By Kimball Kjar
I recently had the opportunity of watching Utah’s youth and high school state championship a few weeks ago.
The level of talent and coaching was impressive and it’s a far cry from the days of when Utah’s youth rugby landscape was only about Highland Rugby.
The three year old Utah Youth Rugby State-Based Rugby Organization (SBRO) currently boasts the 3rd largest membership in USA Rugby and has grown by the hundreds over the last few years.
But Utah Youth Rugby isn’t the only example of the growth of the game at the youth level.
Some time ago I participated in a coaching clinic in Indianapolis for Rugby Indiana.
Registered youth and high school players has grown almost 8 times over in the last decade and now boasts 9 divisions that starts with non-contact rugby for 7-9 year olds and includes three girls divisions.
Within both states, one a recognized rugby-state and the other an up-and-coming rugby-state, there are common themes of why the recent success: 1) Coaching Development & 2) Varsity Inclusion.
While attending Rugby Indiana’s coaching clinic earlier this year there were dozens of dedicated coaches in attendance, including recent USA Rugby High School Club Champions Cathedral’s Scott Peterson and his staff.
The numbers and the involvement by the Rugby Indiana coaches at this clinic showed their commitment to growing the game.
And locally, the numbers of certified coaches in Utah is now up to 132—a far cry from the couple dozen just a few years ago while Rugby Indiana boasts 113 certified coaches as of the recent competitive season, also an increase from relatively small numbers.
But the unique thing about both SBRO’s has been the growth and emphasis of what I call “Varsity Inclusion.”
This term is somewhat thrown about in rugby circles, but the concept is defined, in my opinion, that a rugby club is financially supported by a high school administration or is affiliated with a high school as club or some other on-campus affiliation.
Americans are very familiar with this concept, that’s why it requires little explanation as to its structure—and that is what makes “Varsity Inclusion” such an important part of the future of rugby in America.
The aforementioned Cathedral Rugby competes as a Division I club in Rugby Indiana by combining Chatard and Cathedral high schools, but centers its success in using the “Varsity Inclusion” model by working with Cathedral Royal Irish High School officials, parents and community leaders to develop the standing of the club on a whole.
By using this model the club has won five consecutive state titles, three consecutive midwest regional titles and as mentioned above recently won the National High School Club Championship last month.
While in Utah the past two state champions have been teams that would fit the “Varsity Inclusion” model in the more common definition: Snow Canyon High School (2011) and Herriman High School (2012).
Both clubs compete in UYR’s Division I, which includes both high school-only and high school-club programs. And by winning state championships against high school-club programs like Trybe (formerly Highland Rugby) and United (2009 National Champions) as a high school-only programs is no small accomplishment.
In chatting with both teams’ head coaches the common reason for their success is clear and can be summarized by one word: Community.
Snow Canyon head coach Jay Day recognizes the single-school transition that is currently occurring in Utah and on the national level, which is developing strong community ties.
“From my vantage point in Washington County in southern Utah, I see widespread acceptance of rugby in the schools and in the community,” Coach Day said, “The local newspapers and sports magazines cover rugby, and mainstream citizens of the communities reference rugby within their daily conversations. Rugby is enjoying increased acceptance and support, with dedicated rugby pitches, youth programs and clinics, and events centered around rugby. I see more and more of this in the near future.”
While recently crowned Utah state champ head coach Jeff Wilson of Herriman High School simply says the “Varsity Inclusion” model is the way forward for rugby at the youth level.
“I think the single-school model is the right one, we just need to become more effective at implementing it,” Wilson said, “Which means providing those who wish to start programs with the resources and material to help do so.”
Wilson, a former assistant coach for the once-renowned Highland Rugby Club, also made the astute observation about starting a successful program using the “Varsity Inclusion” model.
“Comprehensive coaches training for those who know the sport [is imperative],” Wilson said, “Not only more coaching development but on how to run a program, not just have a team—there’s a big difference between the two.”
As Coach Day and Coach Wilson have found in their respective exploits the ideal of sports teams is about being a rallying point for a community, whether on a small or global scale.
Whether soccer, football, rugby, basketball or baseball, sports are a common cultural denominator for people of all ages, races, ethnicities and religions. Sports are meant to include, rather than exclude, whether by those participating or by those supporting.
In England this community is best seen in soccer, while here in the USA football is draws out the millions from East Coast to West Coast and every where in between.
The success of Cathedral Rugby, Herriman High School and Snow Canyon High School respectively has been their development of their clubs within their communities.
This development can happen in a variety of ways, but as both clubs’ records are examples, most easily and most readily occurs in the framework of “Varsity Inclusion.”
By tapping into the established frameworks of high school geography and community-connection the model of “Varsity Inclusion” accelerates a program’s ability to rally community support, whether emotional or even financial.
As SBRO’s continue their development so too will rugby programs that adopt the “Varsity Inclusion” model. And as more programs adopt this model so too will their respective communities.
And that will be good for the game of rugby.
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