My dearest rugby comrades, it is with my sincerest apologies that I have dropped my rugby rant torch. I know that excuses for rugby players are a futile exercise, but we try to use them anyway.
Last year, at this time, about every other week, I was extolling the virtues of the importance of youth rugby. I've not given up this battle cry, though I will say that this year has been a frustrating one. I'm in my fourth year of coaching an U19 High School side. Instead of the program getting stronger with each passing year, we seem to have floundered with amazing consistency. I have talked with several of the local coaches here in Texas, where we have about ten U19 teams, and the majority of the teams are experiencing the same problems. I'll list some of them, but remember, I'm not trying to whine or place blame. But rather, I am trying to troubleshoot my own program, and hopefully offer solutions that will help others as well.
1. Running any rugby program takes a tremendous amount of time and effort. One man can't do it alone. As a matter of fact, when you're at the U19 level or below, two people can't really do it. I've seen very few successful High School teams being run by one person. I'm sure that they're out there, but they're rare. Often, the local men's team sponsors the High School team. Out of that men's club it is important to find at least two coaches that will be there every single practice and two to four other coaches that can make it once a week. I know that the time commitment is a tremendous burden, but I've managed it for the last 4 years, only missing about two practices a year.
2. School affiliation - there are positives and negatives here that run very deep. The first major stumbling block is finding someone supportive on the inside. When I started my team, I was still a full time High School teacher. It was fairly easy to step outside the door at 3:30 and start coaching. I also had full access to the school administration and I got to see hundreds of students each day, which made recruiting easy. This year has certainly been the hardest in my four years because I'm no longer a teacher at that school. Instead of the school embracing a four-year old program, run by volunteers, with no cash outlay from the school, they've begun to distance themselves.
3. Even though Rugby is not a four-letter word, the majority of Americans seem to believe that it is. What is the first thing you hear out of a person's mouth when they hear that you play rugby? "Man, you are crazy, I would never play that sport!", or a variation thereof. Just about anyone who doesn't know anything about rugby has that pre-conceived notion in his/her head. If you are reading this, you know the truth. I, myself, was injured more in four years of High School Football than in my 15 years of rugby. There are several ways to overcome this but, of course, they require that you have a lot of help. I've read articles, pamphlets, etc., and they all say pretty much the same thing. You have to sell rugby, the same way that you would sell a car, or, in my case, boots. By the way, if you need a pair, give Hooker Rugby Supply a call (shameless plug). This is one aspect that I have been lacking in. Informational parent meetings, meetings with school administrators, etc... If you're able to win the hearts and minds of your parents and, hopefully, your administrators, you've overcome a huge stumbling block.
4. Parent involvement. I do know of one local program in Dallas that is run entirely by one coach. He has no assistant coaches or other hired help. However, he does have tremendous support from the administration (his Rugby program is a varsity sport). He also has incredible parent volunteers. He has had two very successful High School Tournaments and this year will be hosting the Western High School Championships. Every time I see him at one of these events, he's flocked by anywhere from eight to fifteen parents pitching in. I guess that goes back to winning the hearts and minds.
5. The last thing I will mention (there are several more) would be player apathy. My kids love to play rugby. They just don't like to practice. They pretty much know that they won't be the best in the state, so they've resigned themselves to being adequate. In only one of the last four years have I had a group of guys who were 100% dedicated. Dedication, to me, is like a snowball going down a hill. If your dedication is good everything just gets better and better - competition for positions, performance during practice, etc. If you have players who are not fully committed to the program, every facet of your program will suffer. U19 players have about five million things going on in their lives. Between school, jobs, other sports, the chess club, etc., players are pulled in 50 different directions. How does rugby become their number one priority? (Hey, we'll settle for number two!) The aforementioned program over in Dallas has cleared one major hurdle. Rugby is now a varsity sport. When this happens, players automatically raise their level of commitment because it has been ingrained in them, since the early days of Gymboree, that they can't miss a school run team sport's practice or game. I ask my players on a daily basis if they would ever dream of missing varsity Football practice. It's unheard of, especially here in Texas. Of course, if you can manage to get that snowball rolling in your favor, hop on and enjoy the ride. Coaching U19 teams is a lot like playing golf. If you're having a bad round, you want to break the club over your knee and toss it into the water hazard. But, just before that meltdown, you hit a great shot and the next thing you know, you're booking the tee times for your next round. Some of my most rewarding rugby moments have come from watching a game where my players execute the plays that I taught them. Those memories are what have and probably will always keep me coming back for more.
To wrap this up, I want nothing more than to see rugby grow in the US. If you've been reading my rants for a while, you already know this. I can't stress enough the importance of the US Rugby community working together as a whole. I believe that it was the "honorable" (yeah, right!) Senator from New York who said, "it takes a whole village to raise a child." Well, the same can be said for Youth Rugby. Instead of having two guys from the local club starting a High School team, I would like to see 30 guys starting a whole youth program in their town. It has to be a concentrated, mass effort, or it just won't work.
Hooker Rugby Supply