Connor Buckley: Rugby New York’s Everlearning Scrum-Half
Written by Joe Harvey | Photos by Getty Images
In 2020, Rugby New York’s Connor Buckley went undrafted. Going into the process, the scrum-half was a top prospect, having played rugby at Xavier High School under former USA Eagle, Mike Petri, he was also a standout performer at Iona College and a Scholz Award Finalist in 2022.
From Rockaway Beach, New York, the 23-year-old made three appearances in 2021, but in 2022 has already made seven appearances for his hometown in Major League Rugby.
Excelling on the field, after New York’s 35-31 win over Old Glory DC’s in Hoboken, New Jersey, the half-back spoke to majorleague.rugby about his team’s ambitions this season.
Overcoming Old Glory at the weekend was no mean feat. Their East Conference rivals were yet to win a game all season and were playing their first game under Interim Head Coach, Nate Osbourne, following the departure of Andrew Douglas.
As such, what DC had in store for their hosts was uncertain, the game won by the finest of margins, each side registering five tries each across the 80 minutes.
For New York, their aim of getting back to winning ways was the most important outcome after slipping to a 10-14 loss against the Toronto Arrows a week prior.
“The fact that we lost to Toronto the week before, that definitely made this game even more important for us,” Buckley said.
“We put out a strong side, we treated it as if it was any other team in the league that is doing well, and you look at the score and DC did play very well.
“Defensively, we gave up quite a few points, and we don’t typically do that, so I am pretty sure we will have a thorough defensive review, but on our attack we are pretty happy.”
Starting the game, Buckley played alongside Sam Windsor in the half-back’s, the 23-year-old continuing his rich vein of form in New York colors.
His successes have come after a season where opportunities were few and far between, Andy Ellis and Conor McManus trading places in the scrum-half jersey across the 2021 season.
Photo by Getty Images | Rugby New York
“My first year was really kind of just getting a feel for the environment, seeing what the level was like, the speed, the physicality, because it is a big jump from college to MLR,” he said.
“You go in with high expectations and high hopes to play a lot initially, and that is not always the case.
“I saw the level I needed, so I put in a lot of work in the offseason and came in knowing exactly what to do.
“I think the coaches trust me way more than they did last year, the beginning of the season has been great for me.”
Turning out for New York Athletic Club in the American Rugby Premiership, Buckley put a lot of what he had been working on into action.
Returning to Rugby New York for the preseason, the developing player clearly impressed Marty Veale and the rest of the coaching staff, his increasing opportunities testament to this.
Having been under the tutelage of former New York player, Mike Petri, while a student at Xavier High School, Buckley now has a new mentor.
Developing under the eye of former All Black, and Rugby World Cup winner, Andy Ellis, who joined the team ahead of the 2021 season, Buckley is full of praise for the 38-year-old.
“He has been massive,” Buckley continued. “I can’t stress how awesome it is to bounce ideas off a World Cup winner.
“Andy has been great, even just the mental side of things, talking strategy, we always preview and review games together ad nine’s, we’re constantly challenging each other.
“We like to think we have the most competitive groups of nine’s in the league, so we are constantly challenging each other, but also try to help each other’s games too.”
A FIRST TIME FOR EVERYTHING
This Sunday, New York will be making their first ever trip to the LA Memorial Coliseum to take on the Giltinis.
It was 11 months ago that New York became the first team to make LA experience defeat, the eventual champions stunned by their hosts’ 18-16 victory.
In the West Conference, the reigning champions find themselves back in playoff contention thanks to a dominant 47-7 win over the Dallas Jackals in California.
Having been the side to beat last year, Buckley is more than aware of the Shield holders will pose at the weekend.
“What they did last year was pretty incredible,” Buckley said. “They played a pretty exciting brand of rugby, and they were dominant.
“It is not really talked about a whole lot, because they were flashy on attack, but they were one hell of a defensive team as well.
“They were a top defensive side in the competition, so while they bring that flashy LA brand on attach, they are also physical and dominant and relentless on defense.
“They set the bar last year, so we are really excited to go and challenge ourselves against them in LA, and hopefully come out on top.
“We rate ourselves highly, but LA are tough. They are going to be coming for us, especially as we beat them last year. We were the first team to beat them, so they will remember that.
“I think they coined this game the ‘Champagne Cup’, so that is a West Coast versus East Coast rivalry.
“They will be coming for us, there was a lot of boys that came back on their team, they will remember that game and they will want to come and get us.”
At the outset of the 2022 season, New York and LA were being touted as two team’s likely to challenge for the Shield in late June.
Eight games into the season, each side are third in their respective divisions, a win for either going a long way to their overall objective come the seasons end.
“I think it is quite obvious, right?” Buckley said. “We set out this year to win the MLR Shield.
Photo by Getty Images | Rugby New York
“The way we are going to do that is not really matching ourselves up against other competition, it is pushing ourselves to a high standard that we think we can attain and do that every day.
“We have a lot of depth, a lot of guys that aren’t even in the match day 23 week in and week out, that can definitely make an impact in this squad as well.
“We know we have a lot of work to do, but the goal is to hopefully hoist that Shield at the end of the season.”
THE RISE OF CONNOR BUCKLEY
Whatever happens at the weekend, Buckley’s growing importance to New York will not end, the 23-year-old an important part of the team’s plans moving forward.
Born and raised in New York, the scrum-half always has a bed of local support at home games, with friends and family keen to lend their support.
Playing home games just shy of 30 miles from his family home, Buckley very much living the dream.
“There are times where I stop and really appreciate where I am at right now,” Buckley said.
“If you told me in my senior year of high school, or in my freshman year of college, that in four or five years I’d be getting starts for my hometown Major League Rugby team, I would have probably told you that you were crazy.
“Here we are. At times there are ‘pinch me’ moments, but you try to enjoy all of that after the games.”
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