By Richard Anderson
The thoughts of spring rugby are in the minds of coaches, players, and fans around the U.S., even if the winter weather is still felt on the rugby pitches, but the coming spring rugby season has the ten head coaches of the revamped and expanded Rugby Super League season planning for the campaign.
The revamp has added an extra couple of rounds of fixtures, bringing the regular season to eight matches. But unfortunately, in the continued absence of a major sponsor and cash flow into the game, this means that more players will have to pay more money out of their own pockets to go on the away weekends, perhaps taking unpaid leave from jobs for the longer hauls. The Super League exists on a bedrock of charity: how long can this continue?
To an extent, it has achieved what it aimed to. Many of the country's top players have a nationwide window to showcase their skills, and the nationwide aspect of it naturally raises the game's profile. But many more still choose not to play in it, the expense and time sacrifice, in the absence of any significant professionalism among those top clubs, proves overwhelming. Eventually, forced to accept that road trips will rarely, if ever, be made with the best XV available, teams slip away and return to D1 and more local, accessible rugby. The Rugby Super League had a high of 18 teams in 2007 and now only number ten.
Underneath it all, at club D1 level, the Rugby Super League flaws the system. Clubs in some areas make it through regional leagues in the fall to the national playoffs in the spring, then lose their best players to Rugby Super League teams, making for some flawed D1 championship results. That's not a good situation for the grassroots game.
The key word is accessibility. Rugby Super League is just not accessible to all, coaches cannot choose their players freely and many excellent players slip under the radar. While the smaller number of teams makes it easier for the national panel to review the emerging players on offer, the true extent of America's talent is rarely revealed.
College Premier League has adjusted this, with a high profile competition ensuring better young athletes emerge: Rugby Super League coaches have paid good heed, but the juxtaposition of the two competitions on the calendar makes cross-pollination impossible. Army coach Rich Pohlidall has already called for one competition or the other to move to the fall - even both to do so, with premier sevens tournaments dominating the spring: after all, with its Olympic profile, that's the game bringing in the coin.
But back to the Rugby Super League, back to that question of national structure. The USA faces unique challenges in terms of size and the cost of running a nationwide top-level league. Other countries facing similar challenges are South Africa and Australia, whose top-level rugby is on a provincial/provincially-based franchise basis. Would it not serve USA Rugby to examine this as a potential top-level concept?
Obviously, it's a major overhaul. But here is a suggested structure (the seasons are based on the calendar in the north-east, obviously precise times of year will vary):
- run the College Premier Division and D1 club programs in the fall over, for example, eight geographical territories, with the top two from each territory going to national club and college championships. This would be the top level of rugby in the fall from which territory coaches can draw their players.
- run club/college national championships in the early Spring, then run provincial/territorial championships after that, with the eight-team territorial championships the zenith of the season for both CPD and club players.
Benefits are huge. Firstly, players have steadily increasing levels of honors and commitment to aspire to and can plan their costs accordingly. Secondly, coaches at higher levels would have more visibility of a higher number of players. Thirdly, all top-level players get meaningful competition all year long - even if the fall level is likely to be easier, the spring will be significantly more challenging.
There used to be state championships in the USA, there used to be union select sides. Players used to find high honor in this, seeing it as a natural progression: conquer club, conquer state, conquer the country.
What we currently have is fragmented: three competitions with laudable intentions but all squabbling inadvertently with each other over space on the calendar, player loyalty, consistent challenge and money. It's not an ideal breeding ground, nor is it shut off from abuse of the system from higher levels - anybody saying the refusal of Super League to accept Glendale's application to join wasn't politically motivated from somewhere is mad, the same as the refusal to allow the disbanded Aspen players to play for other teams.
The system we suggest here isn't that either. But until the USA can offer a separate and fully professional league, it would go a long way to harmonizing what we have already.
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