Rugby News & Views From an American Perspective
by Ted Hardy
The club rugby restructure is fairly old news, but I’ve been mulling it over in my mind for quite some time. I knew from the moment I saw the document that I wanted to write an editorial piece on it. Even as I write this, I’m not completely sure how I feel about the subject. Too many variables, too many moving pieces, and such a mess.
I just know that it hasn’t been discussed enough. Club rugby teams, across the United States, are about to embark on yet another change with the upcoming 2013/2014 season. The restructure, by USA Rugby, is in order to increase the number of games for each team at the club rugby level. This is an attempt to improve the overall level of play as well as increase opportunities for players, coaches and referees.
Fair enough. We all want to see the level of play increase and provide more opportunities for players, coaches, and referees. I think everyone can agree upon that point across all levels. In order for us to grow, improvement must be systemic.
Where USAR went wrong is this was their chance to really put a stamp on where club rugby is headed and prepare for the future. Their chance to finally erase all of the confusion around club rugby. Clean up the model and create something that better serves the playing community as well as our elite-level players. Instead, we now have four divisions (Five if you count the Elite Cup), all with championship pathways, when there should really only be two.
Yep… two divisions.
Here’s the deal. Either your club wants to be an elite organization and develop future professional rugby players and Eagles or your club is not.
By elite, I mean that the clubs are actively funding, recruiting, pushing and developing their players and teams in a professional manner. More than two practices a week, fitness sessions, year-round training, non-playing administration, etc. There are only a handful of these teams in America right now. We really need to have about 20 such clubs. When professional rugby comes to America (someday right?) they are going to need elite clubs more than anyone may understand at this point. American rugby needs to prepare by getting more clubs up to that elite level.
One of the major problems in American rugby is the massive gap between club and international level play. It isn’t even remotely close. I dare say that the gap is probably too much to bridge without some sort of fully organized elite or professional competition. The Elite Cup is a step in that direction, but it isn’t nearly enough and whether it was an improvement over the Rugby Super League is debatable. The Elite Cup brought a handful of our very best teams together to play a few games over the span of a month. In reality, they need to play 15-20 times per year to have a true platform to develop future Eagles or professional grade players. Financial limitations will likely ensure that will not come to pass anytime soon.
Every club that falls outside of the elite club range are really providing more of a recreational experience for their members than an elite playing experience. If you’re balking at the thought, please look at your club honestly. These clubs may practice once or twice a week, play a hard-fought game on the weekend, and have some beers after. The real impact is in their work on spreading the game of rugby to new players and fans as well as growing and developing youth and high school programs.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with that level of play. Almost every last one of us has been there at some point in our playing career. It currently accounts for well over 90% of the rugby clubs in the USA. You can still play good, hard, and competitive rugby at that level too. Rugby that you can be proud of.
Also, clubs playing on the fringes of Division I all the way down to Division IV are directly responsible for massive growth at the youth and high school levels. These players and coaches have the time, in between playing with their clubs, to donate to youth rugby. They aren’t committed to off-day training, recovery sessions, game film review, and other tasks that should be a staple of elite clubs.
The trap USAR has fallen into is the same one that we have seen over and over this past generation. The apparent need to make sure everyone has some kind of chance to get an award. It is what has led us to the point where we have teams divided up into four playing levels so that more and more teams can chase their own “national championship” dreams.
This is where it gets tough because we are so thin on truly elite clubs in America. To make the plan work on the elite end, we really need to have about 16-20 teams split into two divisions. Right now, we may have 8-10 at the most. Those clubs will have to forge on until there are more like them to create a fully robust Elite competition.
Originally, my plan was to have elite teams and then everyone else. Simple right? Not really. There needs to be a level in between just as there needs to be a level in between club rugby and international play.
To that end, I propose that there should be a level of club teams that are “elite in the making”. These would likely be the Top 24 Division I teams in America. These are clubs that have raised their hands and said that they want to become elite clubs, but don’t have all of the pieces in place right now. They would have to meet some pre-set criteria and be in the process of putting the mechanisms (money, facilities, coaching, recruiting, etc.) in place to reach all of the benchmarks set in place. These clubs need to work closely with teams in the Elite category to share best practices in order to get them to the elite level. There would also need to be oversight in place to ensure that clubs are adhering to criteria. These clubs would make up Division I.
As for everyone else? Place them all in one level of competition. There is just not a need for Divisions II, III, and IV. Just call it the Club Rugby Division or Division II to keep in line with the rest. Recreational sports for adults do not need to have multiple competition levels like the NCAA. No other adult amateur sport in America has the need for multiple playing levels, so why does rugby? Even club 7s only has one playing level with one championship. If we had thousands of clubs, with teams in every community, then my tune might change on that end. We are a very long way from that though.
With all of the non-elite clubs in one division, travel expenses come down drastically and teams still get to play meaningful rugby. I’m all for increasing the number of league games as USAR has implemented. This format can also still play out to a national title. An amateur club national title which also cuts back on the number of clubs that commit vital resources and time to national championship pursuits. For the clubs that still want to get out and travel, there are dozens of great tournaments across the country, every year, where teams can find different competition or competition more suited to their current skill level.
The biggest thing in this, for me, is that I want to see clubs honestly assess where they are and where they want to go. This is one of many problems with club rugby in America. Honestly taking a look at their operational and competition levels. Every club in America wants to be the best, that is perfectly natural. However, not every club has the wherewithal, motivation, and ability to make that come to pass.
Dividing up more realistically may also lead to more teams becoming involved in collective representative efforts like we’re seeing evolve in Texas or with the South Territorial team. Many of the clubs that provided players for those teams are clubs that would fall into the DII category, yet a team like the South has achieved great success. This has also given a platform for players to play at a higher level than their respective clubs may have been able to offer.
The scenario also makes room for mobility. Want to get out of the club level and transition into Division I and pursue becoming an elite club? Then awesome… the more the merrier. Let’s go all in and put plans in place to make it happen. If your club can hit certain strict and pre-determined benchmarks then make the jump.
Bottom line is that we are struggling to convert club rugby players into representative players and prepare representative players for international play. The solution from USAR was to add games to everyone’s league schedule. More could have been done. More should have been done.
The pathway to elite rugby has already begun the fast transition from club-centric to a more traditional American pathway of youth to high school to college. More and more national team players are coming through that route than being discovered at the club level. Of the current Eagles pool, only three players came to the squad through the club rugby system. The rest came through college or from overseas. A number of the players have also played rugby in high school. Something that was rare just 5-10 years ago.
What is true of the national team pool? Almost all of the players, not already playing professionally, are tied to teams that would qualify as elite clubs or almost-elite clubs. As the playing numbers continue to increase at the youth and high school levels, college rugby will continue on their upward trend in regards to level of play. Even as those pathways grow and develop, there will always be a need for an elite club level to bridge the gap after college. This is regardless of whether or not a professional league ever comes to fruition.
This would have been an excellent time to start preparing for that future and laying a proper foundation. The reality is that nothing will change. The increase in league games will not really answer any of the issues at hand. Most teams already filled their spring with competitive games. Most clubs were already playing 15-20 matches per year. Now all of those matches just get accounted for in their league standings and we are still left with a club rugby system that doesn’t make sense.