Amidst the golden farmlands of Iowa, a vision of rugby grandeur has emerged that is making quite an impact. This vision is Chris Draper’s, and it has taken Iowa from an insignificant dustbowl of rugby, to a flourishing oasis of promise.
In just 26 months, Iowa Youth Rugby has exploded from 26 players to just over 500. If you know anything about the geography of rugby participation rates in the US, this growth could be considered miraculous.
Draper just wanted “to give kids more opportunities than I had.”
With his innovative approach to teaching 7s, or Olympic Rugby, he is doing just that.
It's been an interesting road for Draper. The former Cal player, former rocket scientist, former RUGBYMag.com columnist, and former international referee, he is now hip deep in Iowa youth rugby, and loving it. He has taken a multi-pronged approach to building Iowa’s rugby infrastructure. Starting from scratch, Draper sought to build a professional framework that lasted. His hard work has developed a progressive 7s high school state championship designed to speed up the game and give kids more opportunities with ball in hand. The Iowa rule modifications address the American Rugby player’s biggest pitfall, lack of enough match experience. These rule modifications are pragmatic. They tailor to the region’s available resources and allow players to learn by running with the ball.
Iowa 7s Law Modifications:
- All tries are worth 7 points with no conversions or kicks at goal. Most teams don’t have posts anyways.
- All lineouts are quick- This speeds up the game and avoids lineout lifting which can be potentially dangerous if taught by an inexperienced coach.
- No 22m dropouts. A free kick is awarded in its place. Drop kicks are not seen as a vital skill in Iowa HS 7s.
- Kickoffs at each half are place kicks which allow for a more controlled restart. If a team is scored upon, that team receives a free kick at halfway to restart the game.
Rugby is a game of pressurized decision making which is most effectively honed through match experience. Draper’s goal, he says, “is to provide as many minutes as possible with ball in hand.”
Actual ball-in-play time lasts between 11-13 minutes in a 14-minute game, a very high percentage and an exhausting one.
Draper’s format has maximized continuous game play and vastly increased the learning curve for his players, yielding higher scoring games and better fundamental based rugby. The only requirements are that you have proper jerseys(look the part), a medical staff, and upload videos of every game to Iowa HS Rugby website.
Some do resist the rules changes, but Draper says those people still call to get their kids playing, which is what matters.
Draper also wants to institutionalize rugby through single high school teams and community involvement. In countries where rugby is a prominent sport, the rugby club is a base for the community. Most American communities are not based around their local rugby club, but they are often based around their schools. With an average Iowa high school population of 214 students, high schools are the proverbial backbone of agrarian Iowan communities.
With many towns in Iowa struck hard by the current economic downturn, Draper has managed to erect the posture of these communities through rugby. By tapping into community rivalries and rallying support behind their local 7s teams, Draper has brought rugby close to the hearts of many Iowans. A mainstay of Iowa HS rugby is that it welcomes students with behavioral issues who might not otherwise be allowed to participate in other high school sports.
Draper was more than happy to boast about his long list of success stories of players who had picked up rugby and turned their lives around. Most of these kids had previously been written off by teachers and coaches. Iowa HS Rugby currently has 22 teams statewide and plays Friday night tournaments in high school football stadiums. Drawing crowds of over 700, and charging $5 admission (after their first night of action they netted $1,500 after expenses from gate alone), Draper has not only accrued the communal support vital for success, he has made rugby a self-sustaining venture in a region few would think this possible.
“This type of income will allow us to set up Coaching Grants next year that will let us hire PE teachers in schools to coach and run teams,” said Draper. “These grants will really be the point where we turn the corner towards fully sustainable expansion and mainstream adoption.”
Draper’s last and most genius approach to Iowa’s rugby infrastructure is tactfully repackaging rugby’s image and selling it the Iowa public.
When asked how he does it, Draper says, “I don’t recruit players, only administrators.”
Through professional organization, Draper has filled Iowa HS Rugby with capable administrators that have streamlined the program, revamping the sport’s counter culture and often spurned image. When approaching a new school about starting a team, his pitch is “anything but rugby.”
Draper sells Olympic Rugby as offseason training for Iowa’s more prominent sports such as track, wrestling, baseball, and football. By requiring participation in these more prominent sports as a requisite of playing rugby, Draper has created an edifying system of give and take where athletes receive more opportunities to develop their skill set while learning an Olympic sport. Draper affectionately refers to 7s as “Tackle Basketball” and fittingly so. With the explosion of participation rates in the last two years and his pioneering methods of growing rugby, it is no wonder this “tackle basketball” league is such a huge success.
Draper’s vision has refined the sport of Rugby from multiple viewpoints. More impressively, he has done this in a region with virtually no rugby infrastructure before he began. Whether it’s Draper’s organizational, communal, or professional approach to selling the sport of rugby, he has a slew of strong, corn-fed Iowans and their communities hungry for more.
Draper says his dream is to “Give Iowans at more than a fair shake at the Olympic podium in 2016.”
With the Iowa HS Rugby on track to become a varsity sport by 2016, the golden farmlands of Iowa may soon become a terrain littered with pristine emerald rugby pitches, future Olympians, and better people. And, if more states follow Iowa’s lead, Chris Draper will undoubtedly be giving kids more opportunities than he had … opportunities at the Olympic podium.
Scores and videos of Iowa HS Rugby can be found here: http://2012.iahsra.org/stats