Rugby: “TR, why are you so passionate all of a sudden, and what are you going to do about it?” 4

By now, if you have read any of my stuff – you know that I am an upset, frustrated former USA Rugby player. And, as I have come to find out, there are a lot of people crammed under that roof.  From the mid 1980’s to the RWC2015, there are a lot of frustrated people in American rugby. How about, everyone in American rugby!!   I’ve done my share (more than I would like w/out action) complaining, identifying my view on the state of things, basically trying to identify all the reasons why we suck.  Yes, I said it.  We suck.  Not the players, not the coaches, no one person.  All of us.  We suck.

“We suck” because collectively we have allowed over the years for the American rugby scene to deteriorate into its current state.  One in which ABSOLUTELY nothing has changed in at least 24 years. Here’s why.   If in 1991, I would have been asked about my RWC experience.  I would have said,

1991 Player:  “You know I am disappointed, and I would be hard pressed to call this a positive life experience’ 

I wasn’t disappointed in our record (you win, you lose – big deal.  Just play hard given what you are given.  I, and so many others I have found (like EVERY person I have communicated with in the last 72 hours) are fed up with the approach, the culture, the incessant acceptance of mediocrity up and through to the highest levels, i.e. the Eagles. There are exceptions of course (particularly in the college ranks), but not many.  I want excellence. Call me crazy.

Ask the same player from the RWC 2015 – here is the response…

2015 Player:  “You know I am disappointed, and I would be hard pressed to call this a positive life experience’ 

This is real, I am not making this up. The exact same words, 24 years apart!  All I have heard is from USAR is ‘we are improving’.  1991 -> 2015.  Same song, different verse.  Nothing, absolutely nothing has changed.

From the conversations and research I have performed recently… this is nothing short of a sh*t show. There is NO cohesion between USAR and outside interests (i.e. the USA 7’s gig, which is one of the very few bright spots from ‘sea to shining sea’ in the American Rugby scene.  And, USAR has NOTHING to do with that success. Quite the contrary.  We all know this.  I will stop talking, and start doing (more later on that).

Why am I so passionate…

I played rugby as a schoolboy in Sydney, Oz in 1971-1973.  I was 10 years old.  And loved rugby the second I touched the ball. I reconnected with rugby at West Point in 1980, was picked for my first representative side – the ERU U/23s for the Saranac Lake tournament in 1982.  It was my first representative rugby experience (i.e. playing at a higher level) and I was HOOKED.  All I thought about for the next 12 years until I stopped playing was improving my game, playing at a higher level – and when I heard their was a USA Team – there was my goal. And it is all I thought about 24/7/365 for about 10 years.

And, like all of the players – I worked my ass off to get there.  My first selection to the Eagles was in 1985 for the Japan tour and it was way too early.  I got to that level and it was the first time I had ever played in a team with a defensive pattern (or an attempted one).  Backrow and other First phase movement was barely heard of until that level.  It was crazy.  I was way too inexperienced.

I was terrible on that tour, and had a hard time with some of the guys. Some were cool, but it was tough as a new guy. Not a great experience for me,  but we did well and the vets I know had a great tour.  So, I went back to mediocre rugby in the USA and worked my butt off to get back on team.  I got another opportunity and was a last minute surprise selection for the Australia test in RWC 1987.  Three weeks before this test I played in Seattle on a club in front of 50 people, dominated the lineout, running the ball etc…  Big deal – this was no preparation for the World Stage. And believe me, that late 1980’s Aussie team was on the World Stage.  This was a great experience for me..

Over the next few years 1988-1993 I was in and out of the team, but had a nice run in 1991 where I played 8 tests and all three RWC games.    Yay Tony.  But, I was empty.  I knew we could have and should have performed better.  I wanted to be pushed 10x harder by the coaches, I wanted to play hard rugby week in and week out, it just wasn’t even available at that time.  And, I have always regretted that. What hurts me to the core, is that in 24 years hence, the current players experience the same thing. We knew we had more to offer. We may still lose, but we had not chance to perform at peak performance – and we still don’t today

This cycle MUST end.

As my ‘spectating’ career started, most notably at RWC 1995 in South Africa where I was fortunate enough to see the opening game of the Jonah Lomu era (the famous run over Underwood to score in the corner) and the epic final where Nelson Mandela came out in the Springbok #6 shirt.  This was an iconic moment not just in rugby, but in the world.  See the movie ‘Invictus’ to learn more in a short amount of time.

Invictus Moment 1995

This photo is from the final of RWC 1995 when the plane famously flew over the stadium w/ “Go Bokke” painted under the wings! The scene is one of the highlights in the movie “Invictus”

That was the last of my high level rugby intense spectating until my personal attendance at RWC 2015 during the pool stages.

I went to two matches, the first was USA-RSA, the debacle with the half century in the 2nd half.  And then I attended the match at Twickenham for perhaps the greatest game of all time in which a try was not scored (at least in RWC history).  I f you get a chance to watch – focus on minutes 53-73 for the ‘goal line stand’ for the ages by the Australians.  I liken it to an NFL team running 20 plays in a row from the 2 yard line and NEVER scoring.  Epic!  Read my post about my serendipitous meeting with Campo, Chester W, and Mark Ella before the game.

