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In a follow-up to the previous article on the future of club rugby, Rugby Today spoke with Erik Geib, the Club Department Manager of USA Rugby to get his perspective on the subject.
Rugby Today: What was USA Rugby's involvement in the revival of the Pacific Rugby Premiership and new format in the western competitive regions?
Erik Geib: There are several factors that go into this question.
1.) There has been instability in the divisionality of the upper echelon of men's club rugby since the collapse of the RSL, with subsequent attempts to revive that 'tier' through premierships and/or other competitions. As such, D1 has seen the entry/re-entry of several clubs that previously existed outside that competition pathway, which has caused many former D1 clubs to go to D2 to either a.) avoid the chaos, and/or b.) stay out of the competition pathway of stronger clubs.
To that end, (2.) it has become apparent that the top tier of men's rugby is probably ideally suited for four, possibly five, competitions. With that acceptance, USA Rugby has supported the revival of the PRP to the extent that it largely re-stabilizes premier-level club rugby in the Pacific region. The Club Strategic Committee (CSC) and the National Competitions Committee (NCC) did great work in putting together a structure that made its revival easier for broader integration with other competitions. Somewhat ironically, the NCC and CSC actually pushed for only 4 competitive regions during the original competition restructure five years ago but received pushback it wasn't workable. At this level, it seems to be the best fit.
The office and the regional competition chairs (Ben Parker, Geno Mazza, KJ Abel Ruch, and Alan Sharpley) also actively spoke with representatives from the region to discuss potential hurdles, and to push for single-match weekends to the extent possible as a matter of player welfare. Generally, two-match weekends are tough on players' ability to recover and perform well, and the physicality and speed of higher-level rugby make two-match weekends at that level even more difficult. USA Rugby believes everyone involved in the process did an excellent job of working to create a more efficiently aligned structure that also addresses player welfare concerns, and it's great to see the PRP revived.
RT: What do you think of the remaining D1 NorCal and SoCal dropping down to D2 as well as the Pacific NW going to D2 also?
EG: Overall, there's been what I've been calling a 'great downward shift' of divisions in men's club rugby, largely due to the realignment of D1 - which has de facto combined the previous RSL/Elite Cup tier with the top of D1 that didn't partake in those competitions. Notably, teams aren't really collapsing all that much (and more new teams keep popping up) - competitions are just moving downward when it comes to their divisional label.
If you look at what D2 is today, it's roughly the 'level' of the pyramid that large parts of D1 used to be, and it has several great teams that used to play at the D1 and/or RSL levels (the Denver Barbarians, the St. Louis Bombers, the Boston Irish Wolfhounds, etc.). Additionally, D2 has some fantastic clubs that might be D1 once that level stabilizes. Overall, there's an argument to be made that today's D1 is equivalent to the old RSL/top-of-D1 tier, D2 is equivalent to the old D1 / top of D2, and so forth (D3 to D2, and D4 to D3).
In looking at the last few years' worth of results, it's also apparent that many of the clubs that moved from D1 to D2 in the California leagues are more at home with the clubs in D2 competitions. That's not a slight on those clubs by any means, as some of them could play at the D1 level again with the right resources. As far as the Pacific Northwest goes, I actively spoke their competitive region chair and their union president about directional trends and noted that they seemingly shifted the opposite direction of what others were doing, which wasn't intentional. That, combined with the desire to get to a single-match weekend, has hopefully put more stability back into the western competitions and D1 as a whole.
People may not believe me when I say it, but D2 is actually my favorite level of rugby, as I love the broad spectrum of competitions and all the different teams and geographies. It's also a pretty good level of competition, and the one I spent most of my time at when I played club rugby.
RT: With the winners of the PRP and Red River advancing to the National semifinals, do you think it's a better solution than having teams play back-to-backs like the East is doing?
EG: Single-match weekends are always preferable over two-match weekends. In some divisions or areas, two-match weekends are almost unavoidable due to geography or quantity of teams, but when/where possible single-match is the way to go.
The eastern championships are currently in a place that still requires two-match weekends because there remains three competitions in that area at this time, and schedules have been set in a way that would make adding a single-match quarter-final weekend difficult. Right now, the only place to do so is seemingly the week before nationals begin, and that could create some significant travel hurdles for clubs involved. As such, the competitive region chairs in the east have elected at this time to not change the status quo for May 2018.
RT: Is there something the East can do to reduce travel, costs, and the back-to-backs to once the playoffs begin
EG: The competitive region chairs in the east have elected to keep the current model at this time. In future cycles, an earlier push by the office and competition coordinators to enact different scheduling could reduce some of the burdens. There are ideas as to how that could be done, but it's ultimately up to the competition chairs to enact those, which they can do with more lead time. The positive news is that there are many hard-working competition managers who are taking this issue very seriously and are actively trading proposals that put players first without creating an administrative burden for clubs.
