Friday, January 3, 2014

3 Weeks Out - More Roster Changes and Observataions on the 7s Gender Gap

Over the past week we've had numerous roster changes with players adding/dropping (despite a final roster being released last week. I suppose we'll wait on capital F final until the tournament starts). With only 19 days until games kick off there are still many more changes to come! Such is the nature of rugby!

Our pools  for USA 7s have yet to be set which is preventing some additional trip finalization. Only the Stars, Atlantis, Canada and Mexico are currently registered in the Elite Women's bracket of the tournament though rumor has it Japan and Trinindad & Tobago will be bringing sides. Sadly the USA Women will not be attending the tournament despite having the iRB Atlanta 7s in February (and that is only minorly showcased the USA Rugby landing page, relegated to a small, lower square than the main feature frame. The fact that the current Eagles 15s women's assembly in Florida isn't even featured is another travesty. #workforit is one thing, how about we #knowaboutit).

This seems a huge shame - failing to attract more domestic fans, to inspire and interact with young female ruggers, to advance the #tryiton initiative, to showcase the 3rd Place Rugby 7s World Cup finishers (a repeat of the 2009 RWC 3rd place finish in Dubai), to grow the game and just to develop the team further as they slipped at Dubai 7s with a 7th place finish. The USA Women's Rugby 7s have been the most successful of any USA Rugby program in the last 5 years; the women's 15s team has dominated at the Rugby World Cup reaching finals/winning the title in the early years and placed 5th in 2010. Yet despite this success and having more tournaments, roster changes, more camps and news to share the women's 7s section of the USA website hasn't been updated since August 2013.

This very lack of women's elite teams speaks to part of the reason I feel this team is so vital to continuing the development of women's rugby. In the US there exist a multitude of well run elite men's programs with Tiger Rugby, Atlantis, the Olympic Developmental sides (notably the Northeast ODA which has traveled well and taken several titles), Serevi Selects and high performance teams like the Chicago Lions, Seattle/OPSB, San Francisco Golden Gate, New York, and 1823 that draw 7s specialists to year round trainings; SFGG and New York also had the chance to travel to the World Club 7s Championships in London in 2013 and Tiger Rugby took on a tour to China, Atlantis and the Northeast ODA to Tobago, Serevi Selects to Fiji. Very little exists for the women in comparison; while more and more rugby academies are sprouting up around the US few are including women's programming. It's great that Atlantis is regrowing but it seems the women's team rosters reveal more of a "reunion" team than a developmental team that showcases young talent; there is some women's Serevi activity as well but we still lack a defined Eagles pathway or the ODP opportunities as the men can boast.

If anything, based on press releases I've seen, it seems the USA Women's 7s team is focusing on crossover athlete camps rather than developing the rugby talent that exists. Where are Collegiate Women's All Americans 7s, HSAA camps? Where is a U-19 Eagles Girls' 7s team when the boys HSAA get to enter 2 sides in Las Vegas?

Additionally, the caliber of club play at the Rugby 7s National Championships can attest to a strong men's domestic base but a lack of women's commitment. The quality of 7s rugby on display at nationals for the men was high, featuring several upsets and close scorelines. But when you look at the women's side it's a much different story - women's 7s Nationals was reborn after a 10ish year hiatus just 3 years ago. In 2011 8ish women's teams convened to play off for a title. In 2012 in San Francisco there was to be a 16 team field but at the last minute several teams balked leaving a 13 team playoff (including some clubs' B-sides to add in more teams). 2013 saw a full field of 16 women's teams play towards a championship in Pittsburgh the concurrent women's Eagles 15s Nations Cup assembly decimated certain programs (seems moving women's 7s nationals to a different weekend would have easily solved that problem). The differences between the top 8 and lower 8 teams was pretty severe; plus there was some scrambling running up to the tournament with some teams not accepting their bids and others like the Atlanta Harlequins that weren't expecting/training for nationals stepping up.

I am lucky compared to most women rugby players. I live in the Midwest where we run a competitive 7s circuit and said circuit was kept alive while women's nationals laid dormant. Firehouse 7s, Lakefront 7s, Rock N Roll 7s and Rock Hard 7s make up a qualifier schedule in which teams compete for points towards making nationals. In the last few years we've seen the creation of the Youngbloodz women drawing 7s players from Minnesota, the Chicago Lions women compiled of competitive players from around Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, and Detroit Women have stepped up to the plate. Each of these teams travelled to each qualifier in 2013 (and the Lions and Youngbloodz played a de facto 4 game scrimmage during the men's qualifier at Minnesota 7s as no other women's sides entered the open bracket) and each team made nationals; the top 2 teams were to advance but USA Rugby opened a 3rd seed for the Midwest. We saw Wisconsin Women, the Pittsburgh Angels and even NOVA from Virginia full in the 4 or 8 team brackets this summer, too. We had steady competition each weekend, hence why NOVA and Atlanta both travelled to Lakefront 7s, and had committed coaching. The Lions and Youngbloodz both benefitted greatly from training with championship-caliber men's clubs and sharing resources but not every team has such a luxury.

