NOLA Gold opener is at home Feb. 17

NOLA Gold opener is at home Feb. 17 vs. New England

 “If we can’t get butts in seats, it will be a really hard road for us.”

By Joe Harvey

(Photos by Craig Boudreaux and Jordan Daigre) 

When the 2022 Major League Rugby season ended, the NOLA Gold once again finished outside of the playoffs. Under the guidance of new head coach Kane Thompson, the side finished 31 points off the pace, and this offseason, they are setting the wheels in motion for a successful 2023. With the new season just around the corner, Major League Rugby heard from veteran flanker Devin Short, the team’s new CEO Chase Langdon, and new recruit Tom Florence.A ‘TOUGH’ 2022  “It was a pretty tough season,” Devin Short said. “I think it just came down to the little things. On paper, we looked great. But it shows you just because you have all the names; it will all come together.  “You have to have that click, that trust between the guys, that everyone is going to execute their role, and I feel like at the beginning of the season and those first three games being losses, it kind of put a chink in our armor.  “It was kind of tough to come back from, and obviously, we tried, but it didn’t really work in our favor. It was my first losing season personally, I think, in my career. So it is just trying to figure out how to take that adversity and switch it around.”  Representing NOLA for a third season, Devin Short enjoyed one of his best seasons in MLR. At just 24, the back-row forward became the 21st player to achieve 50 MLR appearances, and this summer received a call-up to the USA Falcons side that toured South America.  Short would start in 15 of those regular season games, scored three tries, made 996 meters with the ball in hand, and made 195 tackles. It was more than an impressive performance individually, but the team would not make the postseason.  In Kane Thompson’s debut season as head coach, Short, and his teammates would slip to three losses to open up the 2022 season and finish their campaign with a 4-12 record. Following that season, attention has now well and truly turned to the retention of talent and the recruitment of new players to make the group stronger.  One of the first to put pen to paper, Short, along with Harley Wheeler, Moni Tonga’uiha, Pat O’Toole, Malcolm May, and Alex Lopeti, will all turn out at The Gold Mine for at least another year and will be joined by some new faces too.  Dougie Fife has joined from New England Free Jacks, while Rodney Iona, Luke Campbell, and Liam Hallam-Eames have all come from New Zealand. Coming together in the current months, this playing group will no doubt be looking to better the efforts of a year ago in 2023.  Kicking off their season at home to the Free Jacks, just as they did in 2022, Short is hopeful about what a new campaign could bring for him and NOLA.  “First thing first, setting standards, being able to ask someone what our standards are and them being able to say something and build that camaraderie between the guys, to really have that trust and that bond and that feeling of playing for something bigger than ourselves,” Short said.  “Then, coming together. We’ve got a lot of new signings. We’ve got some good international guys coming in, which is very new for NOLA. We have always been predominantly American, but we have got some new talent in some very crucial roles.  “Then, we got a lot of New American guys from the draft [Sebastiano Villani, Chase Jones, Trent Rogers, and Christian Olney] coming in, who are hungry and just want to work. It is exciting. I am looking forward to it, and I am just excited to start grinding again.  “I am excited, ready to get back into it and take this next two months of the offseason, just enjoy it and then get back into it.” NEW HORIZONS  Tom Florence is one of those that will be coming to NOLA in 2023. The 24-year-old back-row will compete with Short for a place in Louisiana and, like Short, brings several years of professional experience to take the Gold to the playoffs for the first time.     Since 2017 Florence has turned out for Bunnings NPC side Taranaki, calling Kane Thompson a teammate for a time, his efforts earning him contracts with Super Rugby teams the Chiefs and Highlanders.
But after over half a decade of professional rugby in his home country, Florence hopes for a new experience. “I’m really keen on a new experience,” Florence said. “I have been around New Zealand rugby for about five or six years now, in and out of Super [Rugby] stuff and with Taranaki.  “I thought it was probably the time in my career for a new experience and opportunity, and that’s what Kane Thompson presented to me. He got in touch, and I just thought it was a great opportunity for me to come over, learn, and be a part of growing an exciting competition.”OFF-FIELD DEVELOPMENTS  Along with working to develop on the field, off the field, NOLA has made an evolution. By hiring Chase Langdon as the team’s new Chief Executive Officer [CEO], they have brought in an individual with a wealth of experience in the sporting sphere in the USA. Upon graduating from Lehigh University, Langdon spent time with the United States Olympic Committee as a Coaching Education Intern before starting work for USA Rugby as their Certification Coordinator. His introduction to rugby had come some years prior on a high school trip to Australia. Watching rugby in the southern hemisphere led to a younger Langdon starting a rugby team at Princeton Day School.  Moving on to work in San Francisco, after three years with USA Rugby in Colorado, Langdon worked for IMG in sponsorship. He contributed to the Visa’s sponsorship strategy for the Summer and Winter Olympics. Relocating to New Orleans in 2019 to take on a role with the New Orleans Saints as a Partnership Strategy Manager, suddenly Langdon was in a town with a professional rugby team and has now gone from fan to guiding the side from the boardroom.  “I was a season ticket holder last year,” Langdon said. “I was aware of MLR, I have watched rugby through all its iterations, and I was really excited to see the growth of the NOLA Gold. My first NOLA Gold match was at a high school field on the west bank. To see it evolve to being at this stadium, and from a couple of hundred people in the high school stands to a few thousand people in this stadium, has been an amazing progression and a huge testament to the people who started from day one here.  “Now, we are taking a big step forward into the professional realm and really trying to hold ourselves to professional standards and how we should operate and grow the team from here.”  For the team on the field, success is measured in that wins and losses column. But off the field, there is an entirely different measure for a positive season, with Langdon saying that strong home support at home games and selling tickets is a crucial part of growing the Gold.  “I think between now and kick-off, success looks like getting our administrative personnel in place,” Langdon said. “We’ve had a lot of very dedicated, very capable people who have been carrying the banner for almost the entire organization from day one until now, and they need some reinforcement. Then there is our budget. We need to start looking forward. We have been an organization, like many start-ups, that live and die in the moment. At this point in time, in the evolution of our organization, we can start looking further in advance and start figuring out our points in the season we need to grow and put all those pieces in place. Lastly, we need a successful ticketing campaign off the ground and what does success look like by the end of the season. We need to see pretty dramatic growth on the ticketing front. That is going to be the rising tide that is going to float this organization higher and higher.  “NOLA has done a very good job in saturating attendance with the local rugby community over the last few years. Now we are at the point to grow. We have a 10,000-person stadium, which is fantastic, but if we only get 3,000 people in, it looks relatively empty.  “We really need to start being exceptional in our ability to introduce non-rugby people to the sport. We are putting together a plan; social, digital, and marketing is a big piece, but the gameday experience will be kind of that culminating point.  “It is trying to sell a lot of tickets, but in the form of new fans and create that introduction. We get to go beyond because that is really the whole ball game. If we can’t get butts in seats, it will be a really hard road for us.”

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