Monday, February 15, 2016

Q&A With San Francisco's Paul Keeler

By Derek Sagehorn

TIAR: Pro Rugby has held combines to identify players; how else have you created your player pool?

Paul Keeler: In addition to our combines, we’ve worked with USA Rugby, including Alex Magleby, to identify players for PRO Rugby. This includes players who have experience with the Eagles, U-20s, and High School All-Americans. In addition, I’ve had first-hand experience working with players as a coach with the High School All-Americans and NorCal Pelicans. The combines have helped us identify those players who have flown underneath the radar, either new players or foreign players that can be capped. We’ve also had referrals from club coaches for players that we might have missed.

TIAR: What is the interview process like for new players? What are you looking for from potential PRO Rugby players?

PK: We’ve brought players in for interviews for two reasons. First, to get know them as people. It is important that we understand the quality of person in front of us. One of the things we ask them what “being a professional” means to them. The range of responses is interesting, and it can reveal how players understand their own game.

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Second, we use this process to get our medical and performance staff on the same page. Each player is medically evaluated so we understand the baseline physical and mental well-being of our players. But it also allows our medical staff to dial in their process and see how they work together.

TIAR: Will your playing style depend on the players San Francisco has at its disposal? Or will there ideal playing style?

PK: There are coaches out there that say “know your team first, and play to their strengths.” I disagree. Players with certain skill sets give access to some tactics. But how you play is a mindset.
For example, some coaches insist that you can’t win without your set-piece. So they drill lineouts and scrums and build from there. From my perspective, there are far more rucks than set-pieces something like 150 per game, so that will come first. That will enable us to play running rugby. Players love playing that style, and when players are having fun you get more out of them. It also helps us to make an entertaining product, because we have to keep the spectator’s interest.

TIAR: John Mitchell has said he expects the Eagles to play faster and with width; will you be looking to adapt your team to Eagles player patterns?

PK: John Mitchell is a consummate professional and has told us he is willing to help us, but also doesn’t want to step on any toes. We will look to promote that type of rugby—we all want to play width and pace--but at the same time we don’t want to limit any players or coaches.

TIAR: Professionalism brings a lot of benefits to the game, especially training time. What aspect of professionalism will most the development of American rugby players the most?

PK: Our scrummaging and lineouts will get better with more time together. And our players will learn more from video analysis. But the biggest improvement will be athlete health. That includes diet, fitness, recovery—all the things add up to performance. Players will be able to devote more time to building and taking care of their bodies for rugby. A medical staff with high standards of care will ensure that our players will be healthier and fitter. We’ll also have a certified strength and condition coach to help our players elevate their physical skills.

TIAR: Dan Lyle has described overtraining as being a problem in budding English professional rugby in the 90s. How will you balance player schedules and avoid overtraining?

PK: We’ve established a training week schedule that builds in downtime and recovery time for our players. We are fortunate in that we can learn from the mistakes of early professionalism. There is no reason to repeat their mistakes. We are also lucky to have former professional rugby players as coaches, including my assistant Adrian Ferris, and Sacramento Head Coach Luke Gross. They will bring a perspective that is familiar with the needs of professional players.

TIAR: Speaking of player welfare, does PRO Rugby have a concussion protocol in place?

PK: We’re finalizing a concussion protocol right now. The framework exists but we need the final approval from the medical professionals. I am familiar with the process from my time as coach at Santa Clara University. It is important that we clearly define our standard of care for players. We are also looking to become part of a concussion study for a major research university.

TIAR: What does San Francisco assistant coach Adrian Ferris bring to the team?

PK: I am tremendously lucky for this opportunity to coach San Francisco. But having Adrian as my right hand man makes it even better. In addition to being head coach of San Francisco, I am Director of West Coast Rugby Operations. Having someone as professional and capable as Adrian ready to take up slack for me is great. He has a great perspective on the team: we’re not going to get everything right from the get go, but we have to adapt and learn. Adrian also brings a great body of knowledge and connections from the greatest rugby playing country on Earth.

TIAR: Boxer Stadium, venue for San Francisco, is a former San Francisco Golden Gate home pitch and site of many Eagles tests. How does it feel to bring rugby back to Boxer?

PK: It feels awesome. Boxer has such an iconic, beautiful view of San Francisco’s hills in a natural bowl. The weather is always perfect, a little chilly with blue skies. Obviously, the facilities are a little spartan, but we’re going to going to add some things to spruce it up. Otherwise, we love how close the fans are to the action on the field, something Bonney Field in Sacramento has as well.

TIAR: How will Pro Rugby affect the men’s club rugby in NorCal?

PK: There will be a period of change, for the Pacific Rugby Premiership side in particular. They will lose some players. We’ve had conversations with many of the clubs about the process. There will be a reordering of men’s club rugby in Northern California, and there might be more competition, more parity. But this is an economic opportunity for top players to earn money playing rugby. We’re looking to work with the clubs, especially youth clubs, to get them to Pro Rugby games and grow the game.

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