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I support any team that wants to play at a high level. I support teams that enter tough leagues and keep coming back even when they are 0-7 every year. Sometimes, those teams start to get better, and we’ve seen a few get really, really good. Sometimes they don’t improve, but you won’t hear me mock them for trying.
Actually, I hope I don’t mock anyone, but I will take issue with teams that think they are elite simply because they decided to join an elite conference or division. It doesn't work that way. Strut around all you want that your college team is in DI-A now, it doesn’t make you DI-A caliber. I am glad you’re trying, but you are in for a shock.
And the shock is this: There are only a couple of handfuls of really good
college teams, and only a couple of handfuls of really good club teams in
America. We can moosh everything together all we want; regardless, we will
soon come to the realization that some programs are just better than
And then we’ll come to the bigger issue – take the best player from all of those “good” teams. How good are they now? Some would collapse.
I say this understanding that I am not the be-all expert on all things rugby football. But I do have a level of expertise. I have been watching American college and club rugby and reporting on it for about 15 years. I have seen how good teams play, and how bad teams play. I have seen scores of players considered effective on the field who have not succeeded at the territorial or international level. I have lost count of the number of teams that have sent me indignant notes on how I have underestimated them, only to see them come crashing down the earth soon thereafter.
I have seen one player carry a team to respectability, and fool the rest into thinking they have it all solved.
In the United States right now, 37 college teams are in DI-A. We know that this is too many. The premier division in the country should not be that big. As it is, probably only 12 are really strong enough to be in the best college division.
There are also0 117 teams in D1-AA. That also seems like a lot to me. Of them, I’d adjudge 13 to be strong enough to be in the best division in college rugby. Interestingly, six of those 13 are in one conference, making that, along with two small D1-A divisions that meet that standard, the de-facto best conferences in the country.
In men’s club rugby, there are about 68 DI teams (including NYAC, which has no competition except the Elite Cup, and Seattle, which hasn’t played in a US league in years).
What that means is, the top club competition in the country has 66 teams!
What sport in what nation has a competition like that? And many of these
clubs are going to find out, very soon, that there is a huge dichotomy
between the very best, and the lower third. There should be. We’re not a
good enough rugby nation to sustain 66 or 68 teams – roughly 2,000 rugby
players playing at the highest level.
For years I tried to encourage the American club system to make it possible for players to register with a DI or DII or DIII club, and also with a Super League team – in essence making the lower division clubs minor league affiliates of a Super League team.
Few clubs liked this idea because the term minor league seemed insulting … calling them “minor.” Understandable, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a truth to it. We have clubs that funnel plays to the elite levels, and clubs that do that only occasionally.
I probably should have advocated some national cup, like the FA Cup in
English soccer, or the LV= Cup in British rugby ... where any team of any
division could enter and ride a great year to glory. That might have been
fun. But I didn’t, and no one would have done anything about it,
But what we have now is still mired in the past where everyone was amateur, no colleges were varsity, and everyone felt they started on equal footing.
What we have now is a group of 220 college and club teams saying they are in the best competition possible, when we know that’s not true, and when we know that probably only 50 are really strong enough to be at the elite level of our game.
Can we parlay the Varsity Cup and the Elite Cup into a way to nurture the
kids at the head of the class? I hope so. I also think that some teams –
perhaps even entire conferences – will realize that they’re not there yet.
I hope they keep working to get there, but we’re going to see a lot of
And before the shifting, get ready for a lot of scary scorelines. Keep shooting for the highest levels – it’s admirable. But we don’t have 220 elite-level clubs and colleges; while we figure that out, I hope the programs that are elite don’t get dragged down.