The summer of 2021 feels like it will be a fresh start in many ways for the Glasgow Raptors.
Based in the part of Scotland hit by the most consistently severe restrictions during the pandemic, their recent return to training has been most welcome after being out of action since summer turned to autumn last year.
This weekend, though, the club’s first bootcamp for new recruits since 2019 will take place. In itself, it has not been an easy process, with their two favoured venues being occupied by Euro 2020-related activities, but they have managed to secure a pitch at Clydebank – where they usually train – instead.
The first session will tie in with LEAP Sports’ Festival Fortnight, incorporating a picnic to help raise funds for LGBT+ Youth Scotland. Covid guidelines still limit the Raptors to 50 people at sessions including coaches, but demand has been extremely high – to the point a waiting list has had to be implemented in case people drop out.
While optimistic that there might be that much interest, it did not always feel like a guarantee that so many people would want to play rugby.
“All of my predictions around the pandemic have been wrong, I obviously can’t predict it at all,” Raptors’ chair Luke Harding had said.
“Part of me thinks that people haven’t been getting out properly for a year, so they will be desperate to get out and try new things and meet new people.
“But then the bars are open now, so people might want to spend their weekends making up for lost time with their existing friends. It’s always so hard to predict these things.
“I’m hoping that people will be more inclined to get involved, just because things have been so limited over the last year. Only time will tell, but I’m hoping for more involvement this year.”
Richard Gilbert, one of the bootcamp’s organisers, added: “We’re close to capacity for it, which is amazing, really good.
“I was expecting that, I think because last summer we did an intro to rugby – it wasn’t quite a bootcamp – and we got quite a big uptake.
“We got about 20 new people joining in and training with us, so when restrictions were easing this time – normally we wouldn’t do the bootcamp until nearer the season, but we wanted to catch these people who are being allowed outside again and might want to take up something new.
“I was quietly confident that we would get decent numbers, but I wasn’t expecting it to be full. We have a reserve list. To be fair, I think we might be able to get some of the people on the reserve list on to the actual list.
“We had to change locations, we were originally going to be at Queen’s Park, but football is apparently more important, so they’re making a car park for the football rather than green space. They’ve got the fan space at Glasgow Green, but they’ve made Queen’s Park an overspill car park for Hampden.
“It’s frustrating, because those are the two places we would have held the bootcamp. We actually train at Clydebank Community Sports Hub, so we had to arrange for pitch space while they’ve got a lot of other stuff going on. It was a bit of a logistical nightmare, but Clydebank have been great and we’ve got a full grass pitch now, so we will be there for the next six weeks.”
The bootcamps are designed to be a first introduction to the sport, starting with the very basics of rugby union and working it’s way up through drills and games to the start of full contact training.
In normal times it is the Raptors’ biggest recruitment drive of the year, which is why it is taking place a few months earlier than usual in 2021 to try and capitalise on people’s desire to get active after lockdown.
Even without the effects of a global pandemic though, it can be extremely effective, as Gilbert himself knows first hand.
“I came into the Raptors through a bootcamp,” he recalled.
“Back then it was in Whitecraigs, which was really close to where I lived at the time, like a five minute drive away.
“I had hit a point in my life where I didn’t have a lot of hobbies – I didn’t do a lot outside of going to the cinema and hanging out with friends – and my fitness wasn’t at a great level. I wanted to improve it but I was bored of going to the gym, and also a lot of my close friends are girls that I went to high school with, but I didn’t have a lot of gay male friends.
“It just so happened that one of my friends had joined a female team, and she was really enjoying it. It was one of those things where you talk about something in real life, and then it suddenly appears all over your social media, so I saw about the bootcamp.
“It was really close, so even though I couldn’t attend every week because of work I joined for fitness, and then I realised I actually really enjoyed rugby and I wasn’t that bad at it, so I stuck with it.”
“What we tend to do is welcome all of the new people, and we start with the very basics,” Harding explained.
“We do passing drills, some simple theory, we get people into ice-breakers where they can meet each other and have fun, and then we start to introduce more complicated drills and work in things like touch rugby.
“By the end, we’re hoping to be able to do some games with contact rugby, and the techniques involved with that. We’ll be able to introduce more of our existing players in the group by then and get them involved too.”
Returning to training after a long time out is not the only reason this feels like a fresh start for the Raptors though.
It was only last month that they adopted the Raptors branding, having previously been known as the Glasgow Alphas. For years, they had competed as the Alphas in International Gay Rugby competitions like the Hadrian’s Cup, and all the publicity they had gotten through interviews and social media was as the Alphas.
