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A triumph of diversity over adversity: New movie tells US College rugby team’s remarkable story
SCRUM goes behind the scenes to chart how Frank McKinney, one of the first black American rugby coaches, transformed Queens University in North Carolina from a start-up side to national champions – in two-and-a-half years.
We’ve had ‘The Brighton Miracle’ turned into a film, and now another against-all-odds triumph has made it into the movies.
Queens University rugby team’s rise from nowhere to national champions may not have come at a Rugby World Cup like Japan’s heroic win against the Springboks in Brighton in 2015, but it is still remarkable in its own right.
Brought to life by Square Zero Films and directed by the critically-acclaimed, Thomas Morgan, SCRUM gives a wonderful behind-the-scenes account of how coach Frank McKinney blends an ethnically diverse group of non-rugby players together to take on and beat some of the best teams in US student rugby.
“I was given a start-up programme and there was no pads, no jerseys, no schedule, no players. I had a (work) cubicle, a desk and a dream,” said McKinney, rewinding the clock back to when he was appointed as Queens’ first rugby coach in 2017.
This a movie about the team I coach. The movie comes out this Fallhttps://t.co/HYYLbtHcfO— Frank Mckinney (@beingveryFrank) October 1, 2021
McKinney, a crash-ball centre in his playing days – nicknamed “The Black Hole” because the ball apparently never saw the light of day once he had it in his hands – set out building a squad that was big on diversity, not on experience.
“In US rugby, you didn’t see a lot of diversity. You didn’t see black people; you didn’t see any Asian people; you didn’t see any Latino people … you didn’t see any of that,” he pointed out.
“I hated the fact that the sport I loved didn’t have anyone that looked anything close to me.
“In my mind, if I could build a team that was diverse with all different types of people – from different socio-economic backgrounds and different colours – that, to me, was going to be really interesting.
“We brought in 15 players, four of those were wrestlers who had never played rugby before and another was the College mascot. He played 20 minutes in the front row.
“The first year was a big challenge because we were trying to play competitive games with players who’d had no experience of rugby.”
🏆 Men's D2 National Champions 🏆— USA Rugby (@USARugby) December 8, 2019
Queens University 🥇#FallCollegeChamps #CollegeRugby #Champions pic.twitter.com/80TB7QmImd
Fast-forward a year though and the signs of progress were there for all to see. The Royals, as Queens are known, reached the last four of the USA Rugby Men's Division II National Championship in 2018 with a team made up of Freshmen and Sophomores, on the back of an 8-4 regular season win-record.
“The next year we knew what the goal was, the goal was to win it,” said McKinney.
But it was not all plain-sailing and SCRUM captures the action, warts and all.
In McKinney’s third season at the helm, tempers spill over in a match against Southern Virginia University as the team let a big lead slip, and it is all caught on camera. The very future of the rugby programme was placed in jeopardy.
“The school asked us about the fight, and I came down on the team and said this is how schools get rid of programmes because they think you don’t know how to act. It was a turning point for us. From there, we dialled in and it was all business, the guys were really focused.”
From there, the Royals embarked on a winning run, including the prized scalp of the multi-decorated Norwich University team, which took them all the way to the final, where they met the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (UWW).
Queens lived up to the occasion and emphatically overturned their previous season’s loss to UWW with a resounding 74-8 victory, to become the 2019 USA Rugby Men's Division II National champions.
“When the final whistle blew, all the players dumped water on me and that’s when all the emotions came over me and I dropped to my knees,” he recalled.
“I think I knew I was the first black coach to ever win a National Championship in College; I knew where I started off – I had absolutely nothing; I knew I had to prove to the school that these were good young people; I was in a relationship for 13 years that changed, and you’ll see that in the movie. All those emotions hit me at one time. It was an incredible, incredible feeling.”
Seeing the trophy on display at Queens is obviously a source of great personal and collective pride for all those involved in the rugby programme, but McKinney takes a huge amount of pleasure from knowing how the success was achieved.
“If you ask me what is the number one thing you are proud about, it is grades and diversity,” he said.
“Winning a Championship is great but having young men that are good young men, that for me is even bigger.
“Our racial make-up is probably 20-25 per cent minority, 20-25 per cent international and 50 per cent American.
“For me, having guys who look different coming together and hugging each other when they score a try or do something great, that was what I envisaged when I was training them, but it wasn’t something I necessarily had when I was playing.
“Rugby for me is a great sport, it teaches so many life lessons. There is a bond and a brotherhood, there are so many things about it that are great, and I want other people to experience that no matter where they are from.”
SCRUM is available to download now and a portion of the proceeds generated by sales will help to fund summer camps organised by McKinney for disadvantaged kids in south-eastern America. Enter WORLDRUGBY when promoted to receive US$2 discount.