Disclaimer: This is taken from a strictly Northern California point of view and deals with Northern California only. Other parts of the country no doubt had different experiences with the RSL experiment but that has no bearing here.
“SFGG: Not isolated, but not in a good position, either. Northern California’s club completion is not strong, and has for years kind of limped along – sometimes better, sometimes worse. Notice that SFGG’s 2nd side finished 4-3 in Northern California D1, just barely out of the playoffs. Their top team would probably drive other clubs out of the league.”
- Alex Goff, June 28 2012
When Alex Goff was looking at the future of the Super League and speculating about what would happen if the league folded (as it has), he looked at the likely scenarios facing the remaining clubs. That quote above was not unexpected, but it was still shocking to see. Northern California’s DI has devolved from arguably the strongest league in the USA to become a one-club league. In the next paragraphs I will look at what I see as the link between the USA Rugby Super League and the past and current state of Northern California club rugby.
Part 1: A brief history of Northern California DI Club rugby 1994-2012
When I matriculated out of the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1994 I joined my local D1 club, the San Jose Seahawks RFC, and was assured that I was joining the best, most competitive, balanced, strongest league in the country… and it was hard to argue with that statement. Remember the rugby landscape in those days: DI was the top division in the country and there were 4 territorial unions; Pacific Coast, West, Midwest and East Coast.
A “sweet 16” tournament didn’t exist so to win the national championship you needed to win your territory and then win a 2 day final four of each territory’s champions. From 1979, when USA rugby started awarding a national championship, until 1995 the Pacific Coast won 13 of the 17 titles awarded – eight for the Old Blues (Berkeley) and five for OMBAC (San Diego) (source: rugbymag.com past champions).
It was often said that it was harder to win the Pacific Coast than it was to win the USA title and in Northern California it was added that it was harder to win NorCal than it was to win Pacific Coast. Coming from the college ranks and having to go through Cal every year to get to the final four, that was easy to believe. This also extended to 7s where Pacific Coast teams won seven of 11 titles from 1985 to 1995, with Old Puget Sound Beach chipping in with four titles to add to the two titles won by OMBAC and one for Old Blues. Even though this article will focus on the 15s season, the ripple effect on clubs and their 7s programs is apparent as well. I’ll let someone else write that one.
Of course, the rest of the country probably disagreed with all that and would claim that there were only a couple of really good clubs, but it was a rare team that went unbeaten through the league and one only needs to look at what happened when the territories broke up in 1995 - USA Rugby went to a 16-team tournament that mixed up the brackets so you could face teams from all across the country in the first two rounds. Now, as we examine our second era, from 1996 to 2002, teams from NorCal won it all in DI twice: San Mateo in 2001 and 2002, but that isn’t the story. After the Super League was formed in the late 1990s, USA Rugby did not recognize it as a viable competition until 2001. As a result, teams competed in the Super League and DI at the same tome.
Aspen emerged as a dominant team, winning four straight DI titles, but if you look at that period of 28 possible final four teams, ten of them came from Northern California. There was never a year without a NorCal representative, and three times there were two NorCal teams in the final four. I played in several of those tournaments and I know that the seedings guaranteed that there could only be a maximum of 2 representatives from NorCal as we ended up playing each other. (Note: Before you think I am crying “conspiracy” I know it wasn’t possible for USA Rugby to allocate a year in advance which seed NorCal would get out of the Pacific Coast. At best the seedings might have been grouped so that Pacific Coast seeds would have had to play each other to get to the final weekend and NorCal usually won the lion’s share of Pacific Coast spots.)
The teams that made it are not all the same either - you had San Mateo (3), Hayward (3), Golden Gate (3) and Old Blues (1). There were Eagles on nearly every team; Mose Timoteo and Olo Fafita for Hayward, Jovesa Naivalu and Chris Kron on the Seahawks, Vaea Anitoni and Vuka Tau for San Mateo, Toshi Palomo with the Sacramento Capitals. The Old Blues seemed to provide half the Eagle squad in the early ‘90s and Golden Gate would add their share, and that is a far from complete list. How many other LAUs could boast national representation on that many clubs at the same time? This may have been the Golden Age of Northern California DI rugby – at the very least it was the last period of sustained excellence before the decline.
So now let’s look at the next 10 years, from 2003 through 2012. Of the 40 teams that made the DI semifinals during that time, only six came from Northern California, with only one champion, Hayward in 2007. Only once did Nor Cal have multiple representatives (2007) and many years were shut out completely. San Mateo kept their momentum to finish runners-up in 2003, but then faded. Hayward finished 3rd in 2006 before their title year, and the Olympic Club emerged as something of a DI power, finishing 3rd twice and runners up in 2011. Not bad for a single LAU, and right there with the most-represented LAUs. All in all, pretty darn good, but not at the level of the past.
Part 2: The Super League: 1997-2012
The Rugby Super League (RSL) formed in 1997 when a number of isolated clubs banded together to try and find quality competition. Especially in the West and Midwest, top clubs would often travel a minimum of 5 hours to play a team they would beat by 70, so it made sense for them to try to get more competition. Unfortunately, that idea was sold as a nationwide league for the “best” clubs in the country so clubs that already had a strong, vibrant local competition – think Northern California - were seduced into joining. The quotes around “best” are deliberate – the teams that joined were not necessarily the best clubs, but the clubs that could afford the travel, or at least thought they could. The idea was flawed from the beginning because too much was put on the players. This was not a professional league so clubs (and therefore, players) had to pay their expenses out of pocket and sponsorship (or a sugar daddy) was difficult to come by.
