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After an exciting fall season of DI Club Rugby, the waves of change are cresting in the New Year. The number of clubs in DI has been declining in the past few years and now stands at 30 teams, down from 43 last season. Also the traditional format in the National Playoffs is being challenged for the sake of player safety and more changes may need to be enacted with the arrival of Major League Rugby.
The major reason for the drop of teams in DI this year is the revival of the Pacific Rugby Premiership. 19 teams in the Pacific North and South were dwindled down to the six now in the PRP.
With the PRP back, the West moved to bypass the national quarterfinals and go directly to the semifinal with the Red River. Meanwhile, the East will continue the back-to-back national playoff weekend, which has cost the competition two prominent clubs in the Atlantic North’s Old Blue and the Midwest’s Metropolis.
There is growing sentiment suggesting the structure of DI club rugby needs to be re-evaluated and the old format of games on consecutive days during the playoffs needs to be scrapped, and steps to that end are being considered. The gears of change are already moving with the developments in the West, and there are talks in the East. Additionally, Major League Rugby will have an impact on the talent pool of DI, and USA Rugby will have a lot to consider at the end of the season.
Pacific Rugby Premiership
With the 2016-2017 season concluded, the presidents of the two geographic unions, Geno Mazza and Ben Parker, met to talk about the future of club rugby in the West. Considering the success of the Cal Cup this spring and evaluating the competitiveness of rugby in the conferences, the decision was made to combine.
Using new ideas that worked in the Cal Cup, Mazza and Parker cooperated with USA Rugby to gain approval for the new format.
The top three teams from each conference, San Francisco Golden Gate, Life West and Olympic Club from the North, and Belmont Shore, Santa Monica, and OMBAC from the South were chosen for the PRP. The remaining thirteen teams from last season were relegated to Division II, which included three teams from NorCal, four teams from SoCal, and all six clubs in the Pacific Northwest. No other changes were made to the lower divisions.
“[It] created a ripple effect that teams were being pushed down, for the lack of a better word, into DII and some teams staying back in DIII where they might have seen a promotion upwards,” said Mazza. “This is only making these divisions stronger.”
With the high quality of play in California, the Pacific Coast has been a hotbed for talent identification, and the top-tier athletes will get their shot at professional rugby with Major League Rugby kicking off in April. The start of the MLR season begins April 21, the week before the last Saturday of the PRP regular season.
“The PRP is a well-organized league that strives to be one of the top amateur leagues in the U.S.,” added Mazza. “Hopefully, players would get a look and be able to play up and onto an MLR squad. I am not sure about the impact, as I haven’t seen any interaction between the MLR and PRP.
“[MLR] is currently picking up right where PRO Rugby left off by not working with the clubs, that I know of,” Mazza added. “It would be great to establish a working relationship where we helped identify players for them, and players were being sent to the PRP for more game time prior to the start of their season. That said, I am sure eligibility restrictions would factor in, as you have PRO players playing in an amateur competition. If this formula could work, I could imagine the teams forgoing a National Championship as has in the past with being satisfied with a 14-game season and a final.”
Parker summed up the Pacific reshuffle saying, “Competitive matches each week, at moderate travel costs with all fixtures planned well in advance for a 10-game season and a pathway to the USA Rugby DI semifinal. The clubs have agreed to all chip in a contribution to the winner’s travel cost to the semifinal in Texas. Looks like a winning formula and a great example of like-minded rugby folks finding solutions to develop and improve the game in our region.”
The other side of the coin in the West is the Red River. With a most of the players from the Austin Huns moving onto the MLR, the defending DI national champions will most likely not repeat. The Red River Conference looks a little different from last season, as the Glendale Merlins and Little Rock Stormers join the fray with the Austin Blacks, Dallas Harlequins, Dallas Reds, and Huns composing the rest of the division.
“Not having to play two matches on a weekend is positive for player welfare, and not having to take an extra road trip is easier on the clubs’ bank accounts. However, eliminating the cross-CR round of eight matches cuts down on the diversity of competition that playoff-caliber teams get to see during the season," said Red River commissioner David Dodge.
“In the last few seasons, the Red River had been granted at least a shot at having two teams in the round of eight. Our teams’ records against clubs from the other Western CRs has been pretty good. A Red River team has made it to the USA Rugby DI championship the last four seasons, with the Austin Huns winning the championship last season. More spots in the playoff rounds mean a greater opportunity to advance, so I’m actually a fan of the prior format.”
With three MLR teams located within the boundaries of the Red River, the conference has already felt an impact. The Huns have been hit the hardest with at least 11 players signed to the Austin Elite, and more are expected to follow.
“I believe both DI and MLR can co-exist, and even benefit from each other, if collaboration is approached in a win-win fashion,” said Dodge. “It will be interesting to see if MLR and club rugby (at all levels) can find a mutually beneficial way to work together. It would seem to be in MLR’s best interest to do so, both from a fan-base and player development perspective, rather than being viewed as a threat to the clubs or as undermining the DI competition.”
The Midwest completed its season in the fall with a marathon 14-week schedule. Metropolis almost pulled off a perfect season, but lost to Columbus in the final match. However, citing player welfare, Metropolis has decided to forgo a national championship run in the spring. The second-place Chicago Lions would take their place.
