Rugby In America: Work For It

Rugby In America: Work For It

USA Rugby is WORKFORIT Rugby

After scoring 30 tries over the course of the six-week season, Rachelle Ehrecke accepted the league MVP trophy at the Iowa high school sevens championship last fall. The slender redhead is a junior at Valley West High School in West Des Moines, and those six weeks comprise her only time playing the game — so far, anyway. She’s now considering basing her decision about where to attend college next year at least in part on where she can play, and she has designs on playing internationally eventually.

Or…maybe not so eventually. After seeing her highlight reel (cobbled together with a new software called PlayTagger, which allows anyone with a subscription to tag highlights of players in games posted on YouTube), coach Danielle Miller asked Ehrecke to attend a tryout for the Women’s Junior All-American Fifteens Team, which will compete in the U20 Nations Cup in England this summer.  

Maybe Ehrecke will make the team within the next year or two. Maybe she’ll even go on to become an Olympian; a real prospect now that the sevens version of the game will be making its debut in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. 

Or, maybe that’s not the point. 

The New Rugby

The point may very well be, for now, the expansion of the game, the very fact that she — and players like her — has an increasing number of opportunities at her disposal from a young age, ranging from touch to full-contact, from sleek sevens to burly fifteens. And the opportunities aren’t limited to youth — there’s even talk of including flag rugby in the National Senior Games in the next few years. Some version of the game is just a touch or tackle away.

Though rugby is one of the world’s most popular team sports, such an array of options is a relatively recent development in the U.S. Here, there are now 1.3 million participants — a number that shot up 83 percent between 2007 and 2010, and continues to expand at an even greater clip. Youth rugby participation grew over 400 percent in the span of the past two years, a number reflected in a number of states: Oregon, Indiana, Minnesota, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico and Iowa, to name a few. Five years ago, there were a handful of centrally administered state-based youth organizations. Today, there are 38 state organizations tasked with providing infrastructure for and growing the youth and high school game. Rugby Oregon has grown from six teams in 2003 to 53 in 2013, and over 50,000 kids will participate via PE class. The Iowa program went from 26 students in 2010 to over a thousand in 2013, and is the second-most-profitable sport after football at a major public school in Des Moines. Colorado’s self-sustaining youth league, nestled in the shade of the Glendale stadium, developed from 50 kids to over a thousand in five years. Oregon’s flag league quadrupled in a single year. New Mexico and Idaho doubled their high school league participation last year. Partners such as Serevi Rugby hosted a series of youth clinics that worked with 6,000 kids in 2012 alone. Countrywide, rugby is the fastest-growing team sport in high schools. And more kids look to join every year.

The draw? Involvement and autonomy. “In rugby, everybody in the game has to move up and down the field with the gainline, and everybody gets to control the play. It’s so empowering. I pass you the ball and then you’re going to decide, ‘Am I going to run with it? Am I going to pass it to my buddy? Am I going to pass it to my other buddy? Try and cut and beat this guy?’ It’s a lot of freedom,” says Alex Magleby, head coach of the national men’s sevens team. “It may be the perfect game to teach the brain to develop in a certain way, because you have to make quick decisions under pressure. Can you imagine if we could put an MRI machine on a player that’s running down the field? Someday we’ll have that technology — and it’s not too far away — and you’ll probably see dramatic changes in the brain when the game is being played.”

Ask an 8-year-old the same question, and you’ll get an answer that’s worded slightly differently: “I like rugby because it’s a great way to make friends and learn teamwork. I also like to play in front of the crowd at half-time during Raptors’ games,” says Caroline Bertrand, age 8, a standout player in the Glendale Raptors Youth Rugby Program.

A fresh perspective is what the game needed here. “Young kids are the salespeople that we’re introducing to the game, because what happens then is they pick up a ball for the first time and they run with it, and they love it. Then they go home and say, ‘Hey, mom, I'm going to go play rugby!’” says Nigel Melville, USA Rugby president and CEO. “And while mom and dad may be skeptical because they have this not-so-pretty picture of what rugby was when they were at college — drinking, singing and all that — they go watch their kids play and they see this new game. They see a noncontact game. They see boys and girls playing together. They see their kids having an absolute blast. So when you say ‘rugby’ to those parents now, the picture they have is their kids having a wonderful time playing a game they are passionate about.”

