Meet Nampa Head Coach Chris Kovac. If you ask him about his impact on rugby in Idaho you’ll get a modest answer something along the lines of I’m just a coach but if you ask people who know him you’ll realize his influence runs much deeper. Idaho is on the rise as a rugby State and Coach Kovac played a significant role in that whether he’ll acknowledge it or not.
The Australian-born, US transplant, who grew up playing League talked to me about rugby in the US and how football is impacting rugby’s growth.
Rugby Nation USA (RN): Please tell me a bit about your rugby background and your journey to the US from Australia.
Chris Kovac (CK): I grew up playing Rugby League from the time I was 5. It wasn’t until I was about 16 that I started playing Rugby. Even then I was training with my Rugby League team during the week and playing Rugby League on Saturdays. I would turn up on Sundays at our local Rugby club and if they needed players I would play. I played for Canley Vale High School in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Our school team made it to the top 4 in a knock out competition with over 200 schools competing. We had a red hot team.
Once I became an adult, I played First Grade league in Melbourne for a year in 1997 for the Croydon Sea Eagles club and A Grade League in Sydney in 1998 for Sheridan Sharks. I also played Rugby for Merrylands in Sydney that same year. I had an industrial accident which forced me into retirement at 26 years of age. That’s when I started coaching and taking on administrative roles. I coached u/10‘s, u/17‘s and u/19‘s as well as mens Rugby League. I also was the Secretary of the Sheridan Sharks A Grade mens team and Vice President of the Merrylands Rams.
I came to the US in 2009 with my wife and kids. By 2012 I was feeling incredibly homesick and started looking for League or Rugby teams that I could join to help overcome my homesickness. I google searched my local area and found the Nampa Rugby Club. Back then it was called Canyon County Rugby. I took over as Head Coach in 2013 and aquired a girls team after the 2014 season. That’s when I changed the name to Nampa Rugby Club. When I took over in 2013, we only had 18 boys playing, today I believe there are approximately 30 girls registered and 25 boys registered.
RN: What challenges did you face as you developed the Nampa Rugby Club?
CK: Hands down, without a doubt, High School Football coaches. I have lost count how many times I have heard kids tell me their football coach told them if they play rugby instead of running track, they wont be able to play football. It’s just down and out bullying by these coaches. It just blows my mind that the football coaches stop their players from tackling, running with a ball in their hands, getting conditioned and being in a team environment to have them run around in circles. This is a very sore topic with me.
RN: How do you recruit players?
CK: Through word of mouth by the players and their parents. I make sure the players have a great time while they play rugby and I make sure the communication line between myself and their parents is strong. Both players and parents would tell their friends how much fun they have during the rugby season and it just grew from there.
RN: What the rugby environment like in Boise?
CK: Although we’re a small community here when you compare to traditional American sports like Football, Baseball and Basketball, we’re a tight community. There are no heated rivalries between any teams, be it High School boys, girls, mens and womens. Many great friendships have formed from players and coaches from different teams.
As an example, one of my girls has a scary accident last year during a game. At our first training session, all the players from The Furies came to our training session to see our player. They brought her gifts but the best gifts and the both teams had a great afternoon together. From that afternoon, a new tradition was formed between the two girls teams. This year, for the second time, Nampa Girls and The Furies will be playing for the Katie Hilton Cup.
RN: How has the rugby scene grown in the US and Idaho since you first arrived in the US?
CK: Rugby has exploded here in Idaho, in particularly Boise and Eastern Idaho. I remember back in 2012 there were 6 boys teams here in Boise and less girls teams if I remember correctly. Today both boys and girls teams have 2 divisions. The reason why it’s grown so fast is that we have the right people in the right positions at Rugby Idaho. Our Executive Director Mandy Genetti is amazing. We’re lucky to have her in that position. She is the driving force behind the rapid growth in Idaho.
RN: If given the opportunity; what would you change about rugby development in the US?
CK: I would introduce full contact at the youngest age possible. I remember when I was 5 being taught how to tackle. Because I learned from a young age, my natural tackling style has always been around the legs. In countries like New Zealand, Australia and England, tackling is taught from a young age.
I think there should be more tools and coaching clinics for youth coaches. I think the current L200 and L300 Coaching courses are disappointing. When I did my L200 last year, it felt like I was going through Rugby Coaching 101. I left the course very disappointed as I was hoping that it would be a lot more advanced than what was delivered.
We have some brilliant rugby coaches here in the US, if I had a position at USA Rugby and had the power to do this, I would tap into the knowledge of these talented coaches as well as look at what is being taught to coaches in New Zealand, Australia and England and put together a product that inexperienced coaches would benefit from.
RN: How can the game be marketed better?
CK: Firstly, when you look at all the 39 positions at the National Head Office, there isn’t a position specific to Marketing. My mind is blown there isn’t a position dedicated to market the game here in the US. That would be my first start.
