By Geoff Mason
For those of us who have been around rugby in the US for a while, it doesn’t seem so long ago that our memories of college rugby were generally mismatched jerseys, hangovers and a brief aggressive throwdown before the next party. Despite all our efforts as coaches back then to smarten it up, it seemed the good time party ethos would never go away.
But, in the last few years a lot has changed. As a college coach for over 20 years, it has been eye opening for me to see the dramatic and profound change in college rugby in the last five years, both in improvement and performance on the field as well as off the field. Of course, some colleges have always been there but for most of us, not so much. That is changing. The old alumni may grizzle about the good old days of beer and boisterousness, disorganization and the delight in general mayhem being lost but thankfully there is no going back.
We now have far greater organization than we have ever had in the game. The establishment of the College Premier League, the Sevens on NBC, the USA 7’S and the growth of the college conferences such as the ACC and the SEC have pushed the game towards a little more higher profile and hopefully some more mainstream awareness. Our teams are now playing for conference titles, national rankings and various national titles -goals that mean something rather than playing as in past seasons a motley collection of teams in a motley collection of jerseys. This organization is even extending to the internal workings of the college clubs-now I see team managers and students that get us uniformly clad, fed, housed and to the pitch on time. Not like the old days of grabbing players off street corners to make up the numbers and ten in a motel room at an away game!
I see the change in the college game on the field as well. The emphasis on certified college coaches that has been at least one of the best initiatives from USA Rugby has greatly raised the level of play. At my own club, we have a coaching staff of 5, all fully certified, and a strength coach to boot. We can run any number of defensive schemes and attacking options and the growth of the internet allows us to pick the brains of coaches all over the world. Our kids are more skilled, more technical, and fitter because of the trained and accredited coaching. Finally, even though I thought I would never say it – the man in the middle has gotten far better because of our referee development programs and there seems to be an upswing in the numbers wanting to blow the whistle.
There is much more interest on the campuses about playing rugby. What was once seen as a game for the lunatic fringe has now become respectable. Kids are flocking out to practices all over the country and the roster of 60-70 players with three teams is becoming the norm in numerous college programs. Some college programs actually have tryouts and cut players which was unheard of in the past. Back then, you were just thankful for who turned up. And of course the rapid growth of high school rugby has benefited us immensely. Other coaches have commented on the fact, and I have noticed myself, the huge increase in the number of email messages and calls we get from kids all over the country and overseas who are interested in our programs and want to find out about playing for our schools.
Of course, all this being said, we still have a long way to go for rugby to be meaningful in the US sporting scene. The Eagles lack of success on the international stage means there is no flagship to get the American public interested. Watching the World Cup final, I imagined, probably like many of you, what interest there might have been if it was the US playing the All Blacks. As it was, it was disheartening to watch ESPN every morning during the World Cup without any coverage or mention of any games. But maybe college rugby is our best bet to get us the interest we deserve –It is on the right track to be seen as legitimate and despite the many issues we still face, it sure beats what we had not so many years ago.
HAVE YOUR SAY…How much has the college game changed since you were playing? Do you like the changes or would you like to go back? Is college rugby the best way to push the game to the next level in the U.S.? Leave your comments below on the Rugby Rugby facebook comments section.
A native of Australia, Geoff Mason played both rugby league, professionally in Sydney, and rugby union for 35 years. He emigrated to the US in 1980 and was a Player/Coach at University of South Carolina from 1983-1985 and returned to his alma mater to serve as USC’s head coach from 2004 through 2011 compiling a record of 166 wins, 94 losses and 8 ties.
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