For parents and participants worried about injury once players transition to full contact, USA Rugby’s medical coordinator, Michael Keating, says this: “Though data has shown that rugby athletes are bigger, faster, stronger — this is data collected in the professional game, but I would guess there is also an increase in the amateur scene — injury rates have remained even since the late ’90s. Our concussion rates are less than hockey and similar to football, where there is underreporting. In fact, girls’ soccer is currently seeing higher rates than rugby.” He also points out that the concussion policy for rugby in the U.S. is more stringent than in the NFL, and that coaches, referees and on-site medical personnel are required to pursue more training than ever before in the interest of player welfare. 

After decades of being labeled a social sport here, rugby may finally be morphing into a bona fide American sport, with more professionalism and polish. “We’re starting to see more multi-sport athletes gravitate toward rugby,” says Jenn Heinrich, executive director of Rugby Oregon. “With more visible opportunities to play in college and on the national stage, rugby is starting to become a more viable option for the college-bound athlete.”  

For those who have competed at a higher level, the sport has always been legitimate, but public perception begged to differ. “Any headlines we got were not about the U.S. women’s team competing in a narrow loss to the No. 1 team in the world, but about the knucklehead who smashed his head into a brick wall to celebrate the win over the cross-state rival,” says Patty Jervey, five-time World Cup fifteens player who began playing in 1984 at age 20.

Those headlines are changing. In 2012, some of them even touted the U.S. U-20 boys’ team winning of the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy. “More top-level athletes are coming to the game earlier, certainly, but more so the caliber of the rugby played at younger ages has gone way up. The quality of the state high school championship games is often as good or better then our collegiate nationals from just a few years ago,” says Kurt Weaver, youth development director for USA Rugby. “Players are becoming students of the game, getting access to more rugby online and on TV, and our coaches are putting in the effort to learn and develop.” 

On that world championship team of U.S. U-20 boys, many of them had been playing for six or seven years. Players coming up behind them will have been playing rugby for 10 years by the time they hit age 20. “We're getting 20-year-olds into the sevens residency program in Chula Vista who have already played for years,” says Christy Ringgenberg, current U.S. women’s sevens player and resident athlete. “That means they’re able to play a much more creative and open-minded game. Whereas before we were very structured and fitness was our biggest strength, we're now more able to read the field.”

Playing to Win

Rugby in the States doesn’t hinge entirely on the participation and performance of tweens and teens, however, and as much as participation matters, our American spirit dictates a desire to win, and win now.

For years, this has been a tricky proposition for our national teams, and although our rankings are by no means shameful — the U.S. men’s sevens and fifteens teams are 13th and 16th, respectively, while the women’s sevens and fifteens teams fare better at 4th and 5th — they aren’t necessarily brag-worthy, either. In conversations about the Eagles’ international performance, the feeling that we could be better “if only”lingers in the air. Or, it’s just stated openly by rugby journalists, fans and players alike. 

“The way we measure our national team efforts is at all levels. Do we not only have 15 Eagles ready to win a big game, but if we had to sit all 15, could we field another 15 almost as good?” says Alex Goff, editor-in-chief of Rugby Magazine and longtime rugby journalist. “Most top rugby nations could. We can’t. Same goes for sevens. Is our next seven or 10 players good enough to perform close to the level of the first team? Right now, for both men and women, they are not.”

Historically, our “if only’s” have largely centered around creating paid rugby opportunities in the U.S. — cracks tend to show in both on-field chemistry and individual skills when players are juggling heavy training schedules on top of holding down full-time jobs. 

And so, with the announcement of sevens in the 2016 Olympics, too came the announcement of a sevens residency program whereby the athletes are paid to play. During fifteens’ stint in the Olympics in 1920 and 1924, America had won gold. And we want it again.

Stories from the OTC

In January 2012, national team coaches selected 15 men and 8 women to live near the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Chula Vista, with meals furnished and a $20,000 annual stipend provided (the number of athletes has since increased to 16, for both the men’s and women’s sides). For the first few months, the women’s team lived Real World­–style in the same house, with sheets hanging vertically between beds. (They’ve since separated into several abodes, though many still live together to split housing costs.) These players are no longer writing checks to pay for tours. “This is fast tracking the current players, getting them out playing every day,” says Melville. “Pass, pass, pass, catch up on the guys who you're going to be playing who have probably played since they were 6 or 7 years of age.” 

