#3 "OVAL VIEW" by Ian Mc Laren. A regular feature on this Howlers facebook page and the web page This column is the expressed opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Dog River Howlers Rugby Club.
What should we learn from the All Blacks 74-6 dismantling of the USA Eagles at Soldier Field last weekend?
That New Zealand are light years ahead of the USA in skill level, tactics, and experience? No, we knew that going into the game.
That despite having this game on their broadcast schedule for quite a while, NBC managed to find a two person broadcast team who did not know the names of the New Zealand players and seemed to have only a passing knowledge of the game?
That it’s possible to get 61,000 sports fans to pay between $30 and $240 to watch a foregone conclusion? Yes, because it shows that a fan base is there and that the experience of being at the event is at least as important as the event. If it’s possible to draw 61,000 to a top international that is not going to be competitive, would it be possible to get 1/10th of that to a very competitive CRC match?
Sceptics will argue that the 61,000 showed up for a one-off opportunity to watch the worlds’ best team, and you would be hard pressed to draw a crowd like that again especially as the gap between Tier 3 nations like Canada and the USA and Tier 1 Nations like New Zealand and South Africa become more apparent. I agree completely, the key is competitiveness.
The question then is how to we become more competitive? Both the USA and Canada have been able to place a number of players on European clubs and even a few in Southern Hemisphere competitions. While this certainly helps the individual players and to a lesser extent our national teams, it doesn’t do a lot for continuity. We continue to suffer from problems of geography and financial resources, our national teams get together far less frequently than Tier 1 nations. We play fewer tests, have less time together before hand and often can’t get our best players released from overseas club commitments.
Improvements in all of the above factors would certainly make our current national team more competitive but does nothing to address the bigger problem of how do we develop young athletes with the skill sets and experience needed to be more competitive on the international stage?
My solution to move forward is to step back. We need to revisit the ideas of both the Pacific Pride U-23 program and the RCSL. The Pacific Pride program allowed extended training for Canada’s most promising young players and pulled in players from across the country. Ideally we should have a residential academy program for players at a much younger age but that is not practical in a country in its rugby infancy like Canada.
The RCSL served a number of purposes during its tenure. First, it was good for bringing to the forefront talent that might have escaped Rugby Canada’s attention. This is especially true of players who come from non-traditional rugby hotbeds. Secondly it gave athletes a competitive environment where they could see opportunities to progress, much like the CHL does for junior hockey players. Third, when marketed properly, it raised the profile of rugby within the general population, which has many positive spin-offs including parents more likely to want their kids involved in our game.
There will always be opposition to programs like the two mentioned above. Rugby is no different than other sports where turf wars and differing agendas will collide. There would certainly have to be discussions to ensure that the traditional power bases; south western British Columbia and southern Ontario find a format that will encourage them to buy in fully to both programs.
My two cents on some visions that could ensure that 61,000 at Soldier Field is that not just a blip on the sporting radar but the start of something much bigger.