Harry Bennett Exclusive - The former New York fly-half carving rugby futures at UCLA

Harry Bennett took charge of UCLA Men's Rugby Club in January
©UCLA Rugby

Since arriving in North America all the way back in 2015, Harry Bennett has seen rugby grow and develop into a professional sport on the continent.

His initial reasons for making the journey to California to begin with was for a change in scenery after back-to-back shoulder injuries, the resulting surgeries meaning that he would take 18 months away from the game.

On the books of the New South Wales Waratahs at the time, Bennett quickly fell in love with Los Angeles and turned out for Santa Monica Rugby at the weekends. Even involved with the USA’s first attempt at professional rugby, PRO Rugby, it was only upon his move to New York to turn out for Mike Tolkin’s New York Athletic Club that another shot at professional rugby would present itself.

Whilst working as the Director of Rugby at Fordham Preparatory School, Bennett picked up a contract with Rugby New York. Playing for the side in their 2018 exhibition season, as well as their first three Major League Rugby campaigns.

In between contracts with the professional side at the end of 2021, that was when a role as the head coach of the UCLA Men’s Rugby Club first cropped up, an opportunity that Bennett couldn’t turn down.

“I was pretty happy with my final year in New York and knowing that roles like this, particularly at UCLA, don’t come around very often – and there was probably only one or two other college programmes I would have been interested in – as soon as I found out, I threw my application in,” Bennett told TRU.

“I knew about UCLA and rugby in LA from when I first moved to America in 2015, so people had reached out independently to me when it was first made public that there was an opportunity to come out and coach here if I was still interested in doing something like this.

“I went to The King’s School back home in Australia, one of the big private boarding schools in Sydney, and looking around the campus and going to a handful of UCLA rugby games, there was a lot of similarities and a lot of potential in UCLA’s rugby programme.

“Also, being an Aussie, the lifestyle that LA has to offer was super appealing. I don’t think going to a programme in middle America or somewhere like that was as appealing as being in LA and having the beach at your back door.

“Where UCLA rugby fit around the collegiate rugby landscape, it seemed like there was so much opportunity and potential for this programme and it probably hadn’t reached it for whatever reason.

“That, more than anything, excited me and fast forward to getting the role, every day I wake up and see different opportunities and projects that we get to implement into this programme to elevate it to where we all want it to be. It is pretty exciting, and I am absolutely loving the challenge that has been thrown my way.”

"Unique challenges"

It will come as no surprise to read that rugby at the college level is by no means a big thing. At UCLA, the programme is a club sport, meaning that the players are self-funding, with Bennett networking elsewhere in order to find further financial support in order to offer the best possible experience for his players across any given season.

Then for the players, they also have the pressure of being at one of the most highly performing academic educational facilities in the world, then there is plenty that goes on in Westwood.

©UCLA Rugby

These scenarios in many ways make the rise of Lucas Lacamp - who has just finished his junior year at the university - from being a relative unknown to a USA Sevens regular, whilst still juggling his studies, all the more impressive.

Add to this all the extra adversity that Bennett must contend with on a weekly basis with the side, it makes for perhaps one of the most distinctive challenges a coach must contend with.

“UCLA has some extremely unique challenges that it has to deal with from a rugby perspective,” Bennett said. “Obviously, UCLA is the number one public school in the country and getting accepted into that from a purely academic standpoint is extremely challenging.

“Rugby is a club sport, so it doesn’t have any sway in terms of helping players from a recruitment standpoint, so I am working with the individual prospect over a 12 to 24 month period ahead of their application process is something extremely important that I am trying to put into play, so they are equipping themselves with the best opportunity they can.

“I think part of the collegiate rugby environment is, and it varies from programme to programme, the access to facilities is different. You take it for granted back home, just having a clubhouse and changing rooms and a rugby pitch that keeps the posts up 12 months of the year, an S&C programme with facilities that guys can utilise at any time, that is the stuff we are juggling.