Residency doesn’t mean riches for the athletes, however. Though rugby has a reputation as an educated and affluent sport, yet several of the men’s resident athletes did not finish high school and are now supporting their families on the stipend they earn by playing. “These guys are grinders in a lot of ways,” says Magleby. “They weren’t necessarily given a lot, and they earn their opportunities every day. That’s for sure what this group is learning how to do. A lot of our guys are young, but they’re a lot older now than they were six months ago.”

Regardless of income, the opportunity is proving to be a magnet for crossover athletes from other sports who are discovering rugby even later than most of the current players. Rugby has attracted crossover athletes in the past, but full immersion gives them a fighting chance to catch up to their counterparts. Former St. Louis Rams running back Nick Schweiger spent time in training camp in January, but the best example of this phenomenon is former USA Track & Field star Carlin Isles. 

Armed with his 10.13-second 100-meter time and more than 3 million hits on the YouTube highlight reel “Carlin Isles. Olympic Dream” later, 23-year-old Isles has made his presence known as the fastest man in rugby. What’s more, he’s been able to sponge up enough knowledge of the game to gain the respect of coaches, teammates and fans, and earn a spot as a starter on the U.S. team. (For more on Isles, see “The Fast Track to Rugby.”

Newcomers or old hands, the men’s sevens players have been under the steady, capable guidance of Magleby since March of last year, and tournament results demonstrate improvement: They took the Plate Championship not once but twice in the 2012-2013 Sevens World Series, in both Tokyo and Glasgow.

During classroom sessions, a Socratic, question-asking style emerges: What is the advantage of going into contact here? What skills do we need to develop in this situation? Scenario 1 vs. Scenario 2 are presented, and small groups debate their points until a consensus emerges. “If I stand up there and lecture, everybody shuts down, right? So the idea is to get them to engage each other in conversation,” says Magleby. “There’s a study at MIT within the physics department. They took a bunch of physics majors and they studied how well they remembered lectures verses where they have to argue against each other, and it was like 10 percent versus 80 percent in terms of retention of that same information. It’s the same idea.”

“But,” he continues, “there’s a time and place for that. When we’re on the field, trying to get players’ heart rates to a certain point so they can do certain skills under pressure, that’s probably not where we are going to be having a question-and-answer period. Then it’s about immediacy of feedback.  We remember things more quickly if we get feedback on it immediately versus 10 minutes later.”

Magleby and his coaching staff work to replicate the skills and decision-making scenarios that will be required in a match — and then they up the ante even further. “We’ll use less rest, change the rules of the game or overload one team so that the better players don’t get away with in practice what they’d get blown up for attempting on the circuit,” Magleby says.

Before an afternoon practice, the men’s team streams toward the field before reminders of “GPS! GPS!” are shouted from inside the equipment shed. Players wear positioning systems to track speed and distance run during practice and games, which can flag certain players for work-rate issues but also help inform how coaches plan training sessions. “We’re getting better and better at getting and comparing the data we want. The more you understand about how the demand of the game occurs, the less the likelihood of injuries,” says team physical therapist and athletic trainer Brian Green, PT, PhD. 

Not to mention you’re also able to encourage better performance. “We create scenarios in training where we want to see them do certain tasks,” says Green. “A player may be able to do several tasks in a situation, but the more that player is capable of doing, the more difficult it is for the defense to figure out what that person will do.”

Green would know. He literally got his PhD in rugby performance testing, GPS and player profiling, and scouting, and spent the past two decades with the Ireland men’s fifteens team before joining the U.S. sevens staff this January. What he found through study and application is that although players may perform very similarly in predictable physical tests, better players react faster even when the test includes an unpredictable stimulus. So, the next step is to work that into training sessions. “I think we’re going to be able to look at GPS data a lot better than some of the other nations are. Actually, I know we are,” says Green.

The women’s team seems to be experiencing a similar upswing. They made it to the final against England in the Houston Sevens, the first tournament of the inaugural women’s series, and finished fourth in the series overall.

