So this is my second end-of-year column, where I look back 14 years over what I’ve covered, and not covered, and try to give me 1997-self some advice, or maybe a pat on the back.
It’s a way of seeing how far we as a rugby nation have come.
The Club Game
Nineteen ninety-seven was the year the Super League began.
Had I know then what I know now, I would have been writing some very different articles. Certainly I covered the Super League seriously; I was on the sidelines during one of the games of the first weekend, and I continued to cover the competition as if it was the top national league in the USA.
Which it was, and still is. But what I should have done was take a stand for the Super League and against USA Rugby. USA Rugby treated the Super League as an outlaw competition in its opening years, and as a result caused all sorts of difficulties. Had USA Rugby worked with the league leadership (and vice versa) we might have established a better domestic structure in this country.
What should have happened, is that the Super League should have been separated from the DI and DII club system. Player movement into the Super League should have been allowed, and everyone should have looked at the Super League as something for players to aspire to, not as a competition to shackle.
Had the American rugby community embraced the Super League as an elite league, and worked to support it as such, and worked to give it a season separate and distinct from the club season, we might be in a better state today.
I didn’t call for any of that until far too late. The club structure remained as it was.
Today, I don’t have too many complaints with the men’s club structure. After many excruciating growing pains, we have a competitive system that provides a decent number of games for DI and Super League teams. The rules governing foreign players make sense, and the eligibility rules are generally fine and enforced (last year’s Aspen/Glendale debacle aside) with some semblance of common sense.
There are still those who make decisions based on their own provincialism, or based on long-held grudges, but they are fading away, so that’s fine.
The clubs themselves are getting better. They are focusing on getting their financial and organization houses in order. They are less focused on frittering away money on overseas players of dubious value. Instead they have seen the value of courting the college grad – which is how many of these clubs got started, after all.
One of my big beefs ten years ago was that clubs didn’t give young college players a chance to play. Today an ambitious young player can find playing time in the Super League or DI, and become somewhat better. That’s a step forward.
I pushed for that, for a long time. I’ve pushed, also, for clubs to take risks at certain positions. Too often I have seen clubs put overseas players at 8, 9 and 10. It’s understandable; those are key decision-making positions and coaches are, by and large, a risk-averse lot and like to get a sure thing when they can.
But we desperately need to develop depth at halfback. I really, really wish clubs would work harder to put young American-eligible players into those positions.
One of the big changes in the club game of the last several years has been the move from sugar daddy rugby to the semi-pro game. In the old days, one or two well-off individuals financed a club. Those clubs won in part because they could pay for some cover from overseas, and also because players gravitated toward organizations where they didn’t need to shell out large sums in order to play.
But ten years of uncertain economic times have taken down some of those sugar daddies, and other issues have taken others.
In their place have come clubs that are supported by a network of invested old boys dedicated to creating an organization, or clubs supported as a business venture, or clubs supported by a larger institution.
The Glendale Raptors have their own stadium and a city behind them. Life University has their institution behind them. The Kansas City Blues have gone into partnership with their local Major League Soccer team. The New York Athletic Club is associated with that club. San Francisco Golden Gate developed its own athletic club, starting rugby from U9 on up, using the entire club superstructure as a way to support itself.
There are many ways to organize and finance a club. And clubs are doing it. We’ve also seen some essentially disband. That’s part of the growing process and not, I think, the sign that the game is weakening.
Club rugby was dying, but I don’t think it is anymore.
What has died, and died a sad, lonely death, is select-side play.
I list this under club rugby because we’re generally talking about select-side player for club players. There is now National All-Star Championship, and hasn’t been since 2007. I supported changing that old competition, and I still think that was the right idea. But I also said the point was we should remake the NASC into something new. That never happened. I complained, but not enough. My good friend Ed Hagerty complained louder, and was right to do so.
We have no select-side play for post-college rugby players anymore. That’s a crime. It’s a crime that USA Rugby didn’t fix it, and it’s a crime that the territorial unions did nothing about it. They could have (and some said they would) sent TU all-star teams on tour or into challenge matches with other teams. It could have been done, but lack of will saw that ideal die.
It is not too late. We can, especially with the elimination of the TU system and creation of Geographical Unions, find new ways to reward players.
Yes we want to give Eagle-potential players a change to play at a higher level to help them be seen and to help them make the jump to international play. But I also think playing for an all-star team is meaningful in its own right. Canada now has a league of provincial teams. It would certainly be possible to create one based on leagues, or GUs, or states.
This is the overall message we should take from club rugby. Rugby players in America play rugby because it’s fun, it’s exciting, and they want to do something more than go to work and then go home and watch TV. Many of these players want to play at as high a level as possible. It’s not about money for them, or fame, or accolades (I’ve seen enough players duck interviews to know that!). It’s about challenging themselves.
I remember talking to USA scrumhalf Mike Petri about all the workouts he does and how he squeezes it all in around work and personal life. That, I said, is the price you pay for being a USA player.
“But Alex,” he said. “Even if there was no USA National Team, I’d still do it.”
A lot of players feel that way. They love it, and want to work as hard as possible to be good.
We need to ensure doors are open for those players. We should not be looking for rules to stop players from changing divisions (I think a player should be able to move up a division mid-season, even to a different club, with some minor restrictions, for example). We should be investing time and energy to find ways to revitalize select-side play. We shouldn’t be dumbing down club rugby in this country, we should be encouraging excellence.