a full 80 minute game or had less than 15 a side. This is a serious issue for the development and retention of a new player, or a player that is even working towards making the A side roster. It's hard to get the necessary game experience when teams aren't putting out a B side. You can't expect someone who is not getting any game time to travel with the team, keep coming to practice, or continually give up their free time.

Now there is a fantastic youth organization, named the Orcas which is rapidly growing in our area. We are working very closely to become a feeder from their U-18 group. Many of their players go off to college, so it's not as big of a feeder as we would hope it to be.  But we hope that as the cycle of players coming back from college will further their rugby experience and bring it back to the Outlaws. We do draw many of our players from the local college (California Lutheran University) graduates who stay in the area.

RR: Does Ventura have a number of returning players which will let you make another run in SCRFU?

VC: This year we have many returning players and some solid new additions on top of that. Last year we lost the SCRFU D2 Championship on a time expiring penalty kick. The men are hungry and poised to make a run at a SoCal D2 Championship in 2017. Beyond that, we have the pedigree to make a solid run deep into National Playoffs.  In the last 2 years, SoCal D2 Champion had to play Tempe, AZ to represent the Southwestern Region on the national stage. Tempe plays at a higher level than most D2 clubs in our area and after claiming the national title they will be moving to D1 in 2017. We always knew that even if we had won SoCal D2 that most likely traveling to Tempe would be as far as we go. Huntington Beach, who had won SoCal last year, lost to Tempe by over 60 points. With them (Tempe) out of the way and going to the division that they belong, we're excited to see how far we can go among other D2 teams.

RR: What the biggest challenge facing Ventura?

VC: As mentioned earlier our biggest challenge is the retention of players. Without having set B-Side games, we can’t get everyone who comes out and trains games to play in.  

RR: How has rugby in the Olympics or PRO Rugby had an impact on your club? More interest in rugby? More commitment, more sponsors?

VC: Any means for Rugby to increase exposure to the general public, is welcomed!  We've experienced strong growth in domestic rugby, and it has been exciting to be a part of. Anyone that has been around this sport for a while has the same dream, that we live in a country where rugby is a household name.  Every week we look at the NFL, and see how big it is, it's now immersed in our culture. On a smaller scale, we've seen the MLS rise from out of nowhere to be a very popular league. Back when it started, attendance and exposure were very limited. Now if you tune into an MLS game, the games are well attended and the league is doing real well. This country does a good job of taking something exciting and spreading it like wildfire. Rugby has that chance, with the excitement that it brings.

PRO Rugby has started at a good time, to draw off American's interest for something new and exciting. We were very excited to see Rugby go to the Olympics for more exposure. However, we felt that the coverage of the rugby was less than adequate and didn't do it quite the justice it deserved. We were hoping NBC would do more features of rugby since it does carry the rugby contracts (Premiership, CRC, Vegas), but unfortunately it wasn't there. The addition of Nate Ebner to the team, and the exposure that brought through the NFL channel, was the best thing that came out of the Olympics. 

Last year we had one player (an import) make it to the Sacramento PRO squad, he was about to sign a contract, but however had immigration issues that both sides could not overcome. This was a huge step for the club to see that playing professionally in this country is very attainable. We as a club want to do everything we can to develop players to become PRO caliber.  In the past there wasn't much of an incentive to invest time and energy to become a PRO or Olympic level athlete for Rugby. Now, it is a reality and we will draw on that allure.

RR: What was a key factor in the boy’s success last year? And what do you need for this season to compete in a deep SCRFU D2?

VC: A key factor in our success last year was experience and cohesion. Many teams in the league certainly have the talent to be successful, but talent alone is not enough to put wins on the board. An 80 minute rugby match isn't about who can hit someone the hardest or make the longest run.  It's a grind, it's the ultimate chess match! How can you use your pieces better than the other team to come out ahead?  We've taken this mentality and applied it within our preparation. We've been playing in D2 for four seasons now; at this point we understand our opponent's strengths and weaknesses. With that we do our best to come up with a game plan that complements our strengths and exploits our opponent’s weaknesses. This year we also focused on mental toughness and moving forward from mistakes. This game is hinged on momentum gained and lost throughout the game. Momentum can swing instantaneously with lack of mental toughness. Often times, a referee, an opposing player, or even a teammate can do something to throw off your mental game and swing the momentum to the opponent. We've focused on limiting that noise and trying to get the guys to focus on their job, and quickly forget about the force that caused them to mentally get off their game.    For this season, we just need to continually get better and embracing these principals. We have the talent, we have the mental toughness, with a little bit of luck to avoid injuries, and with some good preparation we should poised to be at the top of the table and make a run at Nationals.

RR: So what sets Ventura apart from other teams in the league?

Ventura vs HB 2016 SCRFU Championship Game. Photo Michael Zubach. 

Ventura vs HB 2016 SCRFU Championship Game. Photo Michael Zubach. 

VC:  We've always been a very fast team. Speed has always been our biggest asset. We focus on moving the ball, playing sound defense, and counter attacking when the opponents make a mistake. We've never been a physically dominant team, so we've had to get creative on how to get our fast guys in space and use that advantage. We've always felt that we could score at anytime, and the only ones who could stop us was ourselves, by virtue of physical mistakes.

RR: What is something people should take notice of with Ventura this year?

VC: This year the team will focus on more fluidity on attack. Our defense and counter attack are very solid, but this year we will focus on attacking from set pieces and multi phase rugby. This year again, we should have a very strong backline, one of the best in the league and we plan to show the rest of the league why we think we have a great backline. It should be very fun to watch.

RR: What is the one game the Outlaws are looking forward to this coming year?

VC: Last year we looked forward to Back Bay all year. In 2014 and 2015 they knocked us out of the playoffs in the 1st round each year. They were the class of the division, and showed that again in 2016 when they went undefeated in league play - including beating us in week one. This year we had our sights set on going to their home field and upsetting them in the playoffs and moving forward. In the semi-finals we headed off to the pristine pitch down in Newport Beach, played the game of our lives and came out victorious for a huge upset. For us, it almost felt as if that was our championship.  The very next game, we played very winnable game vs Huntington Beach for the Championship. We played a very sloppy game, both mentally and physically and lost as time expired. Over the last three years playing Huntington Beach every game has been decided by no more than three points! Our combined differential is less than 10 points! We even played to a draw one year; the separation of our two clubs on the field is almost non-existent. They are not the most physically talented team in the league, but they play a very cerebral game of rugby, play strong mentally and minimize errors. While we always look forward to the challenge of Back Bay from an ability standpoint. This year we point our attention to breaking down the solid play of Huntington Beach and exacting our revenge on the Championship loss.

There is some great rugby in SoCal and NorCal and in every division. Ventura is no different as the Outlaws have reach the post season on a regular bases in a short time as a club and came very close to winning the SoCal/SCRFU D2 Championship. It will be fun to watch and follow the competition in the SoCal D2 this year with some great teams in the mix and a few others who are looking for a seat at the table. We want to thank Paul for this time and Rogelio Juarez for getting us connected.