So why change now? Well, members’ concerns was the main reason behind the switch, and some at the club do not feel like they have lost anything by becoming the Raptors.
“We had done a bit of polling around asking people who said they were interested what put them off, and a surprising amount of people said the name Alphas reminded them of the uni-type lad culture,” former committee member Chris Young said.
“Honestly, I was a bit surprised to see it, because that never really struck me, but I can see why people think that. More than a couple of people said that, so the name change was mandated before I went on to committee.
“I joined just in time to have a three-month argument about what we should change it to. There were other names put forward, like the Kelpies or the Selkies – a lot of teams seem to go for mythological things, or random bronze age tribes like Aberdeen Taexali.
“We had a really good input from all the members about it. I don’t think Raptors was the most popular one to start with, but it had a lot of second and third preferences, so that was fun.
“There were heated discussions about whether Selkies are all female, and whether we’d be allowed that. The Kelpies were discounted because they’re in Falkirk, and we’re in Glasgow, so how would that work? Raptors was pretty well liked by everyone. The people proposing it probably thought we would go for an eagle or a red kite or something, but the velociraptor seems to have won everyone round.
“It’s quite memorable, I really like it, and there has been a real buy-in for it as well. Everyone seems keen, so it has been really good because obviously there are quite a few older members of the team, but there are so many newer people it’s almost like a second founding of the team.
“There was some name recognition as the Alphas, but I honestly don’t think most people knew about us. I don’t think we were ever at the same level as the Caledonian Thebans. I don’t know if that’s just that rugby isn’t as popular in Glasgow as it would be in Edinburgh.
“I don’t think we lost much for changing the name, we’ve certainly got a big increase in members and I quite like the velociraptor.”
The rebrand has also allowed the Raptors to reassess their practices in case there were other blind spots that might not appear to be inclusive from the outside, so it seems to have brought about positive change.
For those who have a long-term association with the club though, it was not always easy to think about the Alphas name disappearing. Gilbert is one of their longest-serving players, and he was keen to point out that the history of the Alphas is not going anywhere despite the name no longer being used.
“When we were changing the name, I wasn’t part of the process, but I wanted to make sure we got it right,” Gilbert insisted.
“We couldn’t just put on a fresh coat of paint for the sake of trying to get away from that, it had to be done for the right reasons, and I genuinely believe we did do it for the right reasons.
“It has helped the club with things like inclusion. We weren’t as focused on the trans community – our previous logo didn’t have the trans flag, and our new logo does. That’s not to say that just because we’ve put it on our logo, we’re doing good things, but it’s about making those small steps so that when people see that first visual, they think it includes them, and then driving that forward.
“It was a long process, but we did it in the right way. We got all the team involved, we got name suggestions, all of that. I genuinely hadn’t thought about the connotation of Alpha before, I genuinely hadn’t. I just saw the wolf, and I love wolves.
“It’s funny, obviously we’re getting new kit, so I specifically said I want one of the old kits. We’re probably going to auction them off anyway, and I said I want number six, and I will pay this much for it. It’s only because it means a lot to me. It’s the same for Adam (Harrison, one of the club’s founders), it would mean a lot to him.
“The other thing about the name change is that we’re not forgetting the history. We’re not going to have a birthday next year and say the Raptors are one year old, because we’re not. The Raptors are six, we still have those four going on five years of being the Alphas, so it’s not that we’re forgetting the history of it.
“We haven’t fully changed social media, and that’s why. It’s just the tags that have changed, all the Alphas stuff is still there. We still talk about that stuff, we experienced it together.
“Moving forward, we just need to make sure that the reasons we had to change the name in the first place don’t happen again, and we make sure we are that inclusive team and a safe space for people, and that people do feel like they are joining a team that isn’t macho. They can be who they are, and still enjoy sport at the same time.
“Adam has the Alphas’ logo tattooed on his chest, he is so passionate about rugby. When he created his team, it meant so much to him, and I think when he found out about the name change… I remember having a conversation with him, and he was talking about his tattoo, but I said to him that just because we’re not the Alphas anymore, it doesn’t make the reasons he got that tattoo mean any less. It still represents something.
“There are people like me who have been with the team longer, so the name did mean a lot – it will forever mean a lot to me. In a couple of years in the pub I’ll be the one saying ‘remember when we were the Alphas and we did this’.
“We’ve got a really good committee this year, we’ve got a really great crop of boys who are part of the team now, and I’m just excited to see where we go once we’re able to start playing matches and tournaments again. I think it’s going to be good, I’m excited.”