Doug Coil: Reflections on the State of USA Rugby

This article was written by Doug Coil, rugby coach at the University of Delaware. Doug attended the USA Rugby National Summit over the weekend, which enabled rugby coaches and management from all over the US to connect, share experience and help to grow the game. Doug has kindly provided his insights on the summit, and the learnings available. My thanks to Doug for taking the time to put this article together and sharing his insight with us:

Doug Coil: Reflections on the State of USA Rugby

The USA Rugby National Summit, February 21-23, 2014 provided an opportunity to gain a clearer picture of the “State of USA Rugby” with some comparisons to other countries.

Rugby has the second largest number of participants in the world after soccer. The sport has experienced a tremendous amount of growth recently as it will return as an Olympic sport at the Rio 2016 Summer Games. Both the USA Men’s and Women’s National Sevens Teams, as well as other National teams, are preparing for that qualification process through training and international competitions.

The growth of USA Rugby is increasing rapidly at the youth and high school/U20 levels for both boys and girls. This translates into both Colleges and Clubs having more experienced players, as well as cross over athletes. There is attrition in this process, as at each level players leave the sport. As players retire from playing there is hope that many will return as coaches, referees and as administrators.

One of the presentations I attended at the Summit was “Player Development Model Review: A New Zealand and Canadian Perspective by Mike Chu, Rugby Canada Director of Rugby. New Zealand operates as an integrated program where players are tracked through their playing days. The All Blacks and Super Rugby rival coaches meet together a few times a year to discuss players’ development and to transfer individual performance plans. There is a New Zealand way of teaching rugby skills at all levels. This combined with the enculturation of a rugby culture, including the pressure to win, has made New Zealand into a world rugby power.

Canada and the USA cannot just adopt this model, as they are faced with other challenges. As rugby players progress through various levels of development, they do not have as many high performance opportunities as many Tier 1 nations. Their length of seasons often do not provide enough high level competitive matches. When compared with National level players from other Tier 1 countries, players have half as many caps, and have less professional playing opportunities.

Currently a North American professional league does not exist. This being said, more players are signing contracts in professional leagues in other countries, however, the number of players experiencing this level of play differs significantly with other countries. A rugby culture also needs to be developed focusing on the goal of being a World power, rather than on focusing on Provincial Success. Extensive travel demands and the limited funding available still remain as issues.

USA Rugby also has similarities in comparison to Canada. An increase in both the quality and amount of high level completion is essential. The USA might need to return to having Territorial Select Side Competition similar to the Canadian Rugby Championship. Travel and funding continue to be issues.

The size of both Canada and USA also presents a logistical nightmare of travel, funding, and adequate competition. High performance facilities for both countries now exist at West Coast locations, where the climate provides year round training support. While both countries have Olympic Training facilities at higher altitudes, these facilities could offer future player training benefits periodically if additional funding existed. That is not practical at this time financially.

In addressing both the Club and College levels, this has been the basis of my playing and coaching experience. At the College level, a number of Conferences mirror NCAA distributions. This does not always take into account differing levels of completion between Colleges, as well as the geographic locations of its members. At other Colleges, the issues of the distance between clubs and level of competition dictate Conference alignments.

There is a mixture of funding levels at various Colleges, as many clubs operate as a club sport with limited funding, while a few Colleges have Varsity status and benefit from having increased funding and paid coaches. More of the Varsity programs currently exist at smaller Colleges and it is projected that the most growth in Varsity status will be in Women’s rugby in the near future.  So a disparity exists between a small number of Colleges having greater financial support and the majority of Colleges needing to rely of their own fund raising with some institutional financial support.

USA Rugby is currently reexamining College Division 1 realignment based on having the greatest success in competition.

At the club level, both the playing opportunities and social environment act as a bond for members. Several trends exist. The numbers of sides per club has decreased over the years. Rugby dictates that up to 23 players may participate per match. Both have impacted playing opportunities as clubs having more members are in leagues with clubs having difficulty fielding more than one or two sides. Some clubs find themselves having different sides in different leagues just to be able to find enough competition. Travel and financial concerns often impact what division in which clubs participate. Opportunities currently exist at D1-4 levels. Limited elite completion exists. Currently this is in the West Coast with the Pacific Rugby Premier League and with Seattle-OPSB in a British Columbia League. In the East, an Elite League is on hiatus this Spring, although many of its previous members do still play against each other. Stay tuned for a resurgence next Spring. It would be also worth exploring some May matches with Ontario clubs.

Internationally there is also a change the way the game is played. There is a trend for some countries to move away from reliance on attacking from set pieces, .i.e., scrums and line outs, to attempting to score from general play. This requires recognition of the defense as being bunched or spread and reacting to get the ball carrier to attack space. Teams like France have developed this philosophy for years. Teams like South Africa have adopted this approach and may lead to success for others in the future. The USA might benefit from more of this approach.

This was emphasized by Lachlan Ferguson’s Presentation at the Summit. From Australia, he is currently the Head Coach at St. Edward’s University in Texas. He describes “Rugby is an end zone invasion game” that uses the following four key principles of team play: go forward, support, continuity, and pressure. He feels that about 90 percent of practice should be a high pace emphasizing the development of general play through coaching.

Finally, when examining an “American Rugby Model” or better described as a USA one, David McCann, traces an developmental rugby model with five levels: Play, Develop, Compete, Excel, and Lead. Play, from ages 4-12, is associated with learning to have fun playing rugby, where games are utilized. The Develop Stage includes both Middle and High School / U20. State and local competitions are emphasized through the HS All American Level. The Compete stage deals Collegiate rugby, while the Excel stage deals with Senior Rugby through Nationals. Finally, the Lead stage is a way to give back to rugby. Rugby has made such a difference in people’s lives that rugby growth is fostered through coaching, being a referee, or an administrator.

The challenges of improving the level of rugby are impacted in the USA by geography, funding and by finding ways of increasing quality competition. Athletes are improving their fitness and nutritional levels. Increasingly at elite levels the players are larger and faster. I think that this bodes well for the USA in the future with challenges in the present.

There also needs to be the recognition that participation in rugby promotes core values. Will Greenwood discusses the following values learned through childhood, adolescence and young adulthood through rugby: “teamwork, respect, enjoyment, discipline, and sportsmanship.” These are important values for life.

Consider some of my reflections on rugby along the brief synopsis from presentations that I attended when examining the State of Rugby in the USA. I hope that it may serve as a dialogue with others for improving the game that we love.

Doug is regularly active on Twitter discussing rugby results from all levels of the game in the USA, please follow Doug Coil’s twitter feed here and also follow USA Rugby here to keep abreast of all national rugby developments.

Again my thanks to Doug for sharing this article.

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Main Photo Credit: USA Rugby