This same style format continued each summer despite the lack of nationals (with even more social tournaments like Whorefest in Rockford, IL, Jailbreak 7s in Joliet, Madtown 7s in Madison) so women in the Midwest have opportunities to play; it's been wonderful to see the game grow. When I first started playing 7s in the summer of 2001 after my sophomore year of college at Northwestern Chicago North Shore had the dominant program in the Midwest. The opportunity to play with them led to multiple Midwest 7s crowns. We were extremely fortunate to have Mark Santiago, then USA 7s Assistant Coach, as our head coach. (In fact I can count only one coach I have ever had that hasn't been an Eagles National Team coach at some point in their career. All my collegiate, club 15s, club 7s and U-23/Senior All-Star coaches have been affiliated with elite USA programming. Chicago is blessed in that regard - there is a huge rugby community with a wealth of talent and depth of knowledge). Our region boasted numerous 7s studs like Pam Kosanke, Christy Riggenberg, Teena Mastrangelo, Kate Turpin, Jackie Limberg, and Jen Sinkler that helped inspire more women's ruggers and multiple programs benefited from their experience.

At that time we played qualifiers to *make* the Midwest finals where 8 teams would play off for the championship although there were years only 3 women's team would make the MW finals trek. The men consistently had 8 team finals brackets and for years the Chicago Lions, Chicago Griffins Grand Rapids Gazelles and Milwaukee Rugby Club dominated and made it to Nationals. They even had the opportunity to win prize money some of the years with the Lions winning big checks at Lakefront 7s and the Las Vegas CRC.

If memory serves 2000 was the last year women's clubs went to 7s nationals as the ITT/NASC (Inter Territorial Teams/National All-Star Championships) teams became the focus for women's players. As all-star teams began dominating regional tournaments, less women's clubs thrived. All the best players were rostered with their respective all-star sides and in the game of women's 7s, lacking 2 (or more)elite players with true knowledge of the game can wreck a club side. This is especially true in the South where there is only 1 WPL side in Atlanta and no other D1 club teams. Collegiate rugby in the South has greater geographical restraints than in the Midwest where we boasted over 75 D2 women's sides back when I was competing - and surely that number has grown. The access to women's coaches, elite play, and the opportunity for development in the South and West are far behind that of the Midwest, Northeast, and California. The disparity continues if you look at the collegiate 7s championships where far less women's teams have participated - or even known *how* to participate and qualify - as compared to the men. The men also boast CRC opportunities and a fairly full collegiate bracket for the LVI with the women less so (and with most of the women's collegiate programs being Canadian entries).

So the Stars seek to bridge some gaps, to inspire more players, more coaches, to get more 7s played. We are seeking to grow this team to eventually include a men's side but women will come first. Plans are to continue tournament travel to Calgary Stampede 7s in July, to Central Coast 7s in Australia in October, and Tobago 7s in December. USA 7s, Stampede and Tobago should remain permanently on the schedule with one major overseas to rotate between Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai, Amsterdam and Shanghai. As a player and a coach I firmly believe the only way to get better at rugby is to play more rugby. Thus the only way to get better at 7s rugby for the women's game is to play more 7s and seek the opportunities around the world that our European counterparts, the Canadians, and the men take advantage of.

(Note this is all based on my personal playing/coaching experiences from 2000-now. In a delirious flu-like state I may have some facts/dates wrong and I did very little editing. I do have a tournament to prepare for after all. Sleep and recovery beckon, - Liz)

1 comment:

  1. It's pretty mind boggling to think you wrote all of this in a delirium of illness and exhaustion! Well done Liz! You could be the next J.K. Rowling of rugby writing.....except non-fictional (well, if you wanted to write about wizards playing rugby I'm sure that would be great too).

    The extensive facts that you have about women's and men's rugby are amazing. When endlessly recruiting in college, I know we had to resort to finding crossover athletes mainly from the small pool of options we had to begin with (Cara can definitely attest to this as well, we were in that struggle together!). But that is definitely not the case on a national level! I don't think that lack of female rugby players in the United States is the real issue; I think, like you said, the real issue is the lack of options available for current women ruggers to develop their skills! It's understandable to think that the more numbers women's rugby can get under their belt on a national level, the more options they can get from there. But the scale definitely cannot be tipped in one direction here; attention cannot be solely devoted to new players and veteran players ignored.

    I also find it interesting at our nation's general lack of knowledge about women's rugby (or even its existence!) in general. Yet at the same time, most of the people I have talked about rugby with have known what men's rugby is, but had absolutely no idea what women's rugby is (ironic....because they're basically THE SAME). The majority of people I have come across who have inquired about me playing rugby have thought
    a) it's not the same as men's rugby (aka not aggressive), just tag-you're-it or something
    b) it's a coed team like flag football
    or c) it simply doesn't exist and I'm a weirdo
    The last option is kind of a joke...and kind of NOT a joke! Many times when talking with people about how I play women's rugby the sequence of responses goes "I play women's rugby...yeah it actually exists....yeah it actually involves full on the rules aren't different from men's it's not a made up sport........." and I've lost count the number of times I've had this conversation!

    HENCE this is why the opportunity to play on a team like the USA Stars is so important to me and many others. I feel that if we have people like you spreading the word about women's rugby and dedicated players rising up to the challenge, then hopefully we can only move forward!