The next day I had tickets for USA-Japan 2 hours away in Gloucester.  For the first time in my life I had an opportunity to attend an Eagles match and I didn’t.   I processed my feelings and thought that I didn’t want my RWC 2015 pool play trip (I am seeking to get back to the semis/final) to end a note of anything other than the ecstacy I felt at Twickenham during the Aussie – Wales war. I feel horrible about this decision now, not supporting the boys – but I just didn’t want to be disappointed again. During my week in London I read about ‘how we are improving’ from coaches and USAR – and I realized.  It’s all bullshit.  We are not improving. Far from it.  There is not one metric to prove we are improving and any synchronization with USAR and any other entity in existence (accept for this new RIM that stands to financially benefit from this ProLeague about to be announced). More on that later.

Attention all Rugby Players with a vested interest in American Rugby:::

Does any of this pain and disappointment in our country’s inability to field a competitive team bother anyone?   If response to my blogs and FB posting are any indication, there is huge unrest and an enormous desire for change. Not just to win, but at a minimum to give our lads the chance to succeed.

What’s your plan, TR?

I am constructing it.   From the input of so many people whom I respect and many people who were not necessarily my friends in the past – I have reached out and said.. “I agree with you TR, what can we do?” .  I have my ideas, I am working with several other key people to construct our vision of a ‘plan’.  This includes the basic premise like a ‘mission statement’ something the current USAR apparently does not have.  Anyone in business work at any semblance of a successful company without a working and infused mission statement within their organizations.  In the near future, I’ll tell you what that mission statement will consist up and Conditions of Satisfaction (i.e. how do we measure success?) to hold ourselves accountable to that mission and all the tasks/actions/work that have to happen in coordination to ensure success.

I know this resonates with anyone who has worked in a functional, successful organization or team.

I am not just blowing smoke with a bunch of writing and angry rants.  I am committed to doing everything I can to ensure that the USA Rugby Team never again has to face the humiliation we have for the past 30 years and as an ex player never have to apologize for why ‘we suck’.

All I ask of you is if you like the message I am going to bring, please support it accordingly. We will all never agree on 100% (like should we kick more in a test)… that’s not the point.  My goal is to ensure a system and structure is created to ensure our team at least has a chance to succeed… I am not talking random one off wins against sub standard Japan teams (i.e. 10 weeks ago) only to find ourselves pushed around the paddock on the worlds biggest stage in our recent loss. #embarrassing.

A lot of people say ‘youth rugby’.  That is part of it, and we are doing great there!! And thank-you to all who participate at that level.  But, it is my opinion that if we do not provide something for our youth to strive for – i.e. a functioning world class program (we might not win, but we will give ourselves a chance; and hence, as Americans – we will win) with world class practices from the top level down to the schools, and coordinated efforts from organizations with USA 7’s – our greatest brand at the moment.  The current scenario is dysfunctional horror at all levels. Sorry, its true.

Some people say “7’s” – yes, the 7’s is great and we are doing well.  This is something we should capitalize on, but everyone – listen to me… Even if we win the gold medal in Rio (and I will be there thinking that is a real possibility) it will not effect our ability to compete on the real world stage of Rugby – the Rugby World Cup.   I was humiliated this week by international greats from all over.  I am sick of spewing out indefensible answers why we do not improve.

A lot of people think the ProLeague (about to be announced in a few weeks) is the answer.  It could be!  Absolutely, but if that league is not at its core intending to improve the standard of play exponentially from what we have now (and is more driven on generating revenue), and fails to get people to rally and support and create a culture around it… all we will have is some TV coverage with a piss poor appearance (i.e. 10000 screaming empty seats) and the ever continuing cycle of mediocrity.

Am I resonating?

Stay tuned…

4 comments

  1. I am vested in making it better. And as president of Seattle Saracens Rugby Club a major objective for us to improve rugby ….. For all .
    No one mentions CLUB rugby in most of these articles.
    I think too many people are approaching this as all mainstream USA sports …… Youth and then pro league .
    What about club sports . The youth need somewhere to play this sport if they can’t be in a pro league and the growth of club rugby with feed and promote a pro league.
    We need to figure out how good clubs can play eachother more often now before we start trying to promote something that will not last without the support of the existing 2,500 clubs in the USA. Those players need to want to support a pro league and if they don’t we are starting on the wrong foot.
    Rugby has to be more accessible for everyone not just kids and those good enough to play a sport in a pro league when they are older.
    We cannot follow the traditional mainstream American sports model if rugby is going to get better here.
    It is a sport that should be played and enjoyed by all both on and off the field for all ages, sexes and athletic abilities.
    I hope we can start to discuss life after youth rugby for those not good enough to be pro yet. Maybe then we will start to emulate countries like England ( 2,500clubs )or NZ ( 600 clubs) who have clubs that encompasses the good players in the area to play in the first XV , to the want to be good players in the 2nd XV all the way down to the social players in the 5th XV and the old players still reresenting their club on and off the field.
    if we develop what we already have rather than promote something that doesn’t exist yet that might be a start .
    We play Glendale on January 23rd . 2 men’s and 1 women’s team . Not because we are obliged too but because we should to help rugby get better. Hopefully clubs can start discussing how they can play more rugby against their local or regional counterparts and then we can grow from there.
    It is going to be a long road and we know this country has the athletes to play at the top but we also have even more people who would love to play this sport .
    If we communicate with eachother , think creatively and support eachother even if it’s your local arch enemy , rugby will get better and will be enjoyed by more people . The results will follow.