RT: Have there been venues and dates announced for the East and West Regional sites?
EG: The dates for the eastern and western championships are May 19-20 (for all divisions). The venues have not been announced at this time, though the deadline for the announcement is currently February 12. Sites could be announced sooner than that, but there were some setbacks in the process that have pushed back the announcement window. A strong bid the office had withdrawn, which restarted the process in one region, and the other region still hasn't had someone strongly come forward formally.
Overall, the office has a 'preferred rotation' model to try and ease travel year over year for participating regions. This year, we're focused on securing a venue in the Red River region for the western championships, which has been communicated to the competition chairs numerous times, so hopefully, teams are ready for it. The exact location has not been determined, however. In doing venue selection, quality of the venue, ability to access (travel), affordability, and local support (volunteers, referees, etc.) are the primary concerns. USA Rugby doesn't always find something that meets all of those criteria well, but we're hopeful of solutions and have some options.
For the eastern championships, there are potential venues in the Midwest and South that have expressed interest. Our target area for this year was either the Midwest or Atlantic North, but no Atlantic North bids have come through. Generally, the Mid-Atlantic tends to be the easiest area for most clubs to access quickly, but that's not the only factor and the Mid-Atlantic has had the eastern championships several times. There's one great bid on the table in the east, but there's also concern that it might be difficult for teams to access since it's a little further than they're generally used to, and we'd be announcing it mid-year. Teams need time to fundraise if they're expecting to fly, and more teams would likely have to fly if we go to the venue in question. That being said, the venue in question is excellent, and USA Rugby would almost certainly go there in 2019 if it decides 2018 is too difficult. Ultimately, at least 1/4th-1/3rd of teams are always flying, so it's a balancing act - which is why we have tried to enact a rotational plan.
RT: Where and when will the National Championships take place?
EG: The national championships will be June 2-3 in Glendale, as they have been for all but one year in the past decade. Infinity Park at Glendale is a wonderful facility, and the City of Glendale is an excellent host, so USA Rugby always enjoys working with them.
RT: Rugby Today posted a story on the DI Club Rugby in Flux last week. You addressed many of the issues, but do you have any response to the comments made by the conferences/clubs?
EG: The responses by the conferences/clubs make sense for their individual situations. There are probably some things I see a different way, but I'm not in their shoes. There are also some things I'd rather not comment on at this time.
Overall, I think everyone has the best interest of rugby at heart, and that a recalibration/realignment of divisional structures was always likely to cause a few issues that aren't easy for everyone to forecast in advance.
RT: What is your response to Metropolis and Old Blue declining to go to Nationals?
EG: In both situations, the responses make sense for the individual clubs. Old Blue has been on the record for two seasons that they are unwilling to play a two-match weekend, and that they'd be interested in participating if that model changed. As such, everyone knew before the season even began that their decision was to opt out unless competition formats changed. For Metropolis, their Fall season was very grueling and they're losing some great players to other clubs.
RT: Who gets the fourth playoff spot in the East? Is it a repechage match between which conferences?
EG: The CSC is currently set to hear the recommendation of the NCC on this matter in January. In previous years, the best-performing region was awarded the South and/or Frontier's unused seed(s). The runner-up from the second-best-performing region then has the chance to challenge for the seed if they choose (as the Pacific North #2 did successfully last year when they beat the Red River runner-up). There's no hard rule that it has to be done that way, but that's what has happened previously.
RT: Lastly, what are your thoughts on the health of club rugby?
EG: Club rugby's health overall is great. There's been a recalibration in terms of divisional labeling for some men's clubs and competitions, but club rugby has grown in participation by nearly 50% in the last decade and had a net increase in competitive team count by over 100 from 2011-2012 to 2016-2017. The 'second-/third-side initiative' has done wonders for club and competition growth, as has an increased focus on competition management by some very hard-working and dedicated volunteers. Notably, women's club rugby is growing at all levels and has been largely immune to the divisional realignment of competitions that the men have. In the women's game, the WPL has been an exceptional model for stability at the top of women's club rugby.
I've seen some commentary that "club rugby is dying" by folks on the internet, but there just isn't a lot of data to back up those assertions. Individual clubs or regions may have their struggles, but the overall health of club rugby is good. Notably, the USA Rugby Education Department and Club Departments are also actively working on a program of club administration modules to assist those that are truly struggling (and/or better improve or accredit those that are doing well). There's also a few other projects and initiatives that will be coming out in 2018 that I think is going to be very exciting for members, including an increased communication presence as well as more advancements in competition management and other member services.