Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Leagues, competition, and why we're our own worst enemy

You'd have to be living in a women's rugby vaccum to have missed all the upsets going on this season in the WPL.  The Surfers, freshly promoted to the WPL are tearing things up with a big road win against NY, and an even bigger home win against the Valks.  The Amazons are looking fabulous, and Berkley is back and again dominant with K-Flo at the helm.

However .... there's still talk about how hard it is to do all the traveling, how much money it costs, and speculation about how some of the top D1 clubs would match up with the struggling WPL clubs.  Teams are not going to away games at full strength, as the results last year showed and the results this year continue to show.   Out on rugbymag.com, a poster brought up the promotion/relegation policy as being problematic.  I think it's bigger than that.

The goal of the WPL was to raise the level of competition for our top rugby athletes by pulling the top teams out and creating a nationwide premier league.   The vision was that 60, 70, 80-0 blowouts would be a thing of the past, and that each and every game would be challenging and competitive. Our former WNT staff was very committed to the success of the WPL, and current and prospective WNT players were pushed to play in the WPL.  Several players relocated, changed jobs, left clubs they'd been with for a long time to get into the WPL and play at a level that would get them the best chance at making the WNT.

What happened?  For the most part (with some exceptions), the same 4 clubs continued to dominate, and we finished in the same spot at the World Cup as we did in previous World Cups - 5th.

Our current WNT staff isn't aggressively promoting the WPL,  rather, they are directing players who aspire to play for the WNT to go overseas for experience.  As a result, players are moving back to the clubs they started with, going to clubs other than the perennial big 4, or going to the better D1 clubs for job, relationship, and quality-of-life reasons.

The result?  We're seeing it.  Traditional teams are being upset due to lack of personel, and new leaders are rising.   Will this be good or bad for our top level of competition?  Only time will tell.

Me personally, I don't think the WPL OR overseas play is the answer to improving out quality of competition.  I think we need to redefine our club experience.

Currently there is not alot of internal competition at the club level.  What I mean is, there are very few clubs where, at each and every practice, our best players are competitng for positional and game time.   When CIPP rolls are less than 30, you can bet you'll see the same faces week after week on the pitch.  Clubs are defined by the division they play in, rather than the development they provide.  Beantown is WPL, Atlanta is D1, the Atomic Sisters of NM are D2.  If you've got numbers, you're putting out a B side  squad whenever you can.

IMHO, this is a flaw in thinking, and a flaw in our development model.  In order for us grow the top athletes into top rugby players, they need to compete every week - in practice AND in games.  We can't do that if we continue to spread ourself so thin.   For the US to become a rugby superpower, and for HS and College players to have somewhere to go that provides them a true development environment, we've got to get over ourselves, and loosen up our vice grip on the single-side club model.

Imagine if you would, the potential strength of the following PROGRAMS, and the ability of the following PROGRAMS to provide week in and week out competion for players, as well as clearly defined pathways not only for players, but for coaches to move up the ranks:

Berkely + Fog
Philly + Keystone
Boston + Beantown
NY + Lions
Glendale + Black Ice
Seattle + Mudhens
and perhaps the most potent alliance of all   Valks + Amazons

Obviously we couldn't do this in smaller locations, but when's the last time you heard about the NFL or MLB team in Norman OK, Allentown PA, or Fort Collins CO? What I'm talking about is having a set of TRULY PREMIER organizations, that are defined by the overall strength of the organization, rather than by the strength of a handful of individual players.

These organizations could become massive powerhouses, with WPL, D1, D2, and U19 sides, maybe even and Old Girls side.  Coaching staffs would grow by leaps and bounds, and a "Director of Rugby" could provide a coach development structure to improve the skills of subordinate coaches, and provide mentorship to all, especially entry level coaches.   Each program could have positional and or skill specific coaches shared across multiple sides.  And, in response to our biggest challenge - MONEY - we'd have more dues paying members, more resources to leverage for fundraising and sponsorship, and more appeal to sponsors.  Our top sides would be able to travel strong!

Yes, this is the Commonwealth model.  I don't think we should "do things like England", because we are different in so many ways,  but it's not just England that uses this model, it's the whole world.  Except us.  Team rivalries and individual reluctance for positional competition at the club level are what holds us back.   I myself was in that thought trap for a good amount of time,  but now my thinking has shifted.

I heard about a comment made by one of our new WNT staff to a potential WNT player, when asked where she should play if she couldn't go overseas.   "Play for a team that will force you to compete for your position every week".  I couldn't agree more.  


Anonymous said...

I have been wanting this to happen for years. There is no need for two or three clubs in an area were they are all struggling for numbers and talent. It seems part of the culture here (I'm foreign born) if you get any competition for a position you just start your own team. Which in turn helps one one. Ego's and a need for separate "club" culture is holding rugby back. It seems now to be getting even worse, now that select side (NASCs) rugby is on the way out. Bring on the super club! (not intended to be an endorsement for the super league)

Dan Bennett said...

Definitely useful information, thanks for sharing!

Dan Bennett
Progressive Cycle Coaching