Written by Ed Hagerty    Thursday, 07 March 2013 20:32    PDF Print Write e-mail
All Star Championship: Bring It Back ASAP!
Columns - Op-Eds

In Alex Goff’s recent Rugbymag.com article, I Was Wrong (3-6), the section I found most compelling was Alex’s call to bring back the National All Star Championship:

Meanwhile, Tolkin should bang the National All-Star Championship drum. Let’s get that done this year; four teams, eight teams. I don’t care, let’s just work an assembly of the best 100 or so rugby players in this country and get them playing against each other.

Newly-named US Rugby Hall-of-Famer Ed Hagerty has been writing on American rugby since he helped found RUGBY Magazine almost 40 years ago. Hagerty has reported on thousands of rugby events, and was present at the last National All-Star Championships to be held, in 2007. Below are photos he took from that event.
COmbined Services (blue) v. the South at the 2007 NASC. Ed Hagerty photo.
Mid-Atlantic (in gray) v. Midwest (green) at the 2007 NASC. Ed Hagerty photo.
Northeast (in red) v. the West (blue) at the 2007 NASC. Ed Hagerty photo.
Pacific Coast (white) v. Southern California (green) at the 2007 NASC final. Note the scaffolding in the background used by cameras and coaches to record and scout the games. Ed Hagerty photo.

The National All Star Championship (NASC), which served as both a National Championship and Eagle selection vehicle for 28 consecutive years (1977 - 2006), was an all-inclusive and very democratic process. The NASC was an efficient, equitable and absolutely essential way of identifying and selecting our best players to the National Team in a country as huge as the US.

In addition to attracting the enthusiastic participation of the country’s most talented players, participation in the NASC was also prized by the best coaches and selectors from each of the 33 Local Area, and 7 Territorial Unions that comprised rugby in the US. The NASC’s democratic nature ensured participating players from every state in the country, a fair and clear pathway to the US National team.

Eliminating the National All Star Championship was a major blunder on the part of our CEO (Nigel Melville) and former National Coach (Eddie O'Sullivan). These men, both recent imports from countries the size of mid-sized US states, were ignorant of, or chose to ignore, the necessity of a tool such as the NASC to equitably screen and choose our best players in a country the size of the United States..

Eliminating the National All Star Championship deprived USA Rugby of a nationwide army of devoted coaches, selectors and scouts at the Local and Territorial Union levels who spent enormous amounts of time:

1) Searching out and testing the best talent in each local area union (e.g. Met New York) and then selecting a LAU all-star team.

2) Having their LAU (e.g. Met NY) face off against the other LAU (e.g. New England & Upstate NY) all star teams in their respective Territorial Union (e.g. Northeast) to form their Territorial Union All Star Team.

3) Comprehensive selection procedures and trials, similar to those utilized by the Northeast, were followed to form teams in each of the other 30+ Local Area and six Territorial Unions (Mid-Atlantic, South, Midwest, West, Pacific & Southern California) that comprise rugby in the United States.

The seven Territorial All Star teams, plus the Collegiate All Americans or a Combined Services team, played off annually at the National All Star Championship. At the weekend’s conclusion, the Eagle Coach and Selectors representing each of the eight teams convened and selected that year’s US National Team.

Very equitable, very democratic, very American!

The NASC’s comprehensive and democratic selection process brought a nationwide army of talented coaches, selectors and administrators into the scouting and selecting process, ensuring that every deserving player in the US had an on-field opportunity to make the US National Team.

It should never have been discontinued.

Bring it back as soon as possible.

Written by Craig Coates    Friday, 15 February 2013 12:40    PDF Print Write e-mail
Coates Speaks Out Against Eligibility Regs
Columns - Op-Eds

Craig Coates is the Director of Rugby at Texas A&M, the Aggies' former longtime head coach and a former member of the Collegiate Eligibility Committee. Coates works as an Associate Professor in A&M's Entomology Department. In this post, an excerpt from the original post on the Allied Rugby Conference's blog, Coates discusses the rationale and aftermath of the new college eligibility regulations.

The ARC teams are gearing up for the season openers this Saturday with Sam Houston hosting Texas Tech, and Baylor hosting Oklahoma; with the former match being the featured ARC game of the week on Monday Night Rugby. While all of the teams have been working hard in preparation, several teams ran into some ugly surprises when submitting their USA Rugby Collegiate Eligibility paperwork to their university registrar.

