In Rugby Nation USA’s (RN) first interview I speak with University of Delaware Rugby Head Coach Struan Murray (SM), a rugby veteran of 30 years. He talks about coaching high school, club, and college here in the US, as well as recruiting, the current college structure, and much more. This interview was conducted via e-mail and Twitter message.
RN: Born in Hong Kong and went to high school in Scotland; any Sevens ties by chance?
SM: Not really any ties to Sevens. Simply very fortunate to have grown up in HK and still know folks in HK in that rugby community so nice to be able to get tickets still!
RN:I know you have experience coaching at a high school level in the US; what did you learn most from that experience and where did you coach?
SM: I was the backs coach for a couple of seasons for Second City Troop Youth based in Bryn Mawr, PA. At the time I was also the Head Coach for the Men’s team so it was a way to get some more coaching in. I was only 24 at the time and what struck me was how athletic the players were but also how little they knew about the game. Quickly realized that many of them had only being playing a matter of months. It was such an awesome teaching experience. I still talk fairly regularly to a couple of the players. They were an absolute bunch of lunatics but so eager to learn and really taught me a lot about the gamehere.
RN: As a college coach I imagine you still follow high school rugby rather closely; what is your opinion on the landscape of high school rugby and how would you change it if you could?
SM: I do follow it pretty closely and there are undoubtedly challenges. The talent level across most of the programs that I am most familiar with is really impressive especially in terms of athletes. I think there is so much potential and some high schools really seek out the competition and challenge themselves even at the expense of potential losses. At the high school level I am not convinced that winning should be the bottom line. The top programs are obviously filled with talented players and so for them it may be more important but regardless of the winning or losing I see some programs that really focus on development of players which is what I think is the most important thing. I think there are some super talented coaches and administrators across the high school game and having met many of them I feel we are moving in the right direction. Distance between cities and states still present problems but that is not unique to the high school game.
RN: As a college coach, how do you deal with the vast size of the US in regard to recruiting?
SN: With great difficulty! I think it focuses you in on what matters to your club and your team. We are predominantly made up of players from PA, MA, CT, NY, NJ, DE, MD and VA so we definitely have a “home” recruiting area. But I am also acutely aware of the talent that exists in CA, UT, FL, TX, etc. It is just more challenging when it comes to being able to identify the talent and also to build the relationships. I enjoy going to watch the players and getting the chance to speak to families and coaches and the further away they come from the more challenging it is. I think it is about being realistic and knowing that I simply can’t get to every corner of the country even if I’d love to. There is also the matter of what people mean by recruiting. Not many schools can 100% recruit, which is to say that they can get all the players they might want. Academics are massively important and challenging at UD and the requirements to get in are high. We don’t have an arrangement where we can help players get in with grades below the admissions standards and quite frankly I don’t want that. We want great students who want to attend UD first, then we hope that they also play rugby and can contribute there too. So overall I would say that recruiting is a challenge but a really good one.
RN: Regarding college, I’ve read many interviews of other coaches talking about the disarray of the current college system; is there anything you would like to see done to change the current college structure?
SM: I’m not a fan of it. There are simply too many “championships” and too many folks pulling in different directions. I get that we all have to look after the interests of our own program but I think there have been a lot of egos getting in the way of progress. Do we care more about racking up wins as coaches or do we define success as setting up a level playing field for our players to compete on? Like minded schools need to band together and get it right. And it has to be about inclusion. With the greatest of respect to some schools, just being a “big name” does not mean you bring more value to the game. If you develop players and create cultures then you bring value to the game. I also think that there has been a lack of direction and true leadership from USA Rugby in getting us (college teams) on the same page. There has been a sense of apathy as long as I can remember. Again, the size of the country makes it challenging but I think that with true, targeted, inclusive leadership that we can start to see some of the politics fall to the wayside and we can begin to streamline. If we don’t then teams are going to continue to seek out the right environment for themselves regardless of process and that is part of what we see now.
