Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Explaining Utah's Emerging, Yet Underdeveloped Club Scene

Rugby Utah's win at the Club 7s Nationals are brought a lot of attention to the rugby mad state. It's about time. Utah has long been a hotbed of rugby in this country, especially at the youth and college level, and continues to produce a number of star players. At the same time there is an aura of mystery around rugby in the state mostly because until recently there hasn't been a big club scene and as a result haven't had a big national profile. We thought now that Rugby Utah has won a major tournament we thought we'd explain why the club game isn't as developed in Utah as it is in other places and why using a select side model works for now.

Before we get into this is going to come with a warning. We're not going to address whether a select side should be able to participate in the Club 7s Nationals. That's a discussion for another day as is possibly giving the West three seeds to the tournament. Moving on.

One of the most important things to understanding club rugby in Utah is understanding the background of many of the players. While the state is becoming increasingly diverse it is still home to a major population of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons. Many members of the LDS Church choose to serve religious missions sometime around the age of 18. Until recently the age for male members able to serve missions was 19 (minimum age) and you can go any time until you are 26 years old. They serve for two years and don't watch TV, talk to their family on the phone other an e-mail once a week, and don't play much rugby, let along organized rugby.

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Once players return from their missions they very often plug right back in and play college rugby. This is also a major reason why BYU, Utah, Utah Valley, Utah State, and others have a number of players that are older that students at other universities. Sometimes players also choose to work to save money for their missions (they have to pay to go and don't get paid while serving) so they delay college for a year or two. That may mean they are 22 by the time they enter university.

When players return from their missions they also often have different priorities. Many feel that their next responsibility in life is to get married and start a family. It's always funny to hear stories of players playing against BYU in college. They finish a match and all they have is their teammates around them but then there are the BYU players with their wives and children. It should be stressed that not all players choose to get married or even have children right away. Like the rest of the country Mormons are getting married later but in comparison to most of the population it is still at a young age.

If you put it all together you get a player that is 24 or 25 when they graduate from college and they possibly have a family they need to provide for. Add in other responsibilities like volunteer assignments for their local congregation during the week and the weekends and that leaves little time to play club rugby. There obviously have been players that have continued to play. Park City Haggis has had a strong program and the Polynesian community has always had a big presence but at the same time only a fraction of the players that played at the youth and college level have moved on to play club rugby.

Rugby Utah should be commended on the work they have done recently to bring up the club game. The recent launching of the Utah Premier Division is a great step forward to get clubs meaningful and organized games. At the same time it's still at a nascent stage. On their own none of these clubs have the resources to launch a meaningful 7s campaign full of travel. However, as a select side they can make it happen. Again, this is not to say whether they should have been able to play in the Club 7s Nationals but more of an explanation for why it works for them at the time.

The Rugby Utah model is actually a model that other areas could use if they have strong youth and college teams but not a great club game. Coming together to form one strong side while other sides work up to that level is not a bad model.

Hopefully this explain this issue more to folks. If you have questions, ask away.


  1. Constructive criticism: Please explain how the Utah model is set up. Most casual rugby fans likely have no idea.

    1. Do you mean having clubs feed players into a select side? Just trying to get clarification on what you are suggesting.

    2. How is there club scene different from the rest of the country. How does it operate? Do the clubs compete within the national championship structure that other clubs do? Do they only compete locally i.e. in Utah? Does the select side compete in any particular competitions? What is the basic structure that makes the Utah setup different from,say, the USA South team and the clubs that feed it?

  2. I asked the question on whether what is effectively a state based representative side drawing talent from multiple sources should compete against clubs regardless whether or not these clubs may also import talent. I think it's an interesting situation but if no one really has an issue with it then I guess it's fine. Though we'll see if that attitude changes if they begin to string a series of titles together.

    Back to the model at hand. I actually think it's a solid template for most regions to follow. Not just those lacking strong club scenes. The club game should be first and foremost be about participation. All the way from the bottom up. But there may be a number of players who wish to progress further than the current structures allow. With only relatively few elite club programs available at present, which would require re-location for many, there needs to be something to address this.

    Using a similar structure to that of Utah in some sort of post season rep 'league' could be an interesting option.

  3. Oh please. So personal decisions mean they have to sacrifice in order to play rugby? How is that different from literally everyone else in the country? The fact remains that they sent a representative side to a competition titled "Club 7s". Get outta here.

    1. I concur with this comment. As someone who played against BYU multiple times in my college career, I grew tired of being stomped by men, sometimes four+ years older than me and the rest of the my teammates and just fall back on the excuse "well we all go on missions" -- it creates a game of men vs boys and stunts the development and enjoyment for many other clubs who have to compete against such competition. This was on demonstration this weekend at the Club 7s championship. On top of that, Utah has good club teams. Park City AND Provo (who finished better than Park City this year) both have excellent clubs. Provo even has a Tongan 7s International on their team.

      TL;DR -- I'm tired of all these "excuses" that Utah Rugby comes up with. We all have decisions to make when it comes to balancing work and life. That shouldn't be a cop out for Utah rugby so they can just come out on top every time.

  4. Nothing is stopping them from fielding this select side as a single team. But how then would that help the group get better? Better to spread out three talent and make everyone better. Playing at BYU after a mission, I can tell you that it was crazy trying to get back in shape. I went from a 225 lb 18 year old as a freshman to an 185 lb weakling when I got back. Having gone against my teammates in practice and against other teams, I couldn't tell a difference in strength or endurance. It really came down to coaching, execution and cumulative experience. The biggest benefit, which you can see repeated at places like Arkansas State and Life is the benefit of playing with and being coached by foreigners that grew up with the sport. It elevates your knowledge and field awareness. It also helped that our main focus was rugby with no "partying." When I was in high school I competed in high jump. 75% of my meets were against a consistent 6'7" jumper, Andy Morris and a 6'10" to 7'1" jumper Todd Beyerlein. I could wallow in envy and make excuses or I could get to know them and learn from them. Thank goodness I chose the latter as it made me a better jumper, made meets fun and got me a new friend.

  5. Don't most 7's teams already use the some best players from the other clubs in the area that don't play 7's? Belmont Shore always seems to have other top players from the So Cal area. Though they aren't select/all star teams.

    And as far as Utah club rugby, there could be many reasons they stop playing. Tons of other rugby players have families and jobs and make it work, can't use that as an excuse. They might put a higher priority on family, maybe too, where they give up all of their own hobbies, I see it all of the time. They also could be more blue collar worker types, so they get up earlier and do labor, or have to work nights and weekends. There's never been an easy route to play rugby professionally as a player in the US until this past year, so there was no real drive to play unless you they're really competitive. Talented but less driven athletes had no reason to continue playing if they were tied to a job or family life. Hopefully a lot of talented players will come back, and the current or upcoming players will stick around.

    BYU doesn't win because they have older players, they win because they have really talented players. All missionaries do is do missionary work, not really time work out. They do mature so they aren't boys when they get back, but any good team should be relying on mostly juniors and seniors, which would make the age gap not so bad. Get better players and develop them. Cal and a number of other teams don't give a crap about BYU's older players.