I would then look at who is the best team that we could market and that would be hands down, the national Mens and Womens Eagles teams. While they have some down time from their various club and national commitments, I’d be sending players and coaches on rugby marketing promotional tours. Hold some coaching clinics for kids and even have both national teams hold their own tam camps at various locations through out the US. I’d also get them on TV as much as possible. From ESPN to local TV stations.
I sat in on a webinar hosted by Kurt Weaver from USA Rugby about the GNC in Portland this year. It’s great that the tournament this year will be held on a Friday and Saturday to accomadate players and families from the LDS faith and also the College scouts that will be there as well but what representation will there be from the mens and womens Eagles? Right now I’d love to know what they are doing during their down time from their club commitments.
RN: What are some of the tournaments your squads participate in?
CK: When I was coaching at Nampa we only participated in the Rugby Idaho pre-season tournament. I really like this set up as no wins and loses are recorded. It’s basically a great opportunity for coaches to let new players get the feel for a real live game and on experimenting with players being moved into various positions without hurting their season. Each team gets 3 games during the day and Im a huge advocate for something like this, especially for players that are new to the game.
RN: Who are some of your peers you feel need recognition for the work they do?
CK: I think every youth coach in Idaho need to be recognized. Coaching at a youth level can be mentally and emotionally draining. All the hard work they put into their teams is amazing. They give up their own time to become an influence in a kid’s life and that’s something that needs to be recognized.
RN: Have you developed any relationships with universities and clubs to provide a pathway for your players?
CK: I stood down from Nampa because I wanted to spend more time with my wife and kids. At the very start of my coaching retirement, I knew it wasnt going to last. I said to myself that if I go back to coaching, it would have to be a good fit for me and the club I go to. I had been approached by several clubs to help them out and I turned them all down. The situations for one reason or another just didn’t fit for me.
I was approached by Vince Spagnolo from the 43rd State Crimson Lions and was offered the coaching position for the new D3 team he was trying to form at the club. Most would look at this as taking the best of the rest type position but I looked at it as more of a developmental team than anything else. Right now, high school boys after they graduate, stop playing unless they go to BSU or ISU. They wont go to the Lions or Snake River Rugby because it’s a little intimidating for these kids to go to a men’s club without knowing someone at that club. What I’ll be doing is using my relationships that I have with the high school coaches as well as the relationships I have built with various players from other teams and be that bridge of confidence they will have to come to a men’s club. It’ll be easier for them to move into men’s rugby if they have a familiar face there to greet them.
RN: Who are some Nampa coaches you’d like to highlight and why?
CK: Both Jon Buckridge and Joanie Ayotte. They have stepped up as Assistant Coaches and taken on roles as Head Coach for the boys and girls teams respectively. They knew how hard it would be for them after watching what I went through and both are doing tremendously well with their teams. If it weren’t for them, I would have the confidence to leave Nampa Rugby and know that it will grow into a bigger and better club.
RN: What are some of your biggest successes after the development of Nampa Rugby?
CK: Both boys and girls team have featured on State Championship day in the last 2 years. Graduating kids have moved onto college rugby and also mens and womens club rugby. They were definitely highlights but for me, my biggest success story would have to be the closeness of everyone at the club. I take pride in knowing that the club now is 50+ players strong, running like a well oiled machine and has a strong reputation within Rugby Idaho.
RN What’s that rugby moment you’d just like to forget?
CK: Without a doubt when I thought one of my girls last year was paralysed during a game, Even though she’s walking and wants to play again, that afternoon will haunt me forever.
RN: What’s the local media coverage like for your squads?
CK: Basically there is very minimal media coverage. At the moment, media coverage would be a luxury for the game here in Idaho. It could be something Rugby Idaho may look at in the future with more resources to concentrate on that aspect.
RN: Aside from championships; what goals are you still trying to accomplish?
CK: I just want to get as many kids to play rugby as possible and for them to love the game as much as I do.
RN: What are the obstacles you face in achieving those goals?
CK: Football coaches. Until they realise that encouraging their players to play rugby would benefit their program, I think there will always be resistance from them.
RN: Rugby Union competes with League and Aussie Rules back in Australia; what lessons do you take from that to grow rugby here as it competes for space in our sports landscape?
CK: Just worry about what we do and not worry about other sports being a threat. If we concentrate on what we’re doing right to attract the kids and work on what we’re doing wrong, we’ll have a better product to offer parents for.
RN: Finally Coach, what else would you like people to know about Nampa Rugby, rugby in Idaho, or just something in general?
CK: In all honesty, I believe that we have some amazingly talented people here in Idaho. We have some coaches with some of the most brilliant rugby minds here coaching in Idaho. We also have some of the most naturally gifted kids playing here as well. I would love to see USA Rugby bring the Eagles here to run some special practice sessions for the kids here and also some high performance coaching clinics for the coaches. The return that the game in Idaho would get from that would be invaluable.
RN; Thank you very much Coach, I really appreciate your insight and opinions.
CK: Thank you so much for this great opportunity!