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Player Development Needs a Rethink - Clark

Monday Aug 24, 2009 in Grassroots Rugby High School

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Ed Hagerty of eRugbyNews recently spoke with long-time University of California and former Eagle Coach Jack Clark on the direction in which USA Rugby appears to be headed in regard to the development of elite level play.

eRUGBYNEWS: We recently reported that this year’s US Under-20 team included only three players from just two of the colleges (Penn State and LSU) that reached USA Rugby’s DI Collegiate Sweet 16. Fourteen (14) of the top 16 college teams, including Cal, didn’t have players on the U20 squad. Why?
For Cal it was because the U20 World Trophy Championships took place during the Spring academic term. Missing two or three weeks of classes isn’t an option for any Cal student.

Cal’s Lou Stanfill made the 2007 RWC team, he had to take the semester off, which was probably the right decision for a quadrennial event. However, it’s probably a different calculus for a junior competition.

Missing that much class is a non-starter at most universities. During the entire academic year, Cal
players miss only 3 or 4 days of classes because of rugby. A half day here and there and a full day because the championships are played on a Friday.

In addition to the main U20 Championship, I assume a student needed to attend a series of camps to be considered and this might put further pressure on academics.

Finally, some players might decline because the U20 schedule causes havoc with their annual training plan.


“If USA Rugby spent a quarter the time, money and focus on connecting rugby to the scholastic and collegiate varsity ethos, that they’re currently spending building separate pathways, we’d dramatically accelerate our growth and performance advancement.”

eRUGBYNEWS: How would a U20 assembly cause problems with a player’s annual training plan?
CLARK: An annual training plan wouldn’t ask players to play rugby all year. It would carefully prescribe activity based on objectives in each of the annual plan’s cycles. Every bit of applied science points to annual training plans with specific objectives per cycle.

Anecdotally, we witness players failing to improve because all they do is play the game; sometimes randomly playing rugby without regard to seasonality.

I understand the U20s are planning to play a test with Canada during this year’s late December - early January camp. The camp itself makes sense because students are out of school for holiday break, but for many players this means that their first match of the new season is an age grade test match. From a purely player development perspective, test rugby is something you build towards, not the opening match of the season.

All I’m saying is that player development is more detailed than accepting an invitation to a representative rugby assembly.

eRUGBYNEWS: Last year’s U20 head coach, Salty Thompson, said “If a coach decides to put school/club before country, that’s his choice”. This seems to imply that teams are holding their players back from selection in order to keep them available for domestic rugby.

CLARK: Silly comment. This isn’t about some patriotic litmus test; the conversation is about how best to develop our players. Keep in mind we’re speaking about developing student-athletes.

The U20 competition is important because it provides a vehicle for us to compete internationally. However, it’s wrong to place too much development value in a handful of camp days or a few matches. On the whole, representative rugby opportunities are a minority aspect of the overall annual plan; important, but nevertheless a minor slice.

If we can move the U20 competition to the end of the academic year and domestic season, it will make more sense from a player development and academic standpoint. If this happens, you’ll see more roster spots filled by top collegiate players.

eRUGBYNEWS: While several former U20 players have achieved Eagle status, the U20 program has been criticized for how few players they have developed for the senior Eagles. Is that even the measurement we should be using?
CLARK: We need to discuss what “development” means. Because a player participates in a camp or short tour with the U20s or All Americans doesn’t mean they were wholly developed by the experience.

I don’t often quote the IRB people, but they have a term which fits; they call it “daily training environment” (DTE). This is at the heart of why professional rugby develops players better and faster than amateur - a few days a week rugby.

DTE is at the heart of the
US varsity sports complex. The DTE in high schools across America develops extraordinary athletes, as it also does in our universities. Again, it’s wrong to value a couple of rep assemblies over the years of DTE which takes place at high schools like Jesuit, Xavier, Highland and many others.

The mumbo jumbo jargon of “pathways” can’t alter where the most voluminous development work is being accomplished.

eRUGBYNEWS: You’re saying the credit for developing our best players needs to go to our best high schools and colleges, not our National age-grade teams.
CLARK: I don’t give a rip who gets the credit. It’s about organizational planning and creating systems which best develop our players.

In large part, it’s about connecting the sport of rugby to the best player development system on the planet: our US sports/education system.

If USA Rugby spent a quarter the time, money and focus on connecting rugby to the scholastic and collegiate varsity ethos, that they’re currently spending building separate pathways, we’d dramatically accelerate our growth and performance advancement. The US sports/education system not only works, it’s cost efficient.

For example, at Cal
we’ve developed lots of senior Eagles in our DTE and it’s never cost USA Rugby a penny. In fact, we pay union dues for the privilege. This is the US varsity sports system at work. We need only ask any of our professional sports for confirmation of its utility.

To a degree, USA Rugby has always had a blind spot around the varsity system. In my role with the Eagles it was my responsibility to report to the old USA Rugby Board. With 30 plus board members in the room, it often occurred to me that less than a half dozen were ever varsity athletes. It was therefore understandable how they undervalued the athlete development and commercial value of our varsity system.

Then USA Rugby appointed a largely ex-pat Board, with even less of an understanding of US varsity sports.

We are informed by our experiences to a great extent and maybe you can’t fully appreciate what you’ve never experienced.

eRUGBYNEWS: You seem to be saying varsity status needs to be
USA Rugby’s goal.
CLARK: Yes and no.

