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Some years ago I wrote an article advocating bringing the Super League teams back into the DI fold and using the better Super League teams as a way to improve the club game, and perhaps reduce travel expenses for all involved.
The reason I advocated this was in part because I saw far too many DI leagues with three or four teams, and massive travel requirements. It was a joke, and I didn’t think it was funny. I looked at Southern California and, to a lesser extent, the Mid-Atlantic and wondered whether that could be replicated elsewhere.
Well we have all that now. All Super League teams save one (NYAC) are playing in DI. We are going to adopt a schedule in 2013-2014 that requires teams to play at least 12 league games in a season. But we won’t have solved some of the nasty, insidious things that make playing rugby in this country so difficult – the travel costs, the two-game weekends, and the massive disparity in standard of play.
All of that kind of stinks. It has become apparent to me that something that was apparent 15 years ago is still true now – some clubs are so much better than others that it’s demoralizing to play them.
In addition, clubs are still built around financial sandcastles that sometimes harden under the sun and have staying power, and other times are hit by a big wave and disappear. Either way, we don’t have a financial model that supports a true league (forget about paying players, how about making sure clubs don’t go into hock if they keep winning). We just rely on rich people to underwrite the game.
Well those rich people can keep pumping money into the game if they want, that’s their prerogative, but it’s not a business model. And right now we have neither a good business model for the club game nor a model that challenges really good players who want to become pros overseas or national team players.
At the moment we have perhaps 20 good teams in DI club rugby. That’s when I use a really broad definition of “good.” I suppose you could argue for eight or ten other clubs, or you could shake your head at my list and say there are really only four or five. But any way to slice it up, the truth is that our talent and our efforts are spread too thin. The players who want to play against the best all know they don’t do it every week, or even every month (SoCal excepted, somewhat). There is no challenge in the current state of affairs, and ultimately that means players who want to play for the Eagles will be unprepared.
So what do we do about it? Part of me thinks that the national Director of Rugby (Nigel Melville) and National 15s Coach (Mike Tolkin) should just take the matter into their own hands. They should worry about getting a franchise into Super Rugby and the Heineken Cup; they should work on a true cross-border competition with the Canadian teams (the Canadians would love that); or maybe they should work on a real all-star competition (shoot, even a fake one as we’ve had neither since 2007).
But would that serve the game if they did that; if they turned their backs on club rugby and invented something for National purposes? I think it wouldn’t. I think that leaving Life University or SFGG or (to a slightly lesser extent) NYAC where they are competitively is not fair to them. And, for that matter, making other clubs play those types of teams and lose by 50, 60, 70 or more doesn’t help the opponents, either.
So what do we do? More to the point, what should Nigel Melville do, not so much to manage the grassroots rugby competitions, but the best of the best (that is, after all, his job, right?), is concentrate on those lofty ideas – pro franchises, and perhaps working with Brett Gosper on a plan for a North American pro league. Yes I know plans and talks have been in place to make that happen, but we haven’t seen it yet, have we?
Meanwhile Tolkin should bang the National All-Star Championship drum. Let’s
get that done this year; four teams, eight teams, I don’t care, just let’s
work up an assembly of the best 100 or so rugby players in this country and
get them playing against each other.
And finally, let’s have USA Rugby’s Competitions Committee admit something – some clubs are better than some others. And let’s work on a plan to allow the best organizations to grow and develop and play each other, without telling them who can be on their team, and where they should play. Perhaps, organically, a new Super League could emerge. Even if it’s just the growth and development of the Elite Cup, let’s at least get someone on board as their commercial director to have the league bring in some money.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I’ve laid out a few. The key is, I want to see a true elite competition that allows our best players to play challenging games. Having reported on this sport for many years now, I know that’s what elite-level players want. And when we ask them to play for our country, I think we owe them better preparation than the current club system.