So what was formed (and eventually recognized by USA Rugby as the official Tier I competition) was a collection of good clubs that promised to travel across country for games, but pay for it themselves. The majority of the RSL clubs were in fact top clubs but money was the deciding factor. Case in point: when the Old Blues folded in NorCal, the Olympic Club took over their RSL franchise. At that time they were maybe the 4th best team in Nor Cal behind San Mateo, Hayward and San Jose, but they were now a RSL team.
The quality of play did get better, though. Playing in a national league was sexier and more exciting than playing a team from a town 40 minutes away. Most people would get more interest from non-rugby people by saying “we play Chicago this week” than by saying “we play San Mateo this week” despite the fact that San Mateo may have been the better club. Also, it was rumored that to be considered for Eagle selection, you had to play in the Super League. Whether that was true was irrelevant because players behaved as if it was true. The talent drain had begun, and not only did clubs lose their top players, they also lost their top recruits. I watched this happen in Northern California as players who lived and worked in San Jose would travel sometimes two hours through rush hour traffic up to San Francisco every Tuesday and Thursday for training. There were even players from Sacramento doing the drive as SFGG and, to a lesser extent, Olympic Club started taking all of the best players. College graduates would come by in the preseason for some trainings and matches, then jump to a RSL club at the first opportunity.
The gap between RSL and DI widened. The rise in quality of the RSL was great news to the RSL clubs, but at what cost? The gap between RSL and DI was now so vast that a good DI club would only lose by 30 and the rest of the DI clubs would lose by 100. I was on the short end of one of those losses in my final years with San Jose against SFGG – a team we had fought to a draw just three years previous.
By 2005 RSL had expanded by adding some top DI clubs, such as NYAC, but the cracks in the structure were evident. Strong teams, founding teams, started having serious doubts about the sustainability of the league and eventually started dropping out until finally this year (2013) the RSL admitted defeat and morphed into a challenge cup competition with the member clubs dropping back into DI. The fatal flaw was professionalism: in order for a league to stretch across the vastness of the USA it MUST be fully professional. Semi-pro and amateur clubs just cannot make that kind of monetary and time commitment and expect to last when the players and often coaches are also balancing a full-time job and family. The next time USA Rugby tries to create a top tier national league it must be fully professional. If you want a blueprint on how to start small and build up intelligently, just look to the MLS.
Part 3: The State of Nor Cal rugby today.
So what has happened to these teams that represented NorCal so often in national playoffs, not to mention the rest of the NorCal DI teams? Let’s look at the teams that participated in DI from 1994–2012.
The Old Blues tried to merge with Hayward in the late 90s and folded completely a year later. This was due more to an aging core of players/administrators with no new generation to take over and was probably inevitable, although there is little doubt playing in the Super League hastened the demise.
Hayward Griffins had a strong run but faded as they lost too many players to the Super League until they finally folded in 2009. The current captain and scrumhalf for SFGG is Mose Timoteo, formerly of Hayward.
San Mateo was kicked out of the Nor Cal DI league this year after failing to meet CIPP and administrative requirements and their future is uncertain.
The Olympic Club has forfeited their first 2 matches of the season. The official reason is a protest against the league structure. Not a good start, though they still seem to recruit well having recently added Eagle prop Mike McDonald. They have also had a lot of turnover recently (including at the Head Coach position) so the quality is untested, but this may be a good thing as the Old Blues gave a harsh lesson on the perils of stagnation.
The Sacramento Capitols have yo-yo’d back and forth between DI and DII, never seeming to sustain their momentum more than a couple of years. They are currently back in DII.
The Sacramento Lions split off from the Sacramento Capitols in the mid 2000s and jumped to DI but struggled for numbers for a few years. The did, however, recently score a major coup by adding Fijian legend Ifereimi Tawake as their head coach.
The San Jose Seahawks dropped to DII in 2007 and look to have settled there, although I have hope for my former club to push for promotion.
East Palo Alto rose like a phoenix starting in 2008 and then splintered internally into two sides: EPA Razorbacks and EPA Bulldogs. Both sides at times have shown a strong A side but struggle to field a consistent B side, and even their A side lacks consistency.
The Bay Barbarians were formed in 2011 and immediately promoted to D1 (Why? Good question…) and have struggled to field an A side at time (multiple forfeits) much less a B side.
Golden Gate merged with San Francisco RFC early on in the process and became San Francisco Golden Gate RFC (SFGG) and have prospered as the only top flight option left. Excellent foresight and administration secured a pitch and a clubhouse that allows the club to control its own destiny. Add to that the constant influx of top talent who saw no other Tier I option and SFGG stands alone at the top of the heap by a large margin. As noted by Alex Goff in the quote above, even their B side had a winning record in DI last year while their A side was contesting the Super League title.
It seems obvious that the overall quality of the league has dropped. Hubris finally caught up to Nor Cal as the member clubs would smugly assure themselves that they were the best of the best and this would always be so. The cause of this situation is a complex combination of factors, including poor club management for non-RSL sides and questionable management within the structure of the league, but there is no doubt in my mind that the RSL was a major factor in the decimation NorCal DI Rugby.
The good news is that this isn’t an irreversible trend. There is still a lot of talent in the area and teams can learn from past mistakes, but there is a lot of work ahead to not only regain the balance in the league but regain the status of the top league in the country. With Cal and St Mary’s we have consistently two of the top five college programs in the country, and the rest of the collegiate landscape is strong as well. High school and age grade rugby in Northern California is taking off and if clubs can tap that talent pool it can only make things better. It may take a generation, but it can happen, and I hope it does.
Then again, a rugby generation can be as short as four years and, to quote a friend of mine, “The need to drive two hours to play in the Super League is gone, and players will probably stay closer to home. I think the pendulum will swing back. Teams that can provide opportunities attract good players.”