Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Houston Team Creating Representative Pathway

by Ted Hardy

Since the dismantling of the National All-Star Championship (NASC) a few years back, the opportunities for select-side play has diminished across the territories. Some areas have done very well to keep their select-sides busy while other areas have presented few or no options. 

One area that has done very well is the South. The often-derided territory has continued to provide opportunities for their players. As a byproduct, the standard of play in the territory has continued to impove. The South has represented the USA in multiple NACRA competitions and recently defeated the Mexican national team 56-23 in a game held at Life University.

Other areas have attempted to tap into more local resources and develop teams using players from a greater metropolitan area. One such team was the Boston Barbarians whom formed in 2011 and took on All-Irish League Champions, Dungannon in a one-off match. The concept and team showed promise, but the Barbarians haven’t assembled since.

In addition, who can forget the infamous Utah Warriors? The squad included players from various Utah clubs and showed immense promise playing one season in the Super League. Touted as a possible model for a professional team, the Warriors folded within a year under questionable circumstances.

The consensus opinion is that additional representative play is needed to grow and develop the next generation of rugby players in America. Apart from that, it is hard to ignore the possibilities of teams putting aside club politics in order to create representative teams from well-populated cities. City-based teams are always a good topic for discussion. Could select-side teams representing major metropolitan areas be a natural progression for the newly formed Elite Cup competition?

Houston is quickly becoming a rugby hotbed in America. The city put more than 17,000 in the seats at BBVA Compass Stadium for the Italy test match last year. This year they are hosting the Houston 7’s leg of the IRB Women’s World Series as well as the Eagles/Ireland match this coming summer.

On top of that, Houston is home to many rugby clubs and high school teams. It is also the home of the lesser-known Houston Energy… a representative team formed in 2012.

The team was the brainchild of David Yeoman of the Bay Area Rugby Club. To that end, Yeoman started lobbying local clubs last summer with the goal of playing one all-star game against a local D1/Super League team as proof of the concept.

“The idea of clubs working together toward a common goal and developing rugby in the region is something I've been thinking and talking about for years,” said Yeoman. “A metro of ~6 million people and the international flair of Houston should have much better rugby.”

The inspiration to start the Energy was the representative systems used in New Zealand and South Africa where players progress from club play to representative play over the course of a season.

“They play provincially for half the year and move up into regional select sides for Super Rugby with multiple provinces feeding players into the teams,” added Yeoman.
Yeoman has a similar vision for rugby in the United States with players competing for local clubs in the fall and the representative play in the spring. The players with the most ability, drive, and lack of work/family responsibilities then move onto representative play during the spring season. This also frees up coaching and referee resources to focus on spring youth and high school rugby.
“We can do the same thing for major metros of the United States. Clubs play in the fall, select teams play in the spring, and 7's in the summer. With the Energy, I want the players to play club rugby for whatever club they choose, whether that's the one down the block, or the one with the better social atmosphere, or the one with the best competition.”

Collaborative efforts between rugby clubs is not a new concept, but has proven to be a difficult beast to handle for many players and administrators due to club politics, old wounds, and heated rivalries. Yeoman was in luck as the six Houston area clubs (HARC, Woodlands, Katy, HURT, BARC, and Galveston) were all receptive to the idea.

“All of them are pretty tight with many players transferring back and forth at different points in their career,” said Yeoman of the relationships between the Houston clubs. “I've gotten to be pretty close with all the leaders and use every meeting opportunity to talk about my ideas.”

With the teams in favor of the collaborative effort and politics set aside, the toughest decision was finding a coach. One of the pitfalls that many select-side teams face is the perception of favoritism and in some cases, actual preferential treatment. To avoid this, the Houston Energy approached international-level referee and former Houstonian, Chris Draper. Draper has been working hard at building a rugby empire in Iowa, but jumped at the opportunity to coach the Energy. Joining Draper was Mitch Damm, a local referee and former coach at Rice.

“As outsiders with high end knowledge, they turned out to be the perfect choice for inspiring the players to work hard and push themselves to the next level,” said Yeoman. 

Yeoman currently serves as the sole person in a management capacity with the Houston Energy. Yeoman had enlisted the services of an intern from Texas State, but it fell through, at the last minute, when the student received an offer from a well-known company. The Energy plans to bring in an intern this summer to help with operations.

“All of the kit and fields came from my pocket, which is fine because I believe that strongly in this idea,” added Yeoman.

With all of the logistics out of the way and selections made, there was only one thing left to do… play a game. The Houston Energy took the field for the first time on December 8, 2012 against the Austin Blacks, a perennial Division 1 title contender. Austin showed their savvy and punished the new side for their mistakes as they defeated the Energy by a score of 55-24.

Austin played great,” added Yeoman. “There were really great moments making tackles and competing at breakdowns. With only three practices, we lacked some continuity.  We'd make one, two, three good plays, but on the fourth, we'd make a mistake and Austin would capitalize with points.”

With a game under their belt, the Houston Energy are already making plans for the next and have targeted this spring for their next game. Yeoman and the Energy are looking at the window between the end of the club season and the start of summer 7’s as the probable period for a game. Beyond that point, there are signs that the idea is catching on.

“I think I've convinced the TRU (Texas Rugby Union) to do something similar in Dallas and Austin/San Antonio, so they'll start the season with a the team round robin of select sides,” added Yeoman.

Competitively, Yeoman sees a good opportunity for the Houston Energy in the new Elite Cup competition.

“If the U.S. intends to be competitive internationally, we need to figure out how to raise the level of competition,” Yeoman said of the lack of representative play.

Aspirations for the future are high in the Houston Energy camp. Plans are in place to crowd-source in order to raise funds for the team to hire a marketing manager whose directive will be to secure sponsorship and suppliers for the team. The team also hopes to develop youth after-school programs as well as hire a full-time coach. The coach would not only serve as the coach of the Energy, but also serve to mentor other area coaches, work on coaching and tactical development, and scout for player identification. The major incentive for the coach will be to bring up the entire population’s skills to facilitate possible selection onto the representative side.

“If pro rugby takes off in the U.S., I think we'd be in a good position to recruit from. I think Houston is in a great position to have a franchise,” said Yeoman. “We could fit right in as an academy feeding players up to the pros when needed.”

Parties involved see the financial strength of coming to the table with the support of multiple clubs compared to the traditional route.

“Since we represent 500 local ruggers, their families and their jobs in a city that's booming, we should be better off financially than any traditional Super League club with 100 or so members,” stated Yeoman. “We either need to represent a bigger population of players (and families) to bigger sponsors (i.e. more return on investment for them) in order to afford travel OR we need to build a regional pro league.”

With lofty aspirations, there is much work needed to continue the forward momentum built in the past six months by the Houston Energy. Getting quality fixtures is one hurdle that must be cleared. As with every club, funding is an issue and the Energy are working on a business model to secure their future.

At a time when rugby is becoming a commodity in Houston and Texas, the birth of a team like the Energy may not have come at a better time. Only time will tell if the Houston Energy will avoid the fate of others that have attempted similar ventures. One thing is for sure, it won’t be for a lack of effort.

To follow the Houston Energy on Facebook, click on the link.

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