This is the first season in which the new eligibility rules take effect, the most significant being that collegiate rugby players only have 5 years of collegiate rugby eligibility from the date of their high school graduation. Players that competed in collegiate rugby competitions last year are eligible for a grandfather clause to finish out their previous eligibility of 5 years from the date they first enrolled in college. However, anyone that took time off to work, care for a family member, attended a school without a rugby team, went on a religious mission, or served in the Armed Services; before attending or returning to college, found out that they lost all of those years of eligibility.

While this is a sad state of affairs for the affected individual players, it also has a potentially dramatic effect on the teams that are competing, particularly those that already started with a small player roster and/or those schools that tend to enroll a higher proportion of “non-traditional” students. As mentioned previously, several of the ARC teams have been directly impacted and I can only imagine what will happen in a conference like the Utah Collegiate Rugby Conference, in which most if not all teams are likely to have a significant number of players that have or will complete a religious mission.

Similarly, schools like Texas State (SWC) have been heavily impacted due to attracting a large number of military veterans, so much so that a new men’s club has emerged as a result of their inability to play collegiate rugby. Of course proponents of the new eligibility rules will claim that this result is exactly what should happen – “the ineligible players can always play men’s club rugby as we are not denying them the opportunity to play rugby”. However, Texas State is fortunate that they are near large population centers (Austin and San Antonio), which allows the new men’s club to draw from the local community, not to mention nearby military bases and associated industries. Many of the universities across the country, particularly the land grant colleges, are located in isolated regions without immediate access to a men’s club, or men’s clubs to compete against. As an example, a student at Texas A&M would have to make a ~3hr round trip to the Woodlands Men’s club twice a week for practice, along with every match being “away”, even when a Woodlands home fixture. There are not that many students that have the time or financial resources to make that work and there are plenty of colleges that are even more isolated geographically, particularly with respect to the current senior rugby footprint, which is shrinking if anything.

Regardless, even the ability to play rugby elsewhere is missing the point. They are missing part of their collegiate experience, which is to play rugby with their mates and thus to be fully integrated into college life. Given that we have a GI Bill whose sole purpose is to provide a pathway for returning military veterans to obtain a college education and integrate into a “normal” life, it seems asinine to deny them the opportunity to be part of the greatest team sport on the planet,  not to mention an insulting slap in the face following their service to the country. With shocking statistics emerging of non-combat deaths and associated PTSD issues, surely we can use rugby as one small vehicle and outlet to help these brave men and women, whether each individual needs it or not. I can not imagine that the pitch to the National Guard to return as a major sponsor of USA College Rugby is going to be well received given the change in eligibility rules that has a direct negative impact on those that serve and sacrifice so much on our behalf. How exactly do you sell that?

So the obvious question is, why were the changes to the eligibility rules made? Depending on which fence you are sitting, there are 3 primary drivers. 1. Reducing the number of waiver requests. 2. Reducing the risk of injury to collegiate rugby players. 3. Ensuring an even competitive platform. I will attempt to address all three through my personal experiences as a member of the USA Rugby Collegiate Eligibility Committee and as a coach of Texas A&M Rugby.

Firstly, let me state that the members of the eligibility committee worked very hard, in good faith and all have their hearts in the right place, being highly dedicated to collegiate rugby and as a committee we worked very well together in a respectful manner. Everyone had their own opinions which were listened to and taken into consideration before a final decision was made. We were certainly able to agree to disagree and hopefully for the most part made sound decisions in the student’s and game’s best interests. So why change anything?  It was a lot of work, and worse than that, most of the work was spent on a vanishingly small number of cases. Instances that took multiple submissions and queries of documents and a paper trail that was out of an organized crime movie. Students that attended multiple schools, some with or without existing rugby teams, often not maintaining a 2.0 Grade Point Average, enduring all sorts of medical and personal situations and yet requesting (demanding?) that they be given the opportunity for 1 year or 1 more year of collegiate rugby. In many cases and after much detective work they were in fact eligible for the extra year under the previous guidelines, even though it left a bad taste in the mouth to approve some of the requests, so much so that some votes were possibly cast to deny on principle, at which point we realized that something needed to change.