Players refer to coach Ric Suggitt as Buddha. “He’s wise, you know?” says Ringgenberg. “I like to be right, and I like to control things, so once, for an entire week, absolutely nothing I suggested could happen. He never said a word to me about it, but I got the message.”

Suggitt laughs at the memory. “Christy likes to ask questions, and I don’t like to answer them. When we first met, she would ask me for answers and I would just say ‘No,’” he says. “She would just look at me, and I was like ‘I’m serious, man! You figure it out! My job is to put you in an environment where you can think and play.’”

The expectation for the women’s sevens team is that always be training for the game, either physically or mentally. Suggitt challenges the group to think: 

“You know Beth Black? She’s a pretty astute player, always has a thoughtful look on her face. During one video series, the theme was that we can’t read each other’s minds on the field, so I put together some slides of Beth in different game scenarios and asked the team what she was thinking about in each of them. Over and over, for every slide: What’s Beth thinking about?  And they’re all trying to give me an answer.

“Now, Beth’s sitting in the room with them, mind you. And for four days, no one asked Beth what she was thinking about. I finally said,  ‘If you really want to know what Beth is thinking about, she’s sitting right there. Just ask her!’ She was laughing. Beth didn’t even know what I was doing, but we got the point across. If you really want to know what someone’s thinking, just ask her.

“The point was communication. They should be able to have a conversation with each other and say, ‘You know, during that play, I was thinking this. What were you thinking about? So that way they can get into their running lines without any confusion, without play-calling or anything.

“They didn’t want to hurt each other’s feeling, though, so at first they didn’t want to say, ‘You should’ve been there. It was your job to be there,’ but now they’re having discussions about it, and they’re actually talking about it on the field in a mature, professional manner. So now they go, ‘Yeah. I should have been there.’ Good. It’s done. You sorted it out. Now let’s move on to the next one.

“They’re working on a project now called ‘Know your Enemy.’ It’s a serious task, but I’ve kind of now tricked them into liking film because most of the film up to this point has been a lot of fun. When we go to the World Cup, we will know everything from kickoffs to go-to moves to who’s a weak tackler with her left shoulder to who’s lazy defensively, so that no matter who we play against, we’ll go bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, we’re ready. All we’ve got to do now is play. That’s it. Easy, isn’t it?”

Easy is relative, of course. “We’ll go through one game over and over, picking out little pieces, looking for certain players and their tendencies, but looking at our tendencies, too, as players and as a team, and talking about how someone might attack us,” says team captain Vanesha McGee. “We really break everything down and then follow it up with practicing those components again and again.”

And while Suggitt places great emphasis on the mental aspects of the game, practices are often physically grueling, as well. “Ric does a great job of disguising running when he wants to,” says resident athlete Kimber Rozier. “When he doesn’t want to, it’s not very disguised.” Many of their stories smack of Herb Brooks and his Miracle on Ice team.

“He tells us to go ‘beyond the line’ a lot, and we all know what that means now, both literally and figuratively,” says Rozier. The way she tells it, shortly after the residency program started, players had gotten into habit of arriving to practice just before it started rather than coming early to work on individual skills, such as kicking and passing. That resulted in a series of down-and-back sprints, during which one of the players turned early, missing the line. “That meant more sprints — it probably went on for 40 minutes, but since that day, all of us put both feet at least six inches past the line, every time,” she says.

Suggitt also designed a 19-minute-long fitness test meant to emulate the pace of a sevens game, which he calls the “Up-Down Test” but that the players refer to as the “death flop” due to its requirement that you transition from lying down to full sprints multiple times per minute at high speeds. Another afternoon, a player had opted out of the test due to a hamstrings cramp, but later joined in on the more play-oriented portion of practice. After a teammate made a comment to her — those aforementioned communication skills in action — she volunteered to do the fitness test the next day. “And she did well on it, so I said to her, ‘How can you do this today when yesterday you had a hamstring problem? You need to block it out of your brain that this test is going to hurt. It doesn’t really hurt,’” says Suggitt. “’What it does is it tests your character, and yesterday was a real test of character. You showed you didn’t have any. Today, you showed that you’re starting to build some.’”