RN: I’ve read in past interviews that you firmly believe in culture first; could you expand upon that, how do you define culture?
SM: Culture to me is a few things:
• Accountability – Know what you are directly accountable for. That means yourself and your actions. Nobody else is in control of that and if you refuse to hold yourself accountable then you can’t be part of what we are trying to do.
• Responsibility – Know what you are responsible for. For us, this is the overall running of the rugby club, the relationships with the University and the Alumni, and most importantly your teammates both on and off the pitch.
• Doing the right thing – It is hard!! Nothing worth doing should ever be easy. Remember that perception does matter. We need to be good citizens.
• Serve others – This is the aim of the coaches. But also the aim of the players in that they should be determined to serve each other. We all need to be willing to work to be part of the process.
RN: Rugby returned to UD June 2015; what have been some of your biggest challenges since reinstatement?
SN: We had to change the perception of the club and the team. In a sense to rebuild the trust. To truly become accountable for our actions. All of that is off the pitch. On the pitch we had a core of seniors in our first year back but we still had a massive number of players who hadn’t played for a couple of years. That was tough to handle and resulted in some heavy losses. And of course we got younger from year one to year two and will get younger again. That’s the result of being off campus for a couple of years and it’s simply part of a rebuild.
RN: On that same topic; what have been some of your biggest successes?
SM: The players had a winning record in the first year back on campus and were also able to compete in the Philadelphia Division at the 2016 CRC and win their way back into the Main Division for 2017. Those were big successes. They also won an ACRC Bowl Series game. But more than that we carried over 60 players, always fielded a B side and were able to put together a trip to the LVI which was testament to the commitment of the players.
RN: I’m a firm believer that we, as a rugby nation, lack a solidarity of purpose, the rugby super powers are all focused on their national team above all else; where do you believe our focus to be here in the US and do you agree with it? If not, how would you change it if you could?
SM: Everything should be done to increase participation and to develop the game at the grass roots level. There are definitely States where this is done really well through various youth programs and that is great. I get the sense that with Dan Payne and Alex Magelby working on it that we are going in the right direction although it will take a lot to undo some of the lack of accountability, transparency and true progress under Nigel Melville. The lack of support and time given to the game at the level between college and the elite/high performance teams is staggering. We should be seeing community teams all over the place that give a chance for our men and women to play after college (without having to travel so far and incur expense). And we need to also add a focus on those players who play at high school but do not chose to go to college. Rugby played between the ages of 10 and 18 will set us up for success once we get the participation numbers up even more. It’s the ultimate aim but it takes bravery to do it. Many years ago the Irish Rugby Union and their National team was a top 10 team but nothing more. They have over the past 10-15 years produced a conveyor belt of young talent and that is why we are seeing them produce at the top level too. It was a commitment to developing the game, better talent identification and then sticking to the vision and the plan. No reason that can’t be done here. Will just take commitment to the vision and a willingness to fail along the way in order to succeed.
RN: When people mention South Africa, England, New Zealand and the like, rugby fans can conjure an image that categorizes each nation’s identity, power, speed, and flare; do you feel US rugby has an identity and if so what is that identity?
SM: In my opinion, the identity is tied to 7s. It is about Perry Baker, Carlin Isles, Madison Hughes and Danny Barrett. There is the pace of Perry and Carlin and then the beast of Danny (meant as an absolute compliment!) and then the brain of Madison. I think if you went to other countries and asked about US Rugby these are the players who would be spoken of. Of course in the UK you will also have folks talking about Wyles, Dolan, Scully, etc but I still feel that the majority of the rugby playing world sees the identify of US Rugby linked to 7s and if pressed probably linked to the 2 quickest players in world rugby in Perry and Carlin.
RN: I know you led the Wilmington Rugby Club to the National Title game in 2013, is that the only rugby club you’ve coached here in the US?
SM: I started coaching here in 2002 for Second City Troop RFC in Bryn Mawr, PA. Then took time off when my son was born, had a stint at UD as an assistant and then went to Wilmington.