Not that it should really matter and this is not a reflection of the relative importance of the rugby team or competition, but most of the problematic waiver request cases were coming from the lower divisions of collegiate rugby and from teams that had not historically competed in regional or national playoffs. Related to issue #3, if competitive balance is an issue did these eligibility decisions really have an impact? If you were losing to that team possibly yes, if not, probably no. Case in point, at the most recent DI-A collegiate rugby meeting held in Houston in June, 2012; the vast majority of the teams present agreed that the eligibility rule changes did not need to be made for that competition and that the teams did not have any major issues with their competitors.  This is also borne out by the eligibility committee work in that with the exception of BYU due to a relatively high number of students taking on religious missions, the DI-A clubs of that iteration of the competition were rarely submitting waiver requests. That being said, those waiver requests were easy – high achieving students, single school, 2yr clean break for religious mission with associated certified letter from church – rubber stamp and move on. Similarly for most of the military service waivers, single school or two schools for pre- and post-service, military service document, done.

Proponents of the changes claim that the number of student athletes affected is very small and is a low percentage of the total collegiate rugby athletes. If that is the case then we can throw #1 out the window because by definition the number of waiver requests should also be very small. I did not personally agree with the changes being proposed for collegiate eligibility, but as with the other dissenting members of the committee, agreed to allow the PROPOSED changes to move forward and be distributed to the wider collegiate rugby community for discussion and feedback. No-one on the committee wanted to force these down from above yet to our surprise the next thing we knew the changes were being approved up the pipeline and became law.

I for one will happily re-volunteer to serve on the eligibility committee if the changes are revoked or modified to exclude the journeyman students described above, and allow our veterans, religious missionaries, and other “non-traditional students” the opportunity to play collegiate rugby for a reasonable period of time. It’s not like most of the collegiate rugby clubs around the country are choosing which students to award scholarships to, or cutting players from the squad; we need more participation, not less. Regardless, if being “varsity” is the goal, there are plenty of examples of varsity athletes in several sports, that are competing well beyond 5 years from their high school graduation.

Rational #2 is player safety. Texas A&M has played BYU at least once every 2 years over the last decade. At no time in any of those matches have I felt that any of our players were in physical danger or that the playing conditions were unsafe. I don’t have specific statistics at hand but we have not had a significant number of injuries occur as a result of playing these matches, save for some bruised ego’s at times. In contrast, most of the severe injuries suffered by our players over the years have occurred in 2nd side matches, or in games against inexperienced opponents that could not scrummage safely, did not utilize a safe tackling technique, or were not aware that you can’t tackle someone that has jumped up to catch a kickoff. None of those events have occurred in our matches against BYU. We have also played many matches against local men’s clubs over the years and have not experienced any particular issues or injury risks.

Conversely, over the years we have had occasion to cut or refuse to select a player or two who simply could not physically prepare or protect themselves for, or in contact. They were not prepared or able to play rugby safely. The bottom line is that if you don’t think you can safely put your team out to play BYU or a men’s club, then you have not sufficiently prepared your players to safely play the game of rugby and they should not be competing, period. You should be able to scrummage safely even when going backwards, a small player should be able to tackle a bigger player, or take the ball into contact and recycle it and themselves. That being said, no-one is suggesting that you have to play BYU or a men’s club, each team should build a schedule that works the best for their player’s development and experience of the game. This year for example, Texas A&M choose to play an all collegiate schedule as the best fit for marketing the game to their supporters and administrators on campus.

Rationale #3 is competitive balance. BYU is really good, we have never beaten them. Some years we have competed for long periods of the game, in others we were totally overmatched. However, our players look forward to the challenge and experience and always raise their level of play as a result; that is kind of the point of playing the game. It is an honor and privilege to play against one of the best teams in the country and we are grateful that they continue to honor our requests to do so, I am certain our players get more out of the games than theirs. There is not a player from Texas A&M that won’t remember playing against Kimball Kjar, or Salesi Sika, or Ryan Roundy, to name but a few. Every athlete with even a modicum of competitive spirit should want to test themselves and play against the best.

Texas A&M lost to a BYU squad containing 3 USA Rugby Collegiate ineligible players by 44-5. Does taking out those three players change the scoreline? Possibly, but it is likely the ultimate result would have been the same and the players would have been less for missing the experience of playing against their best. Texas A&M lost to a USA Rugby Collegiate eligible Arkansas State team 70-7. Don’t get me started on the foreigners argument; this country was built on the backs and minds of foreigners, as are many of the varsity sports teams around the country outside of football; which also misses the point that some of the best ASU players are from TEXAS! Cal have won innumerable national championships with “traditional american students”. The competitive balance argument doesn’t fly, in large part because there are so many schools with an equally large number of different competitive advantages in financial support, coaching, alumni support, recruiting, school support, facilities, admissions, prominence on campus, community support, etc. It is highly un-American to legislate against success when we should be celebrating all of these advances and achievements.

