Restructuring domestic competition is all we’re hearing about these days, but no system will accommodate the best interests of every club. The USA is too big, comparable clubs too spread out, and the sport just not prevalent enough. Those variances are most felt in the women’s sphere, for example: Denver Black Ice is the only DI club in ACR3; the Mid-America DI conference is populated with DII-level colleges; and the former CR1, which was composed of seven teams from Arizona to Washington last year, has whittled down to three Pacific Northwest teams this year.
ORSU, the best DI women’s club (DI champ Atlanta moved up to the Women’s Premier League, in part because of the restructure), is entrenched in the latter situation. The Oregon club is joined by Seattle and Emerald City in the watered-down ACR1, and they are expected to play each other twice, over the course of the fall and spring, and then be playoff-ready. Not ideal. Seattle and Emerald City have not only supplemented their seasons with games abroad, but they’ve joined the Canadian DI league and will be eligible for its championship should they qualify.
Sounds counterintuitive to building American rugby, right? Eagle and Rugby World Cup-capped Beckett Royce, player-coach for ORSU, agrees. Below, she talks about how ORSU’s “league” season will affect the game at the highest levels.
What was your/the team's reaction to the restructure, and did you/the team propose alternatives to the three-team region?
We were really unhappy with the restructuring. I cannot understand why we have a four-match season spread over eight months. Unfortunately, I was tied up with other projects this summer and did not become involved in the dialogue that led to this debacle.
The point of a rugby season is to be peaking by Nationals, so that you have all the fittest players in the finest form playing their best rugby. Sadly, this schedule works in direct opposition to that ideal. The "League Season" that was handed to us has our two fall "League" matches spaced one full month apart. The only other teams even vaguely near us are Division 2 or WPL's Berkeley, both of which have full fall seasons, leaving ORSU with ostensibly no one to play [in between league matches] but college teams or to make the six-hour drive to Canada to play another club (which we have in fact done in order to actually play a rugby match). Our last "League" match of the fall (the second of only two, I would remind you) is at the beginning of October. Our next "League" match isn't scheduled until March. It's ludicrous to have a four-month break in the middle of a competitive season. How is that even the same season?
We have had an incredibly difficult time finding competitive matches to play. As it is, we will have to travel more this fall than we have since our days in the WPL, having only one home game with forays into Canada and the Midwest to find teams both suitable and available.
I suppose to some extent it is my own fault for not paying closer attention to the changes that were being proposed and offering a better alternative. It is not a mistake I will make again. As it is, there is little we can do other than piece together some kind of season for the players to enjoy. Unfortunately, it is long and sprawling with few competitive games and wide gaps in between.
Would ORSU consider joining the Canadian league?
If we were closer to the border, we absolutely would, but it's not realistic for players to drive six hours one way for a game every weekend. We shouldn't have to travel to another country to find competitive matches. Isn't the task of USA Rugby to improve rugby in this country, not force its own teams across the border?
How exactly are the berths to nationals going to work?
I think the way it's set up is that the #1 seed will advance. It would be nice if USA Rugby would update their website and actually list all of the teams in the competitive regions (and the Competitive Regions for that matter) for DI Women. I have no information on the playoff structure or what region gets how many seeds.
What are the bigger issues at hand regarding the restructure?
Our highest level of domestic play (NASC) has been dissolved, and Division II teams are being told to move up to Division 1 to fill space, even as Division 1 clubs are dropping out. I cannot see that this restructuring is doing anything to improve the quality of the game ... at least for the women. It has, in fact, created more problems. As previously stated, it is difficult to find matches against challenging opponents; it is difficult to build fitness and team cohesiveness with such a yawning gap in the middle of the season; and, with school and work schedules, you may have a totally different team in the spring from what you had in the fall.
Also, there is no stepping stone to the National Team, no LAU or Territorial competitions where good players can get a taste of higher level rugby to help build their skills and strengthen their motivation. Without some kind of tiered system leading up to and feeding the National Team, we will be stuck in the endless loop of great athletes yet inexperienced rugby players wearing the Eagle uniform and always coming up short.
Playing Division II teams is no way to improve your rugby skills. Doing drills at camps will not prepare you for International play. Competition, true rigorous competition, is the only way to chisel out an international rugby player from a gifted athlete. And, creating a system that challenges and rewards motivated teams and players is the only way to assess and develop the true qualities that a great rugby player needs: tenacity, decisiveness and commitment. Creating fewer opportunities for high-level competition will only create fewer players qualified to play high level rugby.
The National Team's problem historically has been lack of international experience (there was more than one US match I played in where a single player on the opposing team had more caps than our entire roster combined). Watering down and stretching out the domestic season hardly seems like a solution to raising this nation's level of play.
I am currently working on a proposal that would restructure the women's game and provide for avenues of advancement and distinction without forgetting the true foot soldiers of American rugby, the women who pay to play every weekend, not for glory, but for love of the game.