“In an effort to put our player welfare first, we have decided to reserve the winter/spring for elite play (Pro and/or All-Star Teams), strength and conditioning, and giving back to our community by getting involved in the high school game (coaches and referees),” Metropolis coach Rob Holder said.
According to Holder, by not playing in the spring, his players will benefit physically and emotionally by maintaining their rugby/life balance, save on monetary costs, and to give back to the rugby community. Additionally, Holder wants his players to take advantage of competing at the next level in the MLR.
“Back-to-back games were also a factor for player welfare,” said Holder. “Rugby is dangerous enough when played once a week, and we owe it to our players to keep them out of back-to-back game situations for their own safety.”
Additionally, Metropolis is expected to take a significant hit to their roster, as many players are following former head coach Nate Osborne to the MLR’s NOLA Gold.
“We lost a fantastic coach in Nate Osborne,” Holder said. “I have noticed announcements on Derek Van Klein, Peceli Rinakama, and Joeli Tikoisuva going to NOLA, but we are expecting a number of other announcements regarding other players and coaches soon. I expect we will have between eight and ten players and staff make the step up, something we are extremely proud and supportive of.”
With Metropolis exiting the playoff picture, the Chicago Lions are ready to fill the void if called upon. They have already scheduled games in the spring against the Houston Sabercats, Charlotte and Old Blue to prepare for any postseason action.
When asked about the impact of MLR on the Lions, head coach Dave Clancy said, “the MLR is an exciting prospect and is a great opportunity for players to play at a higher level. Thus far, we have seen JP Eloff go to NOLA, and we are very excited for him as we are for any player who has an opportunity to play at a higher level.”
The fall season in the Mid-Atlantic ended with the usual suspects at the top of the leaderboard. Two-time conference champion Rocky Gorge is undefeated with the Pittsburgh Harlequins, Norfolk Blues and Schuylkill River Exiles trailing them in the standings.
With the conference on winter break until March 17th, the MAC clubs will play their final games before the playoffs in late spring. The MAC playoffs are currently scheduled to begin April 28 with the semifinals, and the MAC championships May 5, with the location yet to be determined.
With the West taking the initiative to eliminate the back-to-backs, discussions have taken place in the East. MAC chairperson and newly appointed chair of the National Competitions Committee, Margy Dessypris Thomas, has been an active participant in those discussions regarding the future of postseason club rugby.
“The competitive region chairs of the Midwest, Atlantic North, and myself have had on and off discussion about the DI CR playoff structure,” Thomas said.
“Not having a resolution has been frustrating. We've discussed several ideas and formats as things have continually changed since August. I am cautiously optimistic that we can have an answer to everyone soon. We would like to adopt a single-match weekend format, but I'm not certain that is possible for the 2018 playoffs based on where we are right now.”
One potential future for the East could mirror what is happening with the PRP. The top teams of the Mid-Atlantic would merge with the Atlantic North, and the victor would play the Midwest champ for the chance to compete for the national championship. Travel costs would be a driving factor against the idea, but if MLR teams come to the East Coast, many things in the East would change.
“If there is a merger, I hope that it combines Atlantic North, Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest in a way that makes sense,” said Thomas. “However, there has to be a stated plan of how we decide which teams play where. I know it will have a ripple effect through the impacted CRs in several different ways.”
The fall season of the American Rugby Premiership consisted of three teams from the Atlantic North coupled with the Glendale Merlins and the Life Running Eagles. Although neither Old Blue nor NYAC could notch a victory against Glendale or Life, both swept Mystic River and split the series against each other.
NYAC and Old Blue have full schedules in the spring, but each club has decided a different path when it comes to the DI postseason.
“NYAC will be competing for a DI National Title in the spring,” said Chris Edwards. “We're still working through what our schedule looks like, but will be playing Mystic and Old Blue, among others, to meet our required fixtures for qualification.”
“As in 2016-2017, Old Blue does not intend to participate in the DI national championship this year. We think that two-game playoff weekends are antithetical to player welfare and high-level rugby,” said Old Blue’s Brian Murphy.
“We understand the cost concerns, but player welfare has to come first. We also strongly believe that players who have been invited to USA Eagle camps or been capped as USA Eagles should not be classified as non-residents. The logic there completely escapes me.”
Not pursuing the postseason won’t stop Old Blue from playing a full slate in the spring. Old Blue has seven games currently scheduled against Chicago Lions, Rocky Gorge, Baltimore-Chesapeake, NYAC, Mystic River and a home and away versus the Ontario Blues.
“Top-level rugby clubs need to chart their own course. The Super League, while it clearly had its faults, remains the most successful club competition in US rugby history. It was successful because it didn’t answer to USA Rugby or to the local unions. If the top clubs can align with and feed into a domestic professional league, each will make the other stronger,” added Murphy.
“I would like to see the top clubs play in high-performance competitions, whether or not you call it DI,” Murphy added. “If the top six clubs in the East and/or Midwest could have a solid 10-game fall season, that would be a championship worth winning.”