Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Utah Youth Enjoying 7s Season, Continuing To Grow

Utah has long been known as a rugby hotbed with key college programs like BYU and Utah as well as youth programs like Highland and United. However, despite it's long-standing presence in the state the sport has grown to unprecedented levels over the last few years. Much of the credit for that growth belongs to Utah Youth Rugby Director Michael Cressler. We spoke with Cressler to get the latest on the sport in Utah, the Lions select side, as well as the NAI 7s and the Utah Rugby Open.

TIAR: The Utah season has kicked off with 7s. How many teams do you have playing and how many tournaments are planned for the fall?

Michael Cressler: UYR has 14 teams competing this fall in 4 tournaments. The tourneys start in the north and move south as fall progresses not only to keep with good weather but to also be able to advertise rugby in those neighborhoods. Our first tourney was in Brigham City, which is about 1 hr from the Idaho border. We not only have the core Utah teams involved but also 2 teams that came down out of Idaho to participate. One of the primary news outlets in Utah had a photographer there which ended us up on the online edition of the online edition of the newspaper. We had a spot on the front page of the sports section of the Deseret News. Our next tournaments are in Murray, which is in the middle of the Salt Lake Valley, Alpine near Provo and St George down south.

Take the jump to read more.
We have also been able to slip a couple of 7s exhibition matches into the halftime of a couple of football games.
TIAR: What kind of growth has rugby in Utah seen over the last five years?

MC: UYR has grown from 574 players in 2009 to over 3000 players today on 45 High School varsity and JV boys teams, 10 High School girls teams, and 14 Middle School teams. That number includes a robust summer youth league for players from 5-14 yrs old.
TIAR: How did your partnership with Canterbury come about and what benefits will it have for Utah Youth Rugby?

MC: We started speaking with CCC in January of this year at the National Development Summit. Not only will this partnership help to build the UYR brand through co-branding, it also enables our teams to access high quality kit, equipment, and ancillaries at an incredibly attractive price. After much discussion and negotiation, both organizations have been able to craft an exceptional win-win. This partnership not only benefits UYR but the state of Utah as well.

TIAR: The Utah Lions had a successful summer. What was the key to that success and what are the plans for the future?

MC: The Lions success was due to an incredible amount of work by the boys and having them exposed to some incredible guest coaches and athletes from around the world and the challenge of Elite level competition. Most of them are playing rugby year round now either with the Lions or with their home teams during the 7s and 15s seasons.  These kids are students of the game and are required to not only excel on the field but also in their academics. The Lions have a minimum GPA and ACT score to not only be invited to tryout for  the team but to travel with them as well. A truly elite player is well rounded and excels in all aspects of their life, not just athletically. 

Once the fall 7s comes to a close at the end of October, the  players are back into the gym training with the Lions in prep for a pretty grueling travel year starting in Las Vegas and going through to London, NAI7s, CRC, Vic 7s, Seattle and Denver. Prior to the LVI, they will have had over 200 hrs of training plus 24 7s matches with their home teams in Sept and Oct alone. As Nov hits and we go back into the Lions mode, we will continue to work the critical, technical skills needed, renew the chemistry of the team as unit, and continue to practice. We will also be having a couple of international coaches and players working with the boys in the ramp up to Vegas an in our final prep for London.

We have expanded the Lions this year to include a Blue team, our developmental side. This teams will tour just as extensively as the White, or Elite, team with the exception of the Rosslyn Park 7s in London.  We are still in progress of selecting the additional player since that team is by a invitational tryout only. We are also looking at expanding into a Girls HP program as well and are helping build a new HP series with other HP and academy teams to give not only elite level boys but girls as well a chance to compete at a much higher level.
TIAR: What are the plans for the NAI 7s and the Utah Rugby Open next year?

Lets start with the Utah Rugby Open. The decision made by the competitions committee was to move the URO to the same weekend as the NIT. This may seem counter-intuitive initially but it actually puts the tournament in a time frame that more teams would be able to attend. We discovered last year that many teams that wanted to come could not due to playoffs and finals in their own respective states.  The goal is to attract teams that don't want to travel to Indiana for elite level competition but also the local states around Utah. The URO will have a boys Elite, Boys Open, and Girls Open competition this year. A couple of teams I have spoken with look at it like a warmup tourney for the RAST season

The NAI7s is a different beast. We have moved it from Oct to May 1-2, the same weekend as the Varsity Cup. This is not by accident. The two major factors we have looked at are a maximum number of teams in a tourney wrapped around a high profile anchor event. When we realized that the URO was naturally limited, with the announcement of the new Championship 7s in Miami, and with the discussion of a new U18 Elite series in progress, it suddenly made sense to wrap a 7s tournament around a Collegiate championship event. NAI7s leadership is currently in conversation with UWS to designate the NAI7s as a qualifier tourney for the Championship 7s as well as a stop on the new u18 Elite series mentioned. I would love to elaborate on this new series but the organizations involved will announce it at the proper time. What I can say is that it is going to take age grade Elite 7s to an entirely new level.

TIAR: Lastly, why do you think rugby is so popular in Utah?
MC: Why is rugby so popular here? That is an excellent question and one I have been asked many times. I have heard a variety of theories but I think that the major contributing factor is our highly international culture.  We have not only a large Polynesian population but tons of Brits, South Africans, Europeans, South Americans, and people from other rugby playing nations. We also have LDS missionaries who serve in rugby playing nations and bring the love of the sport home with them. These people have brought their love for rugby with them and its been instilled in their kids. They also contribute time as coaches. Since they are not insular but spread throughout the community, that love of the sport is introduced to the locals as well. Throw in a movie, a team with multiple collegiate championships, several of the top HS teams and clubs in the US and viola, you have a rugby friendly culture that supports it players and coaches.

Our growth this last year or so has been primarily in new players who have little or no rugby experience in the family but have friends who are rugby fanatics and are willing to bring them along. In 2012 we had 18.4 players per 10k in the populace. Chances are you know someone who  plays rugby. Since there are 41 HS boys and girls teams in the state, you probably have a team at your school. Of course, there is Larry's movie which everyone has seen. I can tell you that there are several teams in the state who owe their existence to that movie regardless of what you think of the movie itself.

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