Overall, Suggitt praises his group’s work ethic: “I tell them what I think, and they just go and they do it. Their discipline is excellent. Their sense of humor is contagious.” 

Fitness As Key

The men’s and women’s teams are making gains off the field, too, in the weight room, at the dinner table and in the space between practices. “All of the nations in the circuit are now very competitive. There are no longer any easy pools, no gimme-games,” says wing Colin Hawley. “I think a lot of that is due to the increased sports science element coming into programs. Players must actively pursue better nutrition, recovery, weight and speed-training methods to be at the top of their game. Being around other Olympic athletes who are striving for maybe a tenth of a second better or a few inches on a throw — a measurement that could take them from eighth in the world to first — has really opened my eyes to maximizing the potential of your body.”

Ryan Gallop, CSCS, and Alan Ozdamar, CSCS, of EZIA Human Performance took over the reigns to the sevens men’s strength and conditioning program in January of this year, placing the team through a variety of strength and conditioning tests. Already Ozdamar has noted “measurable improvements to their lower-body strength and power.” (The team will officially retest this month.) “Training happens five days a week in a number of different contexts,” he adds, “They lift three days a week, do two speed-agility-quickness (SAQ) workouts, multiple skill sessions, play live rugby, do defensive-drill sessions, and so on.” 

Gallop agrees that in-season training can be a balancing act: “We need to make sure our program is based more on quality than sheer intensity. Legendary performance coach Vern Gambetta once said, "A sound training program prepares the athlete for the stress of their sport, it does not add to the stress.’ We try to heed that."

Both men are working with Green to incorporate his recommendations, as well. “From an injury point of view, it’s all in the hips. It really, really is. If you don’t have internal and external rotation of your hips, you’re going to get groin or back problems,” says Green. “So, hip mobility is important, but being able to then use that mobility to produce force and power is the name of the game, especially in rugby.”

Smart fitness is the name of the game. Women’s sevens athletic trainer Nicole Titmas, MEd, ATC, has created an extensive prehab routine the team does before each practice: “We focus on glute activation and strengthening, pelvic stability and core engagement.  These are common deficiencies we see when the players have their initial physical exam upon entering the program.”

As with the men, in-season training is more about maintenance and injury prevention while the real strength gains happen in the off season. “During last summer’s training phase, each athlete increased her squat, bench and clean by 25 to 30 pounds on average, and all of their vertical jumps improved by 3 to 4 inches in about three months,” says Jared Siegmund, MEd, CSCS, head strength coach for the women’s sevens team. “We’ve also seen great improvements in aerobic capacity, flexibility, nutrition and body comp.”

Siegmund includes the highly technical Olympic lifts — which consist of the clean and jerk and snatch — in the athletes’ program for their applicability to rugby. “They’re great for developing the trap muscles for neck support, strengthening the back during collisions, holding positions, gaining motor control, bettering balance and absorbing force,” he says. “The eccentric strain [which occurs while catching the weight] teaches you to control the force.” 

Postworkout, the players hit the treatment room for cool baths and compression treatments with NormaTec inflatable leg sleeves. (The women refer to this part of the process as “Using Norma,” and they have access to these pricy devices in their homes, as well.) Food is provided at the OTC, and if fare is a bit heavy in sponsorship brands, it’s possible for athletes to place special orders and manage just fine. 

“Especially in the sevens program, both men and women are now training five days a week and are being exposed to the best of the best when it comes to resources, with incredible medical, nutritional, mental, and strength and conditioning support,” says sevens veteran Matt Hawkins.

McGee concurs: “We’re starting to put the pieces together. I know, come World Cup, we’re going to be shining and in four years, for the Olympics, it’s gold all the way.”

Eagles In Flight

World domination isn’t a goal limited to the sevens teams, of course. The U.S. fifteens teams’ goals of claiming World Cup victory are, however, vaguely reminiscent of the quote about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels — at least when it comes to available resources in the U.S. Because of the much larger number of players and increased costs associated with that, a residency program is not in the works for either the men’s or women’s fifteens teams. And, though there are pockets of players living near each other throughout the country, it’s much more difficult to gather everyone together for practice other than just before tour. 

