It was 68 degrees Fahrenheit on Saturday, March 7 when the Glendale Merlins and Seattle Saracens squared off on the turf at Infinity Park for the second time in as many weeks.
It was one of those March days in Colorado that makes people think they’ve made it through the cold, snowy days of the fall and the winter. Over 100 people, including several Colorado Raptors and the entire coaching staff, came out to enjoy both the sun and rugby being played on the pitch.
The Raptors were soaking in a well-deserved off-day after picking up a huge 22-19 victory over the undefeated Toronto Arrows the night before. The victory served as Colorado’s second victory in a row and the Raptors appeared to be trending in the right direction after dropping the first three matches of the season.
With a big victory in their back pocket, the Raptors were enjoying their downtime and resting up before a big week of preparation for a match against a 4-1 Old Glory D.C. team that was wreaking havoc in the East in their first season in Major League Rugby.
“We had a good performance against Toronto, and we had kind of turned the corner a little bit,” Colorado Raptors head coach Pete Borlase said of that point of the season. “We went from 0-3 to 2-3. We don’t know what we don’t know, but I really thought that we’re going to go out to Washington D.C. and come back 3-3 and face a really good opportunity against Austin.”
The next few days were business as usual for the Raptors as they began to prepare for their sixth match of the season.
Thanks to 2020, though, we know all too well how much things can change over the course of a few days.
On March 12, just five days after the Raptors watched the Merlins take care of the Saracens, MLR announced that play would be suspended for 30 days before deciding whether or not the 2020 season would be able to be finished.
The decision to suspend play came just hours after the state of Washington announced a 30-day ban on gatherings consisting of over 250 people. With a match against the Seattle Seawolves set to take place at Starfire Stadium in Tukwila, Washington on March 29, the Raptors were ready to swap home matches with the back-to-back MLR champions so the season could go without any hiccups. Flipping flights and making a trip out to the Pacific Northwest for a May 24 match seemed like an easy solution to the problem.
With the United States being in the early stages of what ultimately turned out to be the COVID-19 pandemic, that plan was short-lived, and the situation snowballed from there.
“The first time that I knew that COVID was really on the radar for sport in the U.S. was when we looked at changing our game in Seattle to Glendale,” Making that switch was when I realized that.”
With the makings of a wild week in the works, Borlase’s week took another turn when he began to feel sick after wrapping for the day on Tuesday.
“That was a weird week because I actually finished the day here on a Tuesday and felt sick in the afternoon,” Borlase remembered. “I actually went home and I was in bed from Tuesday afternoon, and I didn’t even start getting out of bed until Friday afternoon. I believe on Thursday around lunchtime it came about that they were going to shut down the league for four weeks due to COVID, and I read that text in bed thinking I actually had COVID. It was a really weird week.”
Fortunately for Borlase, he didn’t end up having COVID. But when he got over his bug, he was faced with the difficult task of keeping his red-hot rugby team on track during this awkward 30-day break.
“It obviously escalated from there and we tried to keep the ball rolling for those four weeks but we ended up having to have a true stand down and what followed, followed.”
With ordinances, recommendations, and standards changing by the hour, the Raptors tried to figure out how they could operate as a professional rugby club in the early stages of a global pandemic. They worked to come up with creative ways to keep the players active while also keeping everyone safe and obeying the guidelines laid forth by local government officials.
After breaking for the weekend, the Raptors tried to keep things moving and normally as possible.
“When all that hit, it was so strange,” Borlase said of the week after the announcement to postpone the season was made. “Even on the Monday when we assembled, we were training without rugby balls and trying to get some soccer games going and the like.”
The soccer matches did their job but the inevitable was coming. With the chances of continuing the season looking bleaker by the day, Borlase and his staff made the decision to break for two weeks.
Players were given workout programs and instructed to stick around, but the writing was on the wall.
“Without diving into it too much, we didn’t know the severity of everything,” Borlase said of navigating through the difficult time. “Personally I was always erring on the side of caution because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. We talk about things being more than rugby. When a pandemic hits I think putting your player’s safety to the forefront is most important, so that was when we made the decision to disband for two weeks. It was about four or five days after that they made the call and here we are masked up.”
It was only a day or two after training was called off that it became evident that rugby wasn’t going to return in 2020. With New Zealand advising their citizens that happened to be abroad during this time period to return home immediately before they locked their borders down, New Zealand-born players across MLR packed their bags and jumped on the first flight home.
With uncertainty continuing to mount and a significant portion of the players that make up the competition out of the country, MLR had no choice but to vote to cancel the remainder of the 2020 season. The announcement came on March 19, just 12 days after that sunny Saturday in Glendale.
When we are faced with challenges in our life, we rely on the experience and guidance of people that have been in those situations before. As Borlase has learned during his time as a coach, there is always someone who has navigated through the waters and come out on the other side that is willing to offer up their advice. This situation was completely different. Like everyone else doing their best to navigate through this unique situation, Borlase was on his own.
“Honestly the toughest thing about that situation was not being able to lean on anyone who had experienced it,” Borlase said of his biggest challenge in March. “A lot of things that happen in rugby, for whatever reasons, you can usually tap into your resources and say, ‘Hey look, I don’t know what to do here,’ and sort of get a bit of guidance.”
Just like that, the season was over. The organization announced their decision to withdraw from MLR on April 9, just 31 days after that Saturday in March, and Borlase and his staff have quietly been working hard on the Raptors’ next move.
There will be many more sunny Saturday afternoons of rugby at Infinity Park, but so much needs to happen before those days are upon us.
A lot has changed since March 7.