The collegiate rugby scene is currently fragmented and may become more so before all is said and done, but that should not be seen as a negative. America is framed by individual determination and individual state’s rights; there is no reason that individual collegiate rugby conferences and groups of conferences can not forge a path that works for their particular situation, while also furthering USA Rugby and the collegiate game. To the Mid-West and North-East, I hear you loud and clear, play for a Fall 15′s National Championship, or whatever else you want to call it; I can’t wait to watch it and hope it is successful. Varsity Cup? Bring it on and I only wish we could afford to compete in it. Multiple regional and national 7′s championships and tournaments? If you can find the funding and get it on TV, why not?

So what if the ARC decided to change it’s eligibility rules for next season to allow all of these student athletes the opportunity to play collegiate rugby? What happens then? USA Rugby deems the conference participants unworthy of a place at the table for national playoffs? My personal opinion is that if winning a national championship is the only way a team can define itself, then we are a pretty elitist sport where there can be only 1 successful team each year, which seems a little sad and underserving.

Soapbox. Off. Luckily no-one reads this or at least will read to the end so we can continue the status quo. For those that care, I am a supporter of USA Rugby and want a strong and successful national body. I am confident that my volunteer service and support of USA Rugby activities bears that out. However, I did not support the eligibility changes in the first place and now that the effects are coming home to roost at a local level, am now more adamant that it was a bad idea, with possibly good intentions, but a bad idea all the same.

Written by Pat Clifton    Wednesday, 30 January 2013 12:23    PDF Print Write e-mail
Medical Symposium Calling All Responsible for Rugby Player Welfare
Columns - Op-Eds

The 2013 USA Rugby Sports Medicine Symposium is Thursday Feb. 7th and Friday Feb. 8th at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. The unique gathering  of medical professionals is intended for anyone in charge of rugby player welfare in the United States, including doctors, athletic trainers, physios, chiropractors, physical therapists and massage therapists.

Highlights of the symposium are expected to be a Thursday night dedicated entirely to head injuries and concussions, key note speaker Lyle Micheli (Director of the Division of Sports Medicine at Boston Children's Hospital and Clinical Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at Harvard Medical School), and live surgical demonstrations on actual cadavers.

The symposium will focus largely on player welfare, a hot button topic throughout all American sports.

“Player welfare’s such a big topic always, and unfortunately we never really talk about it until there’s a tragedy,” said USA Rugby Medical Coordinator Michael Keating.

“I think what we want to convey is that a lot of good people work in rugby medicine across the board, from clubs and universities, and we’re trying to do our best to bring everybody together. For years and years it always this separation of the National Office and the Eagles medical staff being distinct from the club scene, and I’ve worked pretty hard since 2005 to kind of break that and bring it all together, because we’re really all doing the same thing.

“We want to be very inclusive with this meeting. This is not like some good old boys club with USA Rugby. The participants we’ve had in the past have shown that, but there’s so many more people out there that simply don’t attend because they don’t know about it. They don’t know it’s for everybody and it’s out there and it’s a reasonably priced event and it’s tied to the premier rugby event in the US.”

Written by James Hinkin    Monday, 28 January 2013 13:58    PDF Print Write e-mail
How the Rise of the RSL Led to Fall of NorCal Rugby
Columns - Op-Eds

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.

SFGG against the EPA Razorbacks. SFGG seems to be far and away the dominant team in the region. Austin Brewin photo.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.”

Written by Alex Goff & Pat Clifton    Monday, 31 December 2012 11:30    PDF Print Write e-mail
Top 12 of 2012: Future Eagles
Columns - Op-Eds

As 2012 comes to a close, we'll be running a series of Top 12 of 2012 lists, featuring some of the top photos, players, events and bits of news from the last year. RUGBYMag's official 2012 Awards are chronicled in our November issue.

In our last Top 12 of '12 story, we look at the guys we think have the best chance to earn Eagle caps someday. The majority of our group come from the college and age-grade ranks. They're listed alphabetically.

There are some guys who perhaps deserve to be on the list, like Don Pati, Colton Cariaga, Zac Mizell and Kingsley McGowan, but we kept the list at 12.

Nu’u Aiava
We first saw Aiava when he was directing traffic for the High School All Americans 7s team in Las Vegas. Aiava has chutzpa and plenty of leadership acumen, as well. He is small, maybe too small to break through in 15s, but as a 7s player he could be marvelous. He has excellent pace, can sidestep, can defend, and reads the game very well. He should be tracked for a 7s academy soon.

