Rugby News & Views From an American Perspective
Something must have been in my food this week, because the thoughts are flowing freely.
On Tuesday a poster over at Gainline hit on a subject that has been in the back of my mind for some time. I had almost forgot about it when I saw the comment and my mind was set in motion.
So, for that I thank you Mr. Cornflakes or whatever the hell your real name is.
Aside from making some great points about the impending death of the TU’s and LAU”s, the poster noted that rugby is unlike any other collegiate sport in that clubs routinely find competition for their reserves.
Not an altogether bad idea, but is that what is best for college rugby? Especially at the top levels?
The notion of seconds, thirds, B’s, C’s, etc. is Commonwealth in practice and there is nothing wrong with it at all. That is, there is nothing wrong about it for countries with the sport entrenched in their systems. Countries that have the player numbers and means to support the game at multiple levels at each club or institution.
That is unfortunately a luxury that we do not have in America.
So, why the need to use the model?
The club origins of the sport in America is the likely culprit. Clubs, by nature, are all-inclusive and open to any interested person regardless of ability or standing. As a reward for being a member, the club makes sure that all members are satisfied. In regards to rugby that generally means playing time.
That notion still has plenty of merit and has a place in American rugby. That is… for adult rugby clubs and social college sides.
Another area that necessitates the need for extra games is the fact that many athletes come to the sport in college and lack experience. College rugby clubs have catered to cross-over athletes and walk-ons with B & C-side games because they have little choice. Find them playing time or risk losing players.
Although those are principles that tend to fall more towards social rugby as opposed to competitive rugby. Competitive rugby is what is currently in question.
I can’t help but think of past rugby players that have made the switch to playing football in college. While not well publicised, it has happened many times over the years.
An excellent recent example is Ohio State’s Nate Ebner who crossed over the opposite direction and joined the Buckeye football team last fall. Ebner had not played football prior to his switch, but was an excellent and teachable athlete that made the transition.
Do you think Jim Tressel or the other Ohio State coaches were worried about getting him minutes?
Not one bit. He was coming to their game and he was going to sink or swim.
The times are changing and more and more players are headed to college with prior rugby experience. Within the next ten years there will be a significant increase in players choosing their colleges based on the quality of the rugby program.
With that, less emphasis will be required on simply providing playing time for incoming players. Focus will turn instead towards polishing skills that the players already possess. Players crossing over to rugby from other sports or taking it up for the first time may be faced with their very own “sink or swim” situation.
The day that happens, the better college rugby will be for it.
College rugby so desperately wants to separate themselves and prove their validity as an on-campus sport. The chances of obtaining varsity status for most is slim, but the goal of all is to operate in a manner similar to varsity sports.
Recent moves in both the College Premier League and the birth of new conferences in D-I have shaken the foundation of the sport at the collegiate level. That shows how serious they all are in bringing rugby to the mainstream.
Are they serious enough to let go of old traditions and made another step towards aligning rugby with other NCAA sports?
Speaking of… let’s take a look at the allotted roster sizes for various NCAA sports.
Now, think about all of the “bench-warmers” participating in college sports. Football is the most egregious offender of them all. With rosters that push over 100 players, only 40 or so of them actually get any playing time on a Saturday. Some of which only see time on special teams or in blowouts. The rest of the players bust their butts in practice and in the gyms to put themselves in the position to play someday.
It is not unusual to see players go through a system and not see significant playing time until their Junior or Senior years. Their underclassman years are spent honing their craft and strengthening their bodies.
While it seems awful and cut-throat, it makes for intense competition for playing time. It also increases the level of play on the field. Something that is needed in order to draw in more interest from sponsors and broadcasters.
Could following that same path lead to better college rugby teams in America?
By taking this approach and eliminating the need for B-side games another issue comes to light.
That being roster sizes for rugby teams. College (or any other level) rugby clubs have never been limited to the number of players allowed on their rosters. Teams blessed with excellent numbers have also had to find games for those players, coaches to teach them, and facilities to prepare them. They have also enjoyed competitive advantages over their opponents.
To the victor comes the spoils… right?
Teams that have built their programs deserve the accolades they receive, but for overall health of college rugby would it be better if more teams were competitive?
That being said, if we desire more competitive balance and B-side competition is eliminated, then should rosters be capped?
Capping rosters does a few things. Most importantly it may keep teams from stockpiling talent which will then allow for a more even distribution of players. This will ultimately lead to the competitive balance that could potentially draw more interest (read: money $$$) to the game.
College football is an excellent example of this. When scholarships became tighter, players began to look at other schools as options. A decade or so ago “Mid-Majors” were routinely blown out by big schools early in the season. Now, a year doesn’t go by without a smaller school putting a whooping on a big name school.
Basketball may be the best example of them all. With surprisingly low roster sizes and a fountain of talented players coming in every season, basketball is incredibly competitive.
Can limiting roster sizes in college rugby have this same trickle down effect?
Let’s take a look at some college rugby rosters. The top-level of college rugby is what is in question, so I pulled the CIPP numbers from last season for some of the teams headed into the CPL.
That is quite a big range of numbers listed above. Rosters ranging from 34 to 81 players.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that a roster cap was floated for teams in the CPL and D-I. I think something in the 50-55 range wouldn’t be unfair although something closer to 40-45 might be even better for the sport.
For most of the teams above, getting to 50-55 wouldn’t be that hard. Even the schools with more numbers wouldn’t have an issue, because how many CIPPed players do they have that are more or less “social” players looking to get in on the C-side game so that they can talk about their rugby exploits?
Does Penn State really have 81 CIPPed die-hard competitive rugby players on their team? If they do… I apologize, because I find it hard to believe. They are a fine program, but that is a lot of athletes. If they did have that level of depth, wouldn’t it be better for their program if they focused their efforts on the very best 40-50 of those players. At the same time those 40-50 players can focus on cracking into the game day roster.
That is the major difference in a team like Cal and others. You can bet your butt that all of the CIPPed players on Cal’s roster are serious. Another school may have more players on their roster, but only half of which are truly serious about their rugby.
Eliminate the extra games, put a cap on the rosters, and what you’ll have left are the players that are 100% serious about playing rugby, pushing themselves and their teammates to greater heights.
Another byproduct of limiting roster sizes is that we may see a bit of a shift in where players go to school to play rugby. If University XYZ has hit their cap, then a potential player may consider going to another school where they can play.
This could potentially spread the wealth of talent out a bit more and begin to even the playing field in some areas. It will also require more effort on the recruiting end of the equation as teams will no longer be able to throw out a blanket. They’ll be forced to make more calculated decisions regarding their rosters.
At the end of the day it all comes down to putting a competitive and attractive product on the field for players, fans, sponsors, investors, media and broadcasters to enjoy.
This is what we should want for teams in the CPL and D-I. Serious players making for great competition. In a perfect world, at some point in time the CPL teams will assimilate back into a healthy and strong D-I competition full of competitive conferences. This can be achieved with hard work on the part of the college programs, but it will also take some regulation from USA Rugby.
College rugby makes plenty of noise about acting and operating like they are varsity sports teams. They want all of the benefits that come with the status, but can they make the tough choices to really put them in that position?