Rugby America

Rugby News & Views From an American Perspective

Are B-Side Games Necessary for College Rugby?

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.

  • Football – 105
  • Baseball – 35
  • Basketball – 16
  • LaCrosse – 40-55 (there appears to be no set number by the NCAA)
  • Soccer – 25-40 (again no set number from the NCAA)

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.

  • Cal – 65
  • BYU – 49
  • Notre Dame – 53
  • Ohio State – 37
  • Tennessee – 73
  • LSU – 64
  • San Diego State – 65
  • St. Mary’s – 34
  • Delaware – 73
  • Penn State – 81

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?

9 comments on “Are B-Side Games Necessary for College Rugby?

  1. Omar Tinko
    August 11, 2010

    Well, the one flaw with your thought process on this issue is that the kids that play rugby are basically paying the freight for the right to play the sport. Not athletic department to pick up the tab for travel and other related expenses. Instead, kids pay dues and trip fees for the pleasure of playing rugby. As with most things, you can follow the money. Once the money trail reverses and kids don’t have to pay to play, then the rosters and subsequent need for reserve matches will change as well.

  2. ajax
    August 12, 2010

    Omar Tinko is right. Not only that, but we’re talking about a sport that does not yet have mainstream appeal in the US. The task at hand is to build understanding and popularity, not to try to turn rugby into an elite sport or go back to the old “niche” days. I’d love to see the time when college rugby can afford to turn away prospective players who are not “serious” and send them to club teams, but we’re not there yet, not by a long shot.

  3. College Coach
    August 12, 2010

    Come on Omar, you can do better than that. First, there’s no need to CIPP players who aren’t going to play in regulated league games. So why do you do it? If a player has no chance of playing first side, don’t CIPP him. As for club dues, those guys are paying those to be part of something. That something is a team on which they might have the opportunity to earn the right to play on Saturdays. If they can’t earn that right to play, then they have to settle for just being part of the team. Why do kids walk onto the basketball team at your school when they know they have no chance to ever play? Periodically in a blowout (against Alabama perhaps?) you get those guys some playing time. Just like when Michigan plays App. St. in football, they get playing time for their reserves. Oh wait, bad example. But you know what I mean.

    And maybe if high school kids knew their chances of playing first side at the school you coach were slim, they’d consider instead going to play at your alma mater. And suddenly the competitive gap between teams in your state starts to narrow. More colleges have players who are taking the game seriously, instead of them all being stockpiled at one school. That’s a good thing, right?

    And by the way, why are your players paying so much money to be a part of the team anyways? Shouldn’t you create some sort of Non-Profit Foundation that fundraises and receives alumni donations that covers much of the teams operating costs so that players don’t have to pay so much? To that end as well, limit your roster size and your operating costs decrease significantly.

    Omar, you may be the greatest rugby player I’ve never had the opportunity to witness play in person, but your blog commentary leaves much to be desired.

  4. DeBarr
    August 12, 2010

    I like the idea of limiting the roster size across the board, but you need to really look at what that magic number for that would be. I think eventually if this happened it would bring parody to the sport. Some of those extra 30 or so PSU guys might fall over to Kutztown, Pitt, Penn, Rutgers…etc but will it be the quality of player the other teams are looking for… mmmm maybe. Down the road for sure, but right now, those are C side players they’d be losing.

    Also, I agree that mandatory B-Side games should be eliminated, but the reason for me is because of the opposite problem that some of our smaller D2 teams have which is they are being forced to play 2 games to keep their D2 status when they dont have the numbers for it, which I think is wrong. Back when I played we could only dress 22 players for our A-Side match and our team always had about 25-30 players on it. That’s enough for a team to be competitive, but not if you’re forcing them into playing 2 games just to keep their D2 status. I dont think this would be too big of a problem for most of the bigger D2 schools but our school had around 1500 on-campus students from which to recruit from. And for us competing against 22 varsity sports and 19 club sports for athletes… getting 35 to 40 players out of that every year would have been a miracle.

    This is why I think if you are lucky enough to have the numbers for 2 sides, you split your team into 2 competing divisions. Club Hockey does this quite well. My old school has a Varsity, and Club D3 and D2 hockey teams… each of them having separate schedules. And I think schools in the CPL and D1 can do the same thingl. Schools in the CPL/D1 should have 1 “Varsity” game and that is that. But if they have the numbers and max out their 22 to 30 man roster then why not let them have D2 team competing as well but with a different schedule? You cant keep 55 non-scholarship athletes on your team and expect 30 of them to sit the whole year without seeing the field.

    I guess in the end Im for capping the number of players you have to choose from for your “varsity” team, but maybe I dont think we should regulate if a school wants to support multiple rugby clubs.

    Its a good thing to think about during the dog days of summer

  5. J Dailey
    August 19, 2010

    Sorry – I have to go with Omar on this. B sides and C sides are absolutely essential for the development of rugby in the US.
    People who go out want to play. Period. They will not pay dues (or CIPP for that matter) if they are going to sit and watch.
    And what is so great about the NCAA structure anyway? Frankly, I hope rugby stays far away from that bunch.

  6. B Prater
    August 20, 2010

    You MUST have a B-side game on Saturday if you want to keep players around and improve your team. The game experience for the younger players is critical in their development. Also, a kid is way less likely to stick around if there is no game on for him on Saturday. The majority of B-side guys move up to A-side and I want players who have game experience and chemistry with guys they have already been playing with. Stay away from the NCAA model, it’s garbage.

  7. sircreate
    August 21, 2010

    Thought I’d post and give an Australian perspective in regards to what you have with B and C grade teams.

    I understand what the blogger argument is, and to an extent I can see his point in wanting to spread the talent around to more schools, but reserve grade(B/C grade) teams serve a vital function in rugby, at least overseas.

    Reserve grades give match experience to your backup players, can be used to work injured players back into match fitness and allows you to see any players who could be promoted/demoted back and forth in action to make your top team as good as possible.

    Spreading the talent around is fine, and 81 players on a team is way too many, but a reserve grade is absolutely essential to get the best out of your team.

  8. Rugby mom
    November 12, 2010

    I have sons that have played rugby in Hong Kong and the US and I think the B side games are important. That is what helps the sport grow. The culture of rugby is different than football and I want to see it stay that way! I agree with sircreate and B Prater, growing rugby is so important. I can see limiting the roster size to a point but keep the B side!

  9. Sevens
    February 27, 2011

    The injury rate for rugby can be as high as 20% from games and another 5% from training. Tack on players being unavailable for various reasons (weddings, funerals, test, etc), and a Club can expect 30% of their roster to be unavailable. So if you want to have a solid 28 player roster for the playoffs, you need to start with at least 40 A-side quality players. You need to get playing time from everyone (B-side or in lower divions). The majority of the money in rugby comes from dues paid by playing members. To get the money from the players you must treat them like clients and give them what they want most – playing time. Clubs need to be bigger not smaller. Cal, BYU, Army, Life all have huge rosters and they are the most succesful clubs in the country. Fewer larger well run clubs with 5 or more sides would be a better model than what we have we in the US. D1, D2 , and D3 teams could merge and adopt a college sides in different divsions and have run youth program. I doubt many clubs will merge into Super Clubs but they need to get bigger, not smaller. Perhaps teams who must travel for CPL, Super League, and Women’s Premiere need not have B-sides matches but their B and C sides should play in the local D1.

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This entry was posted on August 11, 2010 by in College Rugby, Editorials.

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