Nate Brakeley
The Dartmouth All American is now playing at Cambridge. And like Derek Asbun and Will Johnson before him, Brakeley will likely go from American college student to Varsity Match alum to Eagle. The National Team is thin at second row, and Brakeley already has the body of an international lock. He also possesses valuable leadership qualities. Look for Brakeley to be an Eagle sooner rather than later.

JP Eloff
If he weren’t in school and already had three years of residency under his belt, the South African-raised brother of former Eagle Phil Eloff would most likely already be capped, either in 7s or 15s. The two-time National Champion and finals MVP could play a number of positions in 15s as an Eagle, from flyhalf to center, wing or fullback, and he has all the tools necessary to excel at any of them. He isn’t very big, but he’s solidly built and a tenacious defender. If he becomes a passport holder, he could well be an Olympian in 2016.  

Iniki Fa’amausili
The Glendale youngster and U20 player is emerging as one of the most promising young players in the country. He’s just a couple of years out of high school, and he’s already helped Glendale to a second-place finish in DI and the Junior All Americans to a Junior World Trophy. He is a back-three player with electric pace and step.

Cameron Falcon

There are some hookers who seem like extra flankers, and some that are more like mobile props who concentrate on set piece. LSU product Cameron Falcon is that second kind. He has played both hooker and prop for the Junior All Americans, for whom his lineout throwing was virtually perfect. Smart, tough, and powerful, Falcon is now working his way through the ranks at Trinity in Ireland. If he learns what he needs to learn there, he could develop into the next Eagle #2 very quickly.

Dean Gericke
South African trained and raised, Gericke has expressed the desire to become an Eagle, and he made a step in that direction when he played with USA A at the Americas Rugby Championship. He has the size and pace to play for either the 7s or 15s National Teams, which he most recently showcased at the College 7s National Championships, helping Arkansas State to a title. A center in 15s with the dimensions of an international, he’s deceptively agile and fast.

Kyle Hitt
He has been invited to the 7s National Team camp next month, and he might have gotten his chance a little bit sooner if it hadn’t been for an injury at the end of the summer. A wide-shouldered guy, the Denver Barbarian is arguably the toughest runner on the domestic 7s scene, rivaling guys like Eagle Matt Hawkins and Belmont Shore’s Eric Duechle. His ability to keep his feet in contact and offload is maybe his biggest strength. Hitt also has a bit of gas, though he’s not overwhelmingly fast, and plays with a chip on his shoulder. He could be the injection of toughness the 7s Eagles need.  

Madison Hughes
Like Eloff, this Dartmouth star has all the physical tools and skills in his repertoire. He is even smaller than Eloff, but maybe a touch quicker and faster. He was an integral player on the Junior All American team that won the JWRT, and he’ll likely get a camp invite upon graduation, if not sooner.

Seamus Kelly
He was with the Eagles this summer, traveling to Canada, Houston and Glendale, but the former Xavier and current Cal star hasn’t earned his first cap, yet. He will graduate from Cal within the next couple of years, and, chances are, he’ll earn his first 15s cap sometime within, or shortly outside of, that window. Kelly has a lot of high level rugby under his belt, and the athletic tangibles of an international-caliber center.

Hunter Leland
An All American at Texas A&M, Leland teamed up with fellow Eagle hopefuls Kyle Hitt and Taylor Howden to take the Denver Barbarians to the Club 7s Semifinals this year. He has good pace, very good change of direction and a nose for the try line. Like Hitt, he has been invited to camp at the Olympic Training Center. Unlike Hitt, Leland also has the attention of Eagle 15s coach Mike Tolkin. He's a bit small for an international center, but he has enough speed to possibly transition to the wing in 15s.

Anthony Salaber
The RUGBY Magazine High School Player of the Year should probably be on this list. The reason he is there is because of the combination of his size, skills, and stepping ability. As he blossoms in the Cal program, Salaber’s ability to run, pass, and kick, combined with his height, could set him up very nicely as a 15s center, or a 7s prop/hooker.

Glen Thommes
He starred for Salesianum in high school, this summer he played in the Junior World Trophy and on the MARFU All Star 7s team, and he most recently helped Delaware to a third-place finish at the College 7s National Championships. At about 6-2, Thommes has an impressive build that’s accompanied by really good speed for a flanker. He’s already caught the eye of some 7s Academy coaches, and he could wind up playing for the Eagles in both 7s and 15s.


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