Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Recycled Idea: Thoughts On An American "Champions League"

Photo: Connie Hatfield
As we wind down our fundraising drive we thought we'd dust off a few ideas that we thought are worth another look. Today we look at an idea we had last November about a way to deliver high-level competition and add excitement to the American rugby calendar. 

Without question the amount of opportunities players hoping to make the Eagles have to either showcase their skills to national team selectors or to play for the national have gone up in recent years. The Americas Rugby Championship alone guarantees five more matches a year for the Eagles than they've had in the past. Throw in a full summer series, the Americas Pacific Challenge, and what is traditionally a full November (lamentably not this last year, however) and you have over a dozen chances a year for a top domestic player to play in a high-level match.

Major League Rugby coming online next year this year is only going to help that, as is the return of the Pacific Rugby Premiership. Both competitions will offer players a chance to play at a very high-level over roughly a dozen matches (we can get into why some PRP teams might be able to challenge some MLR teams at a later time). We all saw what PRO Rugby did for players. There were a lot of factors that went into the Eagles win over Canada to qualify for the World Cup last year but having players spend a whole year in PRO Rugby has to be one of them.

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However, that doesn't mean there shouldn't be more opportunities. Representative play for different regions around the country has been a vehicle for players in the past. It's continued somewhat with groups like the Capital Rugby Union, the NorCal Pelicans, SoCal Griffins, and most notably the South Panthers all taking advantage of regional select sides. We've seen players emerge from these teams as well.

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One of the big advantages of select sides is that they pull players in who may not normally get a chance. Not all good players are going to be able to turn out for a MLR side without a significant paycheck. Not all good players are going to be able to play for a top club. As we've seen repeatedly in college and with the College All-Americans, some very good players came come out of smaller schools and have a big impact.

So here's what were proposing: a roughly year-long competition starting in the Spring and ending in the Fall that pits regional select sides against regional select sides. Here is how it would work. Different regions across the country would be paired into pools of three to five depending on how many teams elect to participate or how much the weather will allow play to happen. Those teams would then play each other once over the course of the spring and into the early summer guaranteeing at least four to six matches for each side. The winners of each of those pools (or even the second place teams depending on how many participate) then go into a knock-out round in the fall with a winner being crowned around this time of the year or earlier, guaranteeing even more matches.

By spreading out the matches the local unions can either build bye weeks into their schedules or can work to accommodate teams that might lose a number of players to the select sides. Obviously there are other considerations as well like breaks for the Vegas 7s, club championships, and more but if you are spreading out the schedule rather than trying to cram it all into a short period of time there is flexibility. One option is to have festival weekends at the Las Vegas Invitational out West or the CRC in the East. If the Eagles are playing in California it might be nice to have a festival alongside those matches as well. For example, have a double-header at a different pitch the day before the U.S. plays someone in Sacramento.

Obviously there are drawbacks. Money being the number one. Rugby simply doesn't have money and putting select sides together isn't cheap. However, by localizing pool play and spreading out the matches planning can be done ahead of time and travel costs cut down. For example, NorCal vs. SoCal costs the price of a bus as would most of the scheduled matches at first. With the summer off teams that won pool play could also plan ahead for their first tournament match. Again, spreading it out over a year helps cover costs and maybe having a tournament like this might attract a sponsor that can help with those costs (the Greyhound Cup!)

Spreading the tournament out over a year would also help with player tracking. U.S.A. Rugby has done a good job putting emphasis on tracking players in the national team pool. They have given then standards and when they come back to camp they are evaluated. This would allow another additional layer of tracking.

All in all, having a "Champions League" of regional select sides is a win-win if you can overcome the money issue (which is very difficult to overcome). The politics of club and college rugby are never easy and there will be pushback but for some clubs it might be a fantastic way of getting their players more coverage and might be worth it. It would certainly be worth it from a national team perspective and if the Eagles hope to climb out of Tier II status at some point they are going to need to try something new.

Possible Pools

West: NorCal, SoCal, Pacific Northwest, College/Junior All-Americans West

Central: Frontier, Red River, Midwest, Mexico (they might be willing to pay for travel)

East: Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, South, College/Junior All-Americans East

*Top two from each pool and the top two third place teams make the 8 team playoff that lasts three rounds (quarterfinals, semi-finals, final)

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