For those precious readers who have read my columns for the past ten or 15 years, you might have detected a few trends in the positions I hold.
Hopefully one of those is that I have been a champion of freedom of player movement, and a champion of better competition.
So you can imagine my delight at learning that the Pacific Rugby Premiership had instituted a Guest Player program, whereby a player CIPP'd with another team outside of the PRP can be claimed by a PRP team as eligible to play in the new league.
On the face of things, the program allows players with aspirations to be exposed to a solid level of competition. There have been cases of a player who is accomplished in high school, but matriculates to a college rugby program that doesn’t help him get better, and in fact might make him worse. Those players need a challenge. In addition, this program allows those clubs to fill holes, expand their recruiting reach, and play better.
But that’s just the face of it. There are issues in the idea that need to be addressed – reasons some might hate the idea. Let’s look at some of these details.
First off, how this program can get off the ground is because of a loophole. USA Rugby’s eligibility rules state that a player CIPP'd with Club A cannot play in a game “leading to a national championship” for Club B.
Said player could switch clubs for a non-league game (say Club B needs an extra lock for the Aspen Ruggerfest, and they ask our player to join them for the weekend; USA Rugby says that’s fine).
Now, put aside the fact that USA Rugby has sometimes overlooked this rule. The rule as it stands works in the PRP's favor, because the PRP is not a USA Rugby championship. It operates outside of USA Rugby's aegis (although it follows USA Rugby's player registration rules). So, technically, all of the PRP games are, as far as USA Rugby sees it, friendly matches.
So if someone from Cal State Long Beach suits up for Belmont Shore, they are just playing in some random tournament, as far as USA Rugby’s rules are concerned.
But … USA Rugby still has concerns about the plan. It could look like, on the face of it, that clubs can poach any player they want from some unsuspecting DII club or local college, and wine and dine him into switching to the PRP team.
That's a real concern. If you were a college coach and your best player stopped playing for you mid-season because he was getting on-field time for Santa Monica, wouldn't you be a bit miffed?
The PRP clubs, then, operate under a rule, that any player who wants to guest with a club must first discuss it with their existing club officers. Already players have approached some clubs and have been told that they must contact their existing coach and club officers before doing anything, and the existing coach must be aware of the arrangement.
PRP clubs also know that other teams – college and club – are needed. "We don’t want other clubs to hate us," said one PRP club official, and that’s crucial in how this program will succeed. Some are concerned that a PRP team will raid players from another club. Well the answer from GoffonRugby would be two-fold – if a PRP team wanted all of your players, wouldn’t you be winning everything in DI? And second, if all of your players are leaving, what’s wrong with your club?
It's hard to imagine a DI or DII club or a college where all of the players are great but all the players want to leave.
USA Rugby is worried about losing membership; it's hard to imagine how that would happen if players are allowed a little more freedom of movement. It is possible this program will undercut the strength of weak lower-division clubs, but if you've been reading these pages, you will see that happens regardless. Come August, any player can switch clubs, anyway.
Understanding that, USA Rugby is reportedly looking into the idea of a player registering with two teams - something like a primary club and a secondary club, thus allowing that player to play in two separate divisions depending on his schedule and desire.
This could work for USA Rugby and doesn't contradict the PRP plan, because the PRP program locks a guest player to one team (Player Fred can play for his college and, say, OMBAC in the PRP, but he can't then play for Belmont Shore in the same season; he’s an OMBAC guest player only).
And USA Rugby, instead of worrying about losing membership income, might be able to increase it, by charging a player $10 for the extra registration. Wouldn't that be a great way to track it?
My bet? The whole program won’t affect more than 50 players, but those 50 will get an enormous benefit from it.