It was not until Elaine Vassie read the press release for her appointment that she realised she would be breaking new ground with the Dallas Jackals.

Vassie was confirmed as the new Major League Rugby (MLR) franchise’s assistant general manager and assistant coach last month, becoming the first woman to hold a managerial position within the burgeoning competition.

The Scot is no stranger to creating history, having been the first female head coach in England’s National League when she took charge of Manchester Rugby Club in 2009.

But it was a pioneering spirit of a different kind that prompted Vassie to accept the Jackals’ job offer. The 38-year-old is keen to put down roots in Dallas-Fort Worth and play a role in embedding professional rugby in the metroplex.

“They'd written the article and the tagline was ‘the first female in management’, and I kind of read it and went, ‘oh, am I?” Vassie told World Rugby.

“I certainly won't talk for [other female coaches], but I think you just want to be the best coach or the best manager. 

“You're focused on the job that you're doing, and I definitely think there's value in seeing other people — whoever you are — people that look like you, that you can identify with or relate to doing a job you want to do. 

“I think it makes the pathway easier to see. But I think when you're actually in that, rightly or wrongly, for me, you're probably just focused on what needs to be done to perform and grow within the role that you're doing.”

Building from scratch

Vassie initially arrived in Dallas, via a consultancy stint at Italian club DAK Rugby Mantova, in 2013 to coach the Griffins under Jackals general manager, Phil Camm.

At the conclusion of their two-year visa, Vassie, and her husband Danny, returned to Scotland, where she took charge of the women’s national sevens team in 2016. 

But Texas was never far from their thoughts, and in 2018 the couple returned with their dogs, Bilco and Nala. Vassie began coaching Dallas Harlequins, before Camm came calling when it was confirmed that the Jackals would make their MLR debut in 2021.

“The opportunity to be involved in a club at the start of a club, that's rare,” Vassie said. “There's very few clubs that are coming new into the game. 

“To have that and have it actually about having good people on board, with good values and us prioritising domestic talent as a pathway, that's why we moved back here. 

“That's exactly the kind of project we want to be involved with.”

Much of Vassie’s role so far has centred around recruitment and planning for a time when the new squad is able to train together.

Her working week centres around twice daily calls with Allen Clarke, the former Ospreys head coach who will lead the Jackals into their inaugural MLR season.

“[Allen’s] passion for the game is obviously really clear, his values as a person align with what we want to represent as the core values of the game, and actually how we'll conduct ourselves as an organisation,” Vassie said. 

“He's a coach that's actually been through the elite performance coaching side of things but has also done the academy set-up, development [and] player pathway. 

“A lot of people end up going into one or the other, and that's where they focus, whereas I think he's managed to maintain the crossover from both in his career. 

“I think for us in Dallas, to develop domestic talent like that, it's exactly the unique crossover that we needed to come in to help us achieve some of those aspirations.”

Credible pathway

Vassie admits that being in the building phase of their development has lessened the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the franchise.

Namibia back-row Wian Conradie, who represented his country at both Rugby World Cup 2015 and 2019, and former USA centre Chad London have been the big acquisitions ahead of the 2021 season.

The MLR Collegiate Draft 2020 offered the Jackals a chance to build depth, and Vassie played an active role in the process.

“We had 419 applicants for the collegiate draft that we got the database for,” she explained.

“We had a team of four finders that we worked with that went through, with myself, that data. We made the recommendations, got down to a shortlist to look at in more detail and then that led to those calls that we had in advance. 

“I think it is a really interesting process and in terms of showing an American market. If that's the normal model for how you would go from collegiate sport to [being a] professional, the fact that rugby is going 'we'll enter into that arena', I think it gives some credibility to this as a pathway.”

On 13 June, the Jackals took Connor Mooneyham with the first pick of the draft and ended up signing four of their top seven targets.

“Talking to the guys, it was actually quite humbling. You get to remember the important things, why people have felt that rugby's different,” Vassie added. 

“That's why these lads, at whatever age they came to it, chose to buy in and pursue it. 

“Also for them, professional rugby wasn't on the agenda when they started playing. To then be going through college and actually that now is an opportunity they can pursue, that was really nice to be able to, I guess, have the privilege of having those conversations with them. 

“And then obviously, once the draft happened, being able to do the phone call and say ‘welcome to the Jackals’, that was a pretty unique experience, compared to what a normal contract negotiation by an agent would look like. 

“To be phoning someone that's just seen on the TV and has their family there and everyone's so excited for them. That's really nice.”

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