We shouldn’t do anything to deviate or detract from our goal of varsity status, like, for example, allowing college students to play for high school teams.

But it’s not just about being awarded varsity status.

The varsity approach is about how we organize, structure and package our rugby. The bar’s not that high in the sports with which we’re competing. With small adjustments we can appear far more varsity than many traditional varsity sports. This varsity in appearance and ethos approach would be enough to propel rugby past many sports and fundamentally change our positioning and sport brand.

Throw Olympic sports status into the mix and there’ll be no looking back.

eRUGBYNEWS: OK you said it, Olympic status, what will this do for
US rugby?
Three big things.

1) The performance of our National 7s Team will improve significantly. The team will be fully professionalized. It will have everything it needs operationally to be among the top teams in the world.

2) Next, Olympic participation status will bring elite crossover athletes to rugby, in much the same way as track & field athletes and football players are attracted to an Olympic sport like bobsledding,

The Olympic rings have an allure like no other symbol.

3) And finally, Olympic status will bring enhanced credibility to rugby on high school and college campuses. Be clear, every AD in the country noticed the IOC announcement. Combined with the opportunities on offer because of the recession, this Olympic inclusion is the mother of all opportunities for varsity rugby.

eRUGBYNEWS: How is the recession a rugby opportunity?
CLARK: I didn’t say merely an opportunity, I said the mother of all opportunities.

There are sport budget cuts in every state in the union. Before this economy recovers we’ll see a few sports dropped at many universities and entire high school districts eliminating sports funding.

Many of the traditional sports don’t have the stomach or support system to fight for their existence. It’s hard to go from being entitled to scrambling for survival.

There is nothing about rugby’s existence on high school or college campuses that is based on entitlement; we’ve fought for and earned every scrap.

American rugby is the junkyard dog of the varsity sports system. We have parents and stakeholders who are engaged because they see the benefits of their support.

In my home state of
California our traditional sport budgets are being crushed, while our high school and college rugby is growing.

This is the mother of all opportunities for varsity rugby if we’re bright enough to focus in on the prize.

eRUGBYNEWS: Nearly all USA Rugby’s age-grade national team games take place during the
US school year and our domestic competition calendar. Would we be better off holding Territorial Union High School and College All Star competitions in the early summer, leading to HS and College All American Teams, which would then go on tour?

CLARK: The IRB's age-grade international competitions are beneficial in allowing us to benchmark our performance against similar aged players.  This benchmarking data can be used to inform our larger and more voluminous annual development plans.

The fact that these competitions are IRB funded is a benefit. Obviously, fully funded opportunities are much harder to decline than invitations that require us to fund ourselves.

If, however, the timing of the IRB competitions deny us our best and most promising players, this data, as well as the development value of the experience, is diluted. There will always be tough decisions as long as the invitations to tour are offered during our academic year.

In answering your question, yes, we might be better off assembling a higher percentage of our best players during academic downtime and placing them in a domestic development program that consists partly of local and regional representative competitions. Key to this approach is the quality of the program. We need to bring applicable science to the development effort as well as best practice coaching.

If this program culminates in an international tour, fair enough, but I don't see an international tour as a critical component. What has to change is the thought process that suggests the only place and time our rugby players truly get developed is on an international tour.

International touring is a powerful and fun experience but we need to accept the responsibility of developing our players domestically. Domestically is where our players will play vast majority of their rugby and we need to develop the competitions and processes to address this reality.

As you say, the best window of time is directly after the school year ends in late Spring until August, before many of our best schoolboys will turn their attention to football.

eRUGBYNEWS: Would we be correct in assuming that a player’s selection to a High School or College All American Team would have a greater impact domestically, for both player and institution, than selection to an age grade National Team? 
CLARK:  If connecting rugby to the school/varsity apparatus is part of the goal, then American terminology and status becomes important.

I wouldn't stop at All American; I believe All-League, All-Conference and All-State are equally important designations.
 The plan needs to not only word-smith our approach, but to really connect our competitions to established US sport’s leagues and conferences. How great is it that the Ivy League Rugby Championship is being played as a real competition?

US rugby needs to utilize our traditional sports architecture which is understandable to our administrations and stakeholders as well as rewarding for our players.

At one point there was a reason for building our then-renegade sport outside of the US sports architecture, but that time is long gone.

About Jack Clark: Jack Clark is a former Cal football and rugby standout. He won US National Championships at the Club and Territorial Union levels as a player. Rugby Magazine named him the MVP of the 1979 National All-Star Championship. He has represented the USA Eagles and in 1980 was a World XV selection in Wales vs. the World at Cardiff Arms Park. 

Clark has coached and managed the Collegiate All Americans and USA Eagles. His 16 test victories still stand as the most ever Eagle wins by a coach. In 2010 Clark will enter his 27th season (30th overall) at the helm of Cal. His record stands at 470-68-5 (.865), with 20 National Collegiate Championships.  

In 2000 Clark was named one of Cal's Ten Most Influential Sports Figures of the Twentieth Century. He is a frequent guest lecturer at Cal business school, in the curriculum or Organizational Behavior. He is past-chair of Cal's Coaches Advisory and High Performance Committee's. Currently, he sits on the advisory board of the USA Sevens LLC.


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