Will Leonard: Rugby ATL Want to be Ruthless
Written by Joe Harvey | Photo by Bryce France
After five games this season, Rugby ATL sit at the top of the Eastern Conference. The teams’ most recent performance was perhaps their finest, subjecting Western Conference leaders, Austin Gilgronis, to their first loss of the 2022 season.
Having been involved in four of ATL’s five games so far this campaign, Will Leonard has been a rock in the midfield, having come to Georgia in the offseason once his time with Rugby New York came to a close.
On Tuesday it was announced that Leonard, as well as ATL teammates Marko Janse van Rensburg, Evan Mintern and Martini Talapusi had all made the Major League Rugby First XV for week six, putting a satisfying end to a hugely positive week for the team.
“We spent hours reviewing and previewing Austin, and there was so much attacking firepower that they had, they had so many threats all over the field, and we wanted to go in with the mentality of putting them under pressure,” Leonard said.
“We felt that over their last five games that teams gave them a bit too much confidence and stood off them a bit too much.
“We just wanted to bring a physical game, which Atlanta are renowned for, and put them under pressure and not give their outside backs like Mark, like Julian Dominguez and other guys time on the ball, because that is what they strive on.
“We just focused on ourselves and knew what we were capable of, and we got the job done thankfully.”
LEAVING NEW YORK
Leonard’s move to Atlanta come following three years with Rugby New York. Moving to North America at the conclusion of his studies at the University of Limerick, the former Shannon RFC and Munster U20 center settled into MLR life in fine fashion.
A regular throughout his time with the team, his association with the team came to an end at the conclusion of last season, a loss to Rugby ATL in the Eastern Conference Final setting the wheels in motion for a move down the east coast.
“I’m not going to lie, it was pretty tough,” Leonard said. “I spent three years in New York, made some great friends there, some great memories and saw it as a place that I’d like to settle down and stay long-term.
“New York decided to go one way, and parted ways with me. It was tough to take at the start, I saw myself as part of the greater picture, but that’s just the world of professional sport.
“I was living with Evan Mintern at the time, and we both got let go. It was a pretty dark time for a few weeks. We didn’t know what we were going to do, if we were going to stay in America, if any clubs were going to sign us.
“I was working at the time, so I thought that was it for me rugby-wise. I was playing with Old Blue [American Rugby Premiership team] and I was just going to play amateur rugby, have a bit of fun and work.
“That wouldn’t have been the worst situation, but I felt that in years to come, I might have regretted not putting myself out there and giving it another shot.
Photo by Ben Weitz
“That’s where Rugby ATL stepped in.”
It was ATL’s former head coach, Scott Lawrence, who was at the heart of Leonards’ move to the team.
There was plenty of attraction to be found, Atlanta having been one of the most dominant teams in 2021, their 31-17 defeat to the LA Giltinis in the MLR Final testament to the progress that ATL had made in a short period of time.
Even leaning on the experiences that his former New York teammates, Mark O’Keeffe and Ross Deacon have had in Georgia, it became the perfect opportunity for the 26-year-old to start fresh.
With just two weeks to go until the new league season began, it was announced that Scott Lawrence had resigned from his role with the team.
Having been a key part of the side since its inception, coaching duties were later handed on to assistant coaches Steve Brett and Blake Bradford would be co-head coaches.
Their tenure thus far has been fruitful, their place at the top of the division testament to this, Leonard heaping praise upon the two coaches as they adapted to their new positions in a short space of time.
“They have stepped up massively,” Leonard said. “There was a big void to fill, Steve [Brett] and Blake [Bradford], they had a quick turnaround to try and piece together how they were going to take on board the extra responsibilities.
“I have no doubt it was tough for everyone to adapt to that change. It is easy to say in hindsight, but change can be a good thing.
“There was a bit of uncertainty at the start, but then I think everyone grows the better for it, it has brought us closer together and improved people.
“Steve and Blake have been doing a fantastic job of taking on those extra responsibilities and, I suppose, not letting the team take on the burden of that uncertainty, not only with Scott, but bit with Marcus Calloway also passing away.
“They have done such a good job bringing us together.”
Setting the pace at the head of the East, ATL will be coming up against an Old Glory DC side that are winless up to now.
Andrew Douglas’ side are coming off a bye week, Old Glory having had the opportunity to put their shortcomings to bed, their first test a stern one this weekend.
Experiencing an historically good start the team, Leonard says that he and his teammates are not going to start taking their foot off the gas now as they play their sixth game of the 2022 season.
Photo by Bryce France
“We spoke about it today that in precious years, Rugby ATL have started with losses in three of the first five games and won two [in their first two MLR seasons],” Leonard said.
“So, we were kind of congratulating each other and saying it was a goof achievement. We were pushing the message that we were not going to be holding back at all.
“Every game is going to be huge this season, and if you slip up once – because Old Glory have nothing to lose, they are going to be 110% and try to take a win from a team that are expected to win.
“We were pushing that message strongly today; that we want to be ruthless, and we want to continue this good momentum.”
When it comes to greater ambitions too, ATL’s are seemingly obvious from the outset. Beaten finalists last season, it stands to reason that the team would be looking to better their attempts the year prior.
“I feel like everyone in the league has similar ambitions, and that is to win the league,” he said. “We obviously have that ambition as well, but we never focus on winning, because I feel like if we get too caught up on winning and the end goal, we forget about everything in between.
“I know it sounds cliché; we treat every week completely differently. We start every week with a new mindset, with new tactics, new strategies, all according to the team we are playing.
“We have DC this week and our mindset is that we want to be ruthless and continue our momentum. Next week, if we get a win this week, we will start a whole new week and continue that on to the Final in June.”
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