By Jason Graves
62 – 12, Fiji Warriors over USA Selects. As a rugby nation we have an identity crisis and I think I know the cause; singularity of purpose has not yet been achieved. Infighting and bickering are rampant across our rugby union landscape and the immense size of our nation doesn't help a divided purpose. The NFL didn't become the behemoth it is because Pete Rozelle was a laissez faire leader; no, he was a pitbull who demanded singularity of purpose and the NFL crushed all other would be leagues. I'm not advocating for the rugby equivalent of Vladimir Putin but I am a huge believer that no matter the landscape, with singularity of purpose, USA Rugby can find amazing talent and quickly. Yes, quickly. I am tired of hearing about the years of development we have ahead of us as a rugby nation. Players from traditional rugby nations don't learn the game through osmosis, they learn it by playing the game and under the guidance of dedicated coaches. Just because baseball and football are woven into the fabric of our society doesn't mean every child in the U.S. is born with the instinctual skills to play shortstop or quarterback. No, they need to be taught the game and many choose the sport later in childhood as do many rugby players. What the Tier One nations have is singularity of purpose.
I read a lot of rugby posts and blogs, I listen to all of the U.S. focused podcasts and as many of the international ones as possible. I hear the debates and the discussions regarding unions ranging from New Zealand and Australia to South Africa, Argentina, Ireland and the U.K. They have their disagreements, some very bitter, but in the end there is a singularity of purpose. Every rugby club, college, and competition in each of the Tier One nations are focused on one thing, their national club. The All Blacks, Los Pumas, Springboks, or Wallabies, no matter the union no matter the nation there is singularity of purpose. While I truly believe we are currently a rugby nation divided I take exception to those who say we are far behind the Tier One nations in experience and skill. To those who believe that I say you insult every rugger playing on high school, college, and amateur clubs across our vast country. It's time USA Rugby gave them singularity of purpose.
We have no identity as a rugby nation. Watching the Selects today and I've noticed it in past games with the Eagles and All Americans, it is very clear; we don't know who we are as a rugby union. Are we an attacking nation like New Zealand, are we kicking and territory focused nation like Argentina tends to be, or do we wish to be a smashmouth power nation like South Africa and Australia? We don't know who we are because our collection of players, beside not having enough games together, are from such vastly different rugby backgrounds. We have an identity crisis because we lack singularity of purpose. Yes, I'm going to refer to the singularity of purpose time and time again because my hope that maybe, just maybe, Dane Payne and Eric Geib (USA Rugby Club Manager) actually read this and instill in our rugby union a singularity of purpose.
There will be challenges. Whether the animosity I hear and read about truly exists or not it doesn't take an insider to see our nations rugby landscape is fractured. From semi-professional competitions that don't cooperate with each other let alone with PRO Rugby, to a college system that's as streamlined as a corkscrew, and with other professional competitions trying to rival PRO I understand how daunting singularity of purpose must seem. Strong leadership is required Mr. Payne; strong, non-wavering leadership. Now I actually believe competition can make us better as a rugby nation but it will only continue to divide us without leadership and a clear vision. Our rugby union can thrive despite our fractured landscape but it must be a union.
Union defined isurrently we are scattered rugby nation, not a cohesive rugby union. True, our nation is enormous; larger than the U.K., Ireland, Japan, and New Zealand combined, so it's understandable that there will be divides and separate agendas. Throw in our capitalist nature and competitive spirit we are destined to have strong disagreements regarding how to run a competition and without a strong central organization it is nearly impossible to have cohesion in a smaller environment let alone the vast landscape that is the U.S. Many underestimate how big the United States is; rugby players from around the world, seasoned global travelers, are stunned at the sheer size of our nation. Mike Friday himself has often commented on how large the U.S. is, on the difficulty of finding hidden talent. Strong central leadership can ease that search for talent by having a singularity of purpose and demanding compliance to a shared vision. Yes, demanding compliance without question.