To mitigate this problem, women’s fifteens coach Pete Steinberg developed Eagle Training Centers as regional home bases for players. “These are local camps that give Eagles and those who desire to be Eagles an opportunity to train together, show their stuff and bond with like-minded folks,” says Jamie Burke, team captain. “We test where our fitness levels are so we can know what we need to work on for the next event. It’s obviously nothing like what the sevens players experience being in residency full-time, but it is a great resource, given how spread out the fifteens players are all over the country.”

Women’s fifteens, in particular, has a potentially rough road ahead. “I think there is no doubt that internationally women’s fifteens will struggle to keep up with the sevens game. The question will be, what the IRB will do to promote the women's fifteens game? Traditionally, the leaders of the men’s game have not paid much attention to the women, and it was only after losing the first Olympic vote in 2005 that the IRB really took the women's game seriously — but only in sevens,” says Steinberg. “The women's fifteens World Cup made money, though, and SkySport is sponsoring the England versus New Zealand series because the World Cup Final in 2010 had a larger audience than the average premiership game.  I hope that the IRB sees this as a potential product that they can develop, but time will tell.” 

Arguably, the men have less to worry about, at least in terms of selling fans on the value of their version of the game. Fifteens is still the commercial driver of the game worldwide, and the men’s Rugby World Cup every four years is the third-biggest sporting event in the world. “There is a huge following for fifteens rugby. It’s where the money is, the sponsor on the TV, the broadcast. In America, sevens will probably become more visible more quickly than fifteens, but that doesn’t mean we don’t play fifteens anymore,” says Melville. “If we were Samoa, with limited resources, we might have to choose, ‘Let’s just go sevens’ or  ‘Let’s just go fifteens.’ But we don’t have to make that choice. We can do both. We just need more players.”

And, as discussed, more players are on their way. “We have been able to bring on some good young players to join some very experienced veterans, and that has been really helpful in bringing energy and enthusiasm to the squad,” says Mike Tolkin, head coach of the U.S. men’s fifteens team. “We certainly have a ways to go, but we’ve made excellent progress over the past year. Against Russia last fall — a team that played us closely the last few outings, down to the wire — we came out playing in an entirely different manner.”

Steinberg is, under it all, optimistic about the future, as well: “Fifteens will remain the primary sport for women in the U.S. because it’s more inclusive, and we need numbers to continue to grow the game. And, because fifteens gives us access to varsity status — an athletic department that is considering adding a sport for Title IX reasons will consider fifteens because the numbers for sevens are not big enough.”

Our rugby future in the States will largely be determined by how much work we, the rugby community, pour into it now, both on the field and behind the scenes. This bodes well: We like work. “People don’t know the depths that they can dig to play this game. Only when people think they are doing as much as they could do, and then do more, do they realize what they are capable of,” says Melville. “I’ve noticed, particularly in the multisport environment of the OTC — which means that you're rubbing elbows with Paralympians, gold medalists, rowers and beach volleyball players — is that they're all doing the same thing you're doing. They all have dreams, and we share those dreams. We all want to win gold medals. It inspires you to work harder.”

McGee is on the same page: “I love that I can push my body beyond a place I thought I could ever go and still know that I can push even further — that’s kind of mind-blowing to me, because I’m already way past anything I thought I would ever do, fitness-wise. Hopefully three years from now, I’ll be somewhere that right now I can’t even dream of.” In other words, a place where we are not hanging onto the Olympic victories of 1920 and 1924, but rather looking forward to a golden future.

Victory may not necessarily come atop a podium, Weaver points out, but in the form of millions of kids getting the chance to play rugby. It may also occur in the building up of a new base of participants who will be our next generation of players, fans, volunteers and stakeholders. In whatever form it arrives, it will be a win.

“We have the athletes. We have the facilities. We are getting the fixtures. The marketing is good. ‘We’ are building it, ‘they’ are coming,” says Jervey. “To prospective fans, I say, give us a shot and get ready to be entertained. To current fans, I say, spread the word and support, support, support. To the coaches, I say, keep working the fundamentals, catch us up. To the players, I say, live the dream, make us proud, but most of all, enjoy the ride.”

Jen Sinkler is a former sevens and fifteens Eagle, and a longtime fitness writer and editor. Sign up for her fitness newsletter at www.jensinkler.com and follow her on Twitter @jensinkler.

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