“The biggest one is just the vastness of America and trying to find competitive games on your back door, so you are not having to travel so far, and put a lot of your operating budget into travel aspect to elevate your programme is also a challenge.

“There is quite a few, but that is the cool and exciting part; trying to problem solve all of that stuff and get it to a place where it starts to streamline itself a little better.”

There is also a need to develop the game at a collegiate level in the USA. Since 2020, MLR has run a Draft - similar to drafts the NFL and NBA have - meaning that players across the country have the opportunity to gain professional contracts thanks to their exploits at the university level.

In 2021 the university had Eric Naposki picked first overall by the Dallas Jackals, the full-back their only selection to date. But not a bad one to have. 

Introduced to numerous draft picks and undrafted free agent players during his time with New York, where the gap between elite college rugby and elite men’s professional rugby was a more difficult to bridge prospect than initially thought, something Bennett is keen to change for players coming out of UCLA.

“In the last couple of years playing, particularly in MLR and seeing the pathway with college players coming into MLR as well, I think in all honesty there was still such a leap for the majority of those college players that were coming into a professional environment that just weren’t equipped with either the knowledge, the experience or the day to day routine of what it takes to be a professional rugby player,” Bennett said.

©UCLA Rugby

“From my perspective, seeing college kids that were coming out of great college programmes, winning national titles or making age grade representative teams, but then being removed from that environment, going to Major League Rugby and playing with the likes of Ma’a Nonu, Chris Robshaw, Billy Meakes, Andy Ellis or any of those types of names, the gap between the base level MLR player and a fresh college player coming in, the understanding of being in that type of environment wasn’t there yet and that excited me.

“Going into college rugby, it meant that I had the opportunity to provide that resource and experience to UCLA rugby players, so that when they do decide to put their hands up for the Draft, they are already a step ahead, because our scheduling and our programming is similar to what an MLR team would do. The terminology, the style of play we are talking about, day to day strategy and how we manage our time and everything like that, that we are trying to push into the UCLA programme.

“That was a massive one, I probably learnt a lot more playing MLR and that nature of professional rugby, more than back home, that experience alone was a major factor as to why I wanted to have a crack at college level coaching.”

"Building a culture of creating good habits"

As ever with the rugby landscape in North America, it is every changing. Year on year, more universities are giving their rugby programmes varsity status, with Navy one of the latest to go that direction.

With the sports projected growth in the years to come leading to the 2031 and 2033 Rugby World Cups, it is likely that this is a trend that won’t stop any time soon, with other Division 1 setups like UCLA potentially getting that promotion by the powers that be when they see further value to the work that Bennett is doing.

Until then, Bennett’s days will consist of talking to potential applicants, running summer camps and reaching out to alumni about funding and pushing UCLA Men’s rugby further forward.

Being varsity would no doubt ease some of the worries that surround travelling the country on a limited budget, but it is a reality out of the head coach’s control. About to take charge of his first full campaign with the team, Bennett is confident that the future is bright in California.

“I inherited a lot last year, so for me it was about taking stock and seeing what we could implement, what the players were ready to be introduced to immediately, and then understand what are the key areas to focus on in terms of building and expanding the programme moving forwards,” Bennett said.

©UCLA Rugby

“Since graduation in early June, we have been planning 12 to 24 months ahead in terms of our scheduling and different areas of the programme. We start back up in sevens when the academic year starts back up in late September, and from there we are building up to our D1A 15s programme in the new year.

“Building a culture of creating good habits with our players is super important. I think in the past in the summer, they have been pretty much been left to their devices to figure out what they want to do, then they come back raw or not really prepared.

“If we can get ahead of that and get our boys physically where they need to be over the summer period, then we are a step ahead. I have deliberately put together a pretty strenuous schedule for this year, because I think if you are going to elevate yourselves as a programme and as a competition, you have got to play against better teams and constantly put yourselves under pressure. That is certainly what we are aiming to do over the next 12 months.”