RN: What did you draw from coaching US club rugby that has made you a better coach?
SM: Sometimes you just need to get out of the way of the players and let them do their thing. Really it taught me to step back, watch the players and then work to put in a plan that complements their abilities. And share the burden. The time at Wilmington just made me fall in love with the game more and made me want to get better and keep a more open mind. It was a key part of my progression as a coach. Still have a long way to go but that environment was critical for my growth.
RN: What is the rugby scene like in the Delaware area?
SM: As a small State it is a bit of a challenge. There are 6 high school programs, led by Archmere Academy and Salesianum, only 2 college programs and only 2 Men’s teams so the number of players is pretty low. The community is pretty close knit but not huge. Rugby Delaware runs the high school side and are working with schools, parents, coaches to try and increase the number of teams.
RN: I read that you coached the British Students Rugby League team; was that the code League?
SM: I was one of 2 assistant coaches for the British Students Women’s Rugby League team. And yes, it was the league code.
RN: If that was the code, how has coaching League helped you in Union?
SM: While at college I played League for the University, City and Scottish Students while always still playing Union on the weekends. Coaching League really helped us with defensive structures and angles of running when we came back to Union. I still love League and I believe that it does offer many positives that can transition over, in particular on the defensive side of the game.
RN: There is a divide in the US regarding crossover athletes and the ability to turn them into rugby players; what is your view point on turning athletes from other sports into ruggers?
SM: If the athlete wants to play the game then who has the right to stop them??? I think it can be done although it is far more difficult to do it in the 15s version of the game than the 7s version. The intricate skills of the game can be alien at first but if the commitment to learn is there, the coaching is there and the environment is positive then why not?? Just look at Perry Baker…..he’s a rugby player and a really good one!!
RN: You’ve seen the full spectrum of rugby in the US; is there a particular aspect of US rugby that intrigues you?
SM: I continue to be intrigued by how the 7s to 15s pathway is going to evolve. I have always believed that 7s is the ultimate tool for developing players given the amount of space, the premium on decision making and the overall skillset required. The Olympics makes it more of a challenge since that is the pinnacle of sport but in general, 15s is the more dominant version of the game outside of the US and has long been used to develop players. I don’t know how that will pan out but all I know is that the more rugby we see the better!!!
RN: What is your opinion regarding the establishment of professional rugby in the US?
SM: Don’t rush!! It can be done but there cannot be a rush to market without first acknowledging what can go wrong. Teams and leagues have failed all over the world at various times but it often feels here that calling rugby professional is more important than it actually being professional. When rugby first went professional it wasn’t without pain but I have never seen anything like the situation with PRO and USA Rugby. I don’t care who is to blame…..get the egos out of the way and think about the game, the players and the fans. I am not a fan of all the tweeting and Facebook battles. It may be the way things are done nowadays but it doesn’t mean we have to like it. I don’t think it is a dead possibility but it is going to take some serious rebuilding of trust on all side and most of all it is going to require some checking of the egos at the door.
RN: Who have been your influences along your path from high school and club to college head coach?
SM: I was not the best player at high school but I was surrounded by players who went on to play internationally and also fortunate enough to have great coaches. Jamie Mayer, who was a classmate of mine at high school and played for Scotland, has always been happy to give me advice and share stories. Frank Hadden, who coached Scotland and my high school gave me great advice when I first came to the US. Since being in the US one of the people that has really helped me along the way is Josh Sutcliffe. He’s a great educator and a great coach but most of all his commitment to helping me get better was so critical for me.
RN: Are there any of your peers you feel are not getting the recognition they deserve as rugby coaches here in the US?
SM: That’s a tough question because I think some of the coaches who I respect the most do get recognized, maybe not just as much as I think they could or should. For me, someone who gets the absolute most out of his team is Bruce McLane and I love the way he works. He doesn’t have the option to “recruit” like some of the bigger programs or the schools where rugby is Varsity but he undoubtedly gets the most out of his players and they play so hard for him.
