(The original version of this article inorrectly said Cal was not competing in USA Rugby's 7s championship becuase its athletic director wouldn't green light the team competing during two finals periods. Cal head coach Jack Clark says the Bears are going to play in a qualifier, California 7s, and have not made a decision on whether or not they'll compete at nationals Dec. 16-17, should they qualify.)
If you read me or listen to our Ruggamatrix America podcasts with any regularity, it won’t come as a surprise when I tell you I have a deep affinity for college rugby. It’s my favorite sector of American rugby to watch, cover or pay attention to. I’ve always preferred college athletics to professional sports, but it goes further than that. Here are my thoughts on a few different goings on in the college game.
Disclaimer, if you want to skip my thoughts on varsity rugby, scroll past the first three subheads.
Why the varsity rugby movement is the most important in the United States
Hear me out youth and high school coaches, players and administrators. I think varsity college rugby is the key to making this country fall in love with the sport, and equally important, it’s the key to driving up youth numbers. Why? The almighty scholarship.
My mother spent tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars on soccer for me and my brother. Surely my parent’s decision to put us into competitive soccer at the age of five was made to give us a pastime and a way to run off some excess energy, but for my brother (I ate my way into football and wrestling before high school), it snowballed into a quest for a scholarship.
13 years of monthly club dues, out-of-town tournaments, the newest in cleat technology, overseas tours and numerous other soccer-related expenses became an investment in a college education, one which was cashed in at a private university. Surely, the money spent sharpening my brother’s soccer skills wasn’t matched in scholarship money received, but the illusion that it will be is the bill of goods parents are sold.
Soccer’s just one example. Basketball, baseball and volleyball work the same way.
Each Cal, Life, Davenport or Lindenwood that makes rugby varsity pushes our sport one step closer to being played in high schools and in higher numbers at younger ages.
Why varsity rugby will balloon
It’s cheap, and in some cases, lucrative. Cal nearly lost its varsity status this spring. At the epicenter of the Save Cal Varsity Rugby campaign were statistics that showed the rugby program was self-sustainable and not a cash leak for the athletic department.
In other cases, like Davenport and Lindenwood, rugby is a money maker for the university. Partial scholarships, some kit and a salaried coach are a steal in exchange for tuition, room and board, not to mention the “sports are the front porch to the university” marketing value.
There are rumors of more athletic directors looking rugby’s way, while football is being taken off campuses across the country. Gridiron coaching staffs are too large, their equipment too expensive and their rosters too long. Already numerous club teams are reaping the benefits of vacated football programs – varsity weight rooms and training grounds. The next logical step is making the sport varsity.
Athletic directors also have egos and are judged, to some degree, on wins and losses. Not only do they want to leave a legacy at each school they’re employed by, they want hardware. Come the end of May, it’s likely varsity programs will sweep the DI (Cal), DI-AA (Davenport) and DII (Lindenwood) national championships.
In the current climate, you can pretty much guarantee an athletic director that if he starts a varsity rugby program, he’ll be repaid by a final four appearance, at the very least, in the program’s first year.
Cal will lose to Davenport, Life or Lindenwood, and eventually probably all three. It won’t happen this season, but it’s only a matter of time.
Using the always-accurate (sarcastic) method of comparing scores amongst common opponents, one could loosely justify saying that if Davenport were playing in DI-A’s Rugby East this spring, the Panthers would be the favorite to win. They beat Ohio State 75-0 Saturday. Last spring, Ohio State’s worst loss was by 44 to Kutztown.
USA Rugby has hastily put together a 7s national championship. This can only be seen as a good thing, as it has already resulted in more schools playing 7s. However, vital information on the competition has been and remains to be hard to come by.
Don’t blame the collegiate competitions committee. They suggested the competition start with the 2012/2013 competitive cycle, but were forcibly tasked with creating a championship this year.
What’s the rush? There seem to be three common theories: (1) USA Rugby wants a slice of the perceived pie baked by USA Sevens called the Collegiate Rugby Championship, (2) the United States Olympic Committee has strongly urged USAR to create the competition and (3) USA Rugby wants to directly compete with USA Sevens.
What’s true? Who knows, but only one – the one involving the USOC – would seem justifiable.
It’s worth pointing out to all CRC haters it’s likely Cal and Dartmouth will abstain from participating in nationals and extremely possible Army and BYU do the same.
What’s been a major gripe amongst CRC bashers? That it shouldn’t call itself a championship because some of the country’s best teams aren’t competing. If all four College Premier Division and CRC finalists don’t play in USA Rugby’s championship, can’t the same criticism be levied?
It’s also worth pointing out the CRC qualification tournament in Las Vegas is non-discriminate. CPD, DI, DII and even a two-year school competed last year. There are some open qualifying tournaments for the USA Rugby championship, but many are closed to those who aren’t members of a traditional NCAA or DI rugby conference.
The seasonality battle
There are two undeniable facts: (1) Fall is the best time to play rugby in the Midwest and East, and winter/spring is the best time in most of the Pacific time zone. (2) This issue needs to be resolved.
Why is Dartmouth not playing in USA Rugby’s 7s championship? Because their athletic director won’t green light student athletes competing during finals in two semesters, especially in a non-revenue sport.
Seasons need to be defined. No college sport has a competitive season that spans an entire academic year. If we want college rugby to be a tidy, enticing package for athletic departments, the average college sports fan and broadcasters, we need to pick a season. However, that’s not likely to happen until a broadcasting partner picks the time of the year for USA Rugby.
Why is the CRC when and where it is? Because that’s when and where NBC wants it; on the East Coast at that time of year. If ESPN or some other entity chooses to actually pay for the right to broadcast college rugby, instead of USA Rugby paying them to put it on, chances are they’ll tell USA Rugby exactly when they want it aired. That’s when our college season will be defined. Until then, the cold war over seasonality between the east and west coasts will continue.
Been fundamentally a cheerleader for this transition from the beginning, and it's working swimmingly so far, so here's a shout out to the people behind the change, those who had to buck the system into making a necessary upgrade.
On the competition front, it's given teams something to win other than a national championship. If we're being honest, Maryland is likely never going to win a national title in rugby. But they have already won an Atlantic Coast championship, and that means something to the student athletes who commit their time to a sport they love, and it means something to their parents, peers, girlfriends and professors; a heckuva lot more than winning the Palmetto union.
College rugby has never been more visible. Instead of Local Area Union websites being updated days, if not weeks, after a match, conference websites have up-to-the minute scores and news making the game more accessible to everyone. It can be a difficult task for LAU officials to publish instant standings and scores on several different leagues and competitions, and the parceling out of such responsibility was a major factor in the realignment. It's working.
Thanks to all the webmasters, coaches and players out there who are using their websites and Facebook and Twitter pages to communicate to the modern world.
You can follow Pat Clifton on Twitter at @Pat_Clifton