The structure of rugby is built on skills development, critical thinking, athleticism and team work. These pillars are what create great rugby players. Because these are skills, it takes time to develop and requires guidance. The support of a great program can help bring that along. For the University of Louisville Cardinals, they have begun to take steps forward to make that happen. Under the leadership of newly appointed head coach, Emil Walton, the Cardinals program are looking to take the next step forward.
Emil Walton’s pathway to coaching was not necessarily a conventional one. In fact, his pathway to coaching was not planned. Walton was a former player in a tough Nambian and South African rugby union. After many years of play, Walton was forced to retire due to injuries, and decided to make his way across the ocean to the United States. Walton would go on to play for NOVA Rugby out of Northern Virginia, before work would bring him to Louisville, KY. When he arrived in Louisville is when things began to change. Finding comfort in his work, his wife, and the Louisville Men’s Rugby Club, he decided to pick up the cleats again and hit the field. For 9 years Walton would get to play 15s and 7s with the Louisville men’s club, until an unfortunate knee injury forced Walton to make the final decision to completely retire his time on the field.
With Walton no longer playing, he needed a way to keep connected with rugby off the field. The University of Louisville rugby team has been a work in progress. Hard fighting team, but hadn’t seen success in recent years. Competing in the D1AA Mid-American Conference, a conference that holds two of the top four fall championship finalists, University of Cincinnati and Bowling Green State University, it doesn’t make for easy competition. The last two years, University of Louisville has gone 1-8-1 in conference play. University of Louisville would be looking for some reformation, but it was still not quite enough to bring Walton in. Enter Kisset Chirgende.
Kisset Chirgende is a man of many talents. Chirgende is a Zimbabwean sports marketer, who runs one of the top sports marketing companies in Africa. His company, Kyro Sports, has worked with some of the top athletes and coaches in the southern African area, such as South African national rugby star, Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, former Manchester City soccer player, Benjani Mwaruwari, and current USA Rugby XV’s head coach, John Mitchell. Chiragende originally was set to take over as the head coach for University of Louisville. Walton came on to the squad to help with the skills training, but it turned into something more. Chiragende, unfortunately, was unable to give the team his full attention due to his work, so the team requested that Walton take over as the head coach. That’s when it began to come together.
Walton saw the high potential in the raw talent of the University of Louisville team, but wasn’t so sure about how to overhaul the entire program. It’s one thing to help develop skills, but another to recruit and bring in students. Walton, with the help of Churagende, worked on creating a system of growth.
When it came to the on-field development, Walton did not try and shoulder the burden of teaching the entire team at once. Frank Viancourt, a Forwards coach, who played for the Chicago Lions RFC and rival school, Bowling Green State University, decided to come work with the team as well. Viancourt and Walton worked together to create a practice schedule and game plan that would effectively train the players to work cohesively with each other. One of their decisions were to have the Forwards and the Backline practicing with each of the coaches individually. Walton and Viancourt believed that the development of the rugby IQ was key to the progression of the player’s skills, and making sure that the basic skills of the game were established for all the players. Walton, who would typically coach the Backs, would work with the Forwards and teach them same skills that he would the Backs. Viancourt would do the same with the Backline, and teach them how to work as a Forward, from scrumming to proper rucking and more. Walton and Viancourt believed that a team that knows how to do all the skills of the sport, is a team that can adapt faster to whatever competition presents them with.
The University of Louisville program was still looking at different ways of helping develop the players. With the connections that were made overseas, Chiragende was able to create a pipeline connection with the Shark Academy in South Africa, that would have the team send students to train under the great South African Prop, Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira. Players would go to the Shark Academy and train for three weeks, before returning back to the team. One player found early success with his training at the academy.
Larome White was able to take advantage of the opportunity. White, as many college rugby players in the States, was a football player turned rugby athlete. White was one of the initial University of Louisville rugby players who were sent to the Sharks Academy. White was able to develop his skills as a prop under Mtawarira. As a result of this, White was invited to the USA Rugby All-American Camp, where he attracted the interest of the coaches for the Eagles national team. As of the moment, the future for White is looking bright in rugby.
Walton and the University of Louisville rugby team are ready to take their team to the next level. The biggest obstacle that the team faces are financial. With Walton at the helm, as well as a roster of players made up primarily of freshman, sophomores and juniors, the direction the team is working towards is within reach. With great administrative leadership, and a strong player pool, Louisville will continue to work to become the elite team that they know they are capable of.