RN: Rugby East is a tough conference, arguably the toughest, and this season isn’t going the way you’d like I’m sure; can you put your finger on what may be the issue?
SM: It was a tough season! We are young, inexperienced in rugby terms, we unfortunately got the injury bug and all of those contributed. But ultimately there were just a bunch f other programs who were better than us. Plain and simple. We self destructed at times but there was huge improvement throughout the season and I could not be more proud of how the players stuck at it and finished the season. Sometimes you are just overmatched and have to take all the positives out of the season and use them to build for the future and that it what we are doing.
RN: What is your attack philosophy?
SM: We want to stretch the pitch wide and try to keep the ball in hand as much as possible. The plan is to be aggressive and quick at the contact situation and then win the gainline battle so that we can play at speed and attack space everytime we see it. It was tough early in the season because we played without the ball a lot but that is the way we want to play.
RN: Can you explain your style of defense?
SM: It depends on the players we have. Ideally we want to be a team that plays with high line speed and an aggressive, space denying style of defense. We struggled to be consistent with it in the Fall but that is still the way we want to do it.
RN: Two All-Rugby East Honorable Mentions, flanker Joe Osinubi and scrum half Tom Abram; what would you like people to know about these two players?
SM: It was Joe’s first full year of playing rugby and he did a great job. He’s a great athlete and is committed to getting better and his improvement from week 1 until the end of the season was fantastic. Great ball carrier and a relentless engine. Always seemed to be around the ball. As for Tom, he is naturally a scrum half but played 9, 10, 12 and 15 for us which shows his commitment to the team. Aggressive, quick, ambitious and one of the hardest workers on our team. He holds his teammates accountable and while he wasn’t a captain of the team I definitely think that on the pitch he is the leader of the team.
RN: Are there any other players you’d like to highlight?
SM: Matt Ramirez. He was our top try scorer and was so consistent in the way he approached things. Always running straight in attack and was supper aggressive in defense. There were times where Matt was our offense! I think he acquitted himself so well all season and definitely was one of the players who stood out. Our captains, Matt Hess and John McCurdy, worked super hard under difficult circumstances and their leadership was critical in keeping the team committed and together right up until the end of the season.
RN: Are UD matches broadcasted by any streaming, television, or radio service?
SM: No. We do not currently have any of those but we are working with our Alumni Association to try and get something in place.
RN: What has been your most enjoyable moment this season so far?
SM: Wining or Bowl Game against Fordham at the end of the season was huge. To get a win, play pretty well and to see the guys pull together that weekend was so cool. It showed them that they could do it and that positive momentum was huge. I was as proud as could be of the way they performed.
RN: On that same note; what moment would you like to forget?
SM: For me it was the injuries. There is nothing worse than seeing guys get hurt, especially when it is an injury that keeps them out all season. We had ACL injuries, bone breaks and other injuries that saw us with an injury list of 19 players at one point. It happens but it is still something we hope was a one time deal. I haven’t been part of a team with that many injuries before and it is really tough to see Seniors miss out on their final season for something like that.
RN: While I know you are honored to coach at UD everyone has a dream job; what is yours?
SM: Easy answer….the Scotland coaching job. It may well be a pipe dream but it’s a dream nonetheless.
RN: Finally Coach, anything you’d like readers to know about you?
SM: I’m a proud dad and husband and without the support of my family I wouldn’t be able to do this. I think that is what defines me. While I love the players I coach there is nothing better than being on a sideline knowing that your son is there watching. The best rugby moment for me was when the players won the Philadelphia Division at the 2016 CRC and I was able to see my son in the stands and have a special moment with him right after the game. Rugby promotes family and I hope that I do the same and can always continue to do the same. Sharing this game with my family and others is what is most important to me.
RN: Thank you again for your time, Coach. This has been a pleasure.
Struan Murray Twitter: @UDRugbyCoach
U of Delaware Rugby Twitter: @UDRugby