I mentioned earlier I'd rather not see a Vladimir Putin-style dictator as our director of rugby but Dan Payne must, I repeat, demand conformity with USA Rugby directives. Eric Geib must stand shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Payne and take the hardline against clubs with individual agendas. To be an Eagle should be the sole desire of every young rugger in the country and every club should want to develop the next great Eagle. USA Rugby must outline a clear line from youth, to U20 and college, to semi-pro, and then to pro. The Eagles are the goal. Singularity of purpose.
When USA Rugby says PRO is our sanctioned competition then everyone does what they can to make it work, agree or not. Singularity of purpose. If another professional competition emerges and is sanctioned by USA Rugby then everyone does what they can to make it work, to include PRO, like it or not. Singularity of purpose. If USA Rugby sets a calendar to align college, club, and professional seasons then everyone should smile, nod, and conform. Why? Singularity of purpose; and that singularity of purpose should be solely focused on one thing; the desire for our Eagles to dominate global rugby. Many may laugh and international media would scoff at the idea of USA Rugby becoming a global force in World Rugby but I believe we can and sooner then most think so long as we establish that singularity of purpose. Young ruggers shouldn't idolize that All Black jersey, they should want to instill fear in it. USA Rugby owes it to them to provide that pathway to domination.
Now to my point about our so called national lack of experience and skill. Forty-three States have youth rugby organizations to include Hawaii and Alaska; California is so big it has two, split into North and South. Rumor has it there are 2,588 clubs registered with USA Rugby, in comparison there are 3,257 in Australia, New Zealand, and England combined. There isn't a single rugby playing nations anywhere else in the world with as many clubs as we have, England is second with 1,809. These are just the clubs listed on USA Rugby's site; this does not include the many organizations and community clubs that go unrecognized in cities and counties across the country. Despite what international media might think we are playing rugby in this country, a lot of rugby. Rugby isn't knew to our nation it's just been overshadowed by its gridiron offspring but we are a rugby nation and we can be a great one.
So who's playing rugby in our country? There are reportedly 178,819 boys under thirteen, 47,323 more who qualify for U20; over two hundred twenty thousand boys playing rugby in the U.S. Not football…rugby! Let's not forget the girls with a total of 169,861 playing in the same combined age range. Is the competition they play against on par with the Tier One's? Not exactly but there is still undiscovered talent out there, with so much rugby being played there must be. Is there a Jonah Lomu hiding out there? Probably not because he would likely playing football; Walter Payton, Jim Brown, Jerry Rice…they would have been our Jonah Lomu, our Mike Gibson, our Gavin Hastings but instead they played the gridiron game. That said, there are numerous undiscovered players with the speed, strength, and desire to be our future rugby internationals. The question is, how do we find them? Singularity of purpose.
Coach John Mitchell must provide vision and define what style the Eagles play establishing who we are as a rugby nation. Dan Payne must then draw the line in the sand and anyone standing on the other side with agendas of their own are to be left out; players with commitments to those particular clubs will not be Eagles, it's that simple. If your priority is anything other than the Eagles, you can go your own way. Eric Geib must find a way to bring together the often feuding semi-pro competitions of the American and Pacific Rugby Premierships (ARP and PRP) who have agendas of their own. The PRP is already feeling the impact of players wanting to be an Eagle and choosing the international season over that of the PRP resulting in break away six club California Cup aligning with PRO and the Eagles calendars. Throw in the Austin Huns/Allen Griffins professional initiative and Mr. Geib has a big job ahead of him but all of this, all the competitions, all the clubs…it's still rugby. With John Mitchell's vision, Dan Payne's leadership, and Eric Geib's diligence the U.S. can turn the corner and join the Tier One nations sooner rather than later. I do think it will be easier than many expect, I do believe the rugby landscape is slowly evolving toward fully supporting the Eagles, and I do credit Payne, Geib, and Mitchell for much of that shift but they must establish singularity of purpose or our rugby nation will continue to be divided.