    • Kevin, thanks for taking the time to read, and reply in such detail. The chasm between HS/College and higher levels (i.e, USA Eagles) is enormous. You and everyone else involved in the Seattle program have done a great job. I am glad you wrote about club rugby. My premise is that we have a lot of people running around like the proverbial chicken with the head cut off. At the level you are, you are doing amazing. But, in the system in which you are operating you hit a wall (and quickly). Am I wrong? The governing body must establish what our clubs are playing for; where are the opps for players post club and make the club scene relevant again. I personally do not think it is relevant. And, if it is – we still have guys putting their boots on in the parking lot. While you have done as well as anyone can given the resources you have been handed (and guidance, or lack thereof from above), the titanic improvement in the standard of club rugby can only be given a chance to collectively thrive with focused and functional leadership from a governing body. That leadership is not just bad, in my opinion and so many others it does not exist. A question for you… with the announcement of the ProLeague, what does this mean for clubs like Seattle Saracens? Have you been notified? Are you part of it, or is this guy Schoninger going to start from scratch and create his own franchisees (if that is the model). If that is the case, what happens to S.S.? It’s a sh*tshow right now. My words will be turning to action soon.

  2. (Just an aside, perhaps the greatest tryless RWC match was the 1999 semifinal between Australia and South Africa.)

    I disagree that nothing has changed in the US rugby scene since 1991. Certainly our national team has made no progress relative to the rest of the world, but I see building blocks to future success that were not there whatsoever in 1991.

    I first got involved in the sport a couple of years before the 1991 tournament (I was there as a spectator – fortunately it was a wonderful life experience for me.) I played on a relatively strong college team – one that competed reasonably well against our territory’s representatives to the Final Four (one of whom won the national title). We were 100% player-coached and had virtually no outside resources. The very first game I ever played in started about ten minutes after the very first game I ever saw. I’d have loved to have played in high school, but in Southern California there was virtually no youth rugby – and soon after there was none.

    24 years later, everything is different. There is a thriving youth rugby scene in Southern California. I coach high school aged boys, but one of my favorite sites is seeing hundreds of little kids taking over a park to play rugby on a Saturday. There was nothing like this back then – even a decade ago this was only something that could be imagined. My college team is no stronger, relative to the rest of the country, but in order to maintain their place they have a paid coaching staff and a far better resourced and sophisticated environment. (Note, for all of this improvement, I give Boulder next to no credit. It is owed to an army of volunteers. That said, I’m not really sure what Boulder’s role should be; I’m not ready to accuse them of dereliction of duty when it is the responsibility of the entire USA rugby community to make this happen.)

    Obviously these changes aren’t being reflected at the national team level. I think this is largely a function of time. It will take years for all of these positive changes to filter up; it is important to be patient and realistic. Also worth noting is that, though exciting changes are happening now, that hasn’t always been the case since your days as an Eagle. Progress is accelerating, but it was awfully slow for a long time. And even now, we are just in our infancy as a growing rugby nation. A decade from now, and a decade more, today’s rugby scene should look like a primitive relic.

    Even then, I expect our national team to be only marginally better – perhaps realistically competing for third place in a world cup pool (assuming, though I don’t expect it to be the case, that the tournament format remains the same).

    You speak of vision for the future. We need to set our sights on winning the world cup. In my opinion, our target year should be 2055. Anything earlier is a pipe dream. Is that thinking too small? Maybe, but if the national team is the tip of the spear, we have so much work to do to build that spear.

    The hundreds of little kids taking over a park to play rugby – they are the potential market (which doesn’t yet exist, and needs to be created) for a viable professional league. They are the parents of our world cup winning side.

    • Alan, thanks for this and taking time to write so passionately. Please read my article of today and my metrics on progress. You are right about growth of youth rugby in this country. The numbers are excellent (not as high as USAR claims… 2 Million, really?) but this has not been driven by USAR but by thousands of people such as yourself. And, thank-you for that. Where do your kids get to go? What is their pathway? Do they have anywhere to play after school? Yes, at our clubs as the currently sit. Clubs that have culture that compared to the rest of world is mediocre. It’s no ones fault, it just is. 250 people at a club match when I played. Maybe 300 now. Really, that is growth?
      My group has a one year and 5 year plan and a 20 year vision, with executable actions where people at all levels can be held to account. Wouldn’t you want to raise the standards at all levels, on and off the field. The club guys are doing great on their own islands. How about an NGB and commensurate leadership that can assist in actually creating a culture. Your point at the end is correct, about parents of the world cup winning side, but if continue with our piss poor leadership – that will once again be our game plan.. which currently is “Hope”. Not acceptable to me. We are ready to take action.

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