North American dream turning into reality

(IRB.COM) Thursday 17 October 2013
 North American dream turning into reality
Canada A and USA Select in action during Americas Rugby Championship 2013

By Frankie Deges, in Victoria

Rugby in North America is bracing itself for what promises to be remarkably positive future, say top officials in the Canadian and United States of America Rugby Unions. 

With different outlooks and realities, two of the world’s biggest countries have been at the heart of rugby’s unprecedented global growth over the last four years with an 18% increase in participation driven by the Olympic decision, the success of Rugby World Cup and the IRB’s Global Strategic Investment programme. And both nations are currently developing a batch of young and upcoming players in the IRB Americas Rugby Championship, in Langford, British Columbia.

Recognised as a model national federation, Rugby Canada has its High Performance Centre in Langford, British Columbia. Running this office is Mike Chu, General Manager of Rugby Operations and Performance since January 2012. 

On any given day, players from different High Performance (HP) programmes can be seen in action. “Monday’s are our busiest days and we can have up to 60 players training,” says New Zealand-born Chu.

The choice of Langford is logical, according to Chu. “The weather there is the best in Canada throughout the year and in Langford we have great support from the City and an excellent training environment."

With budgets stretched because of costly internal travel over thousands of miles, Chu says: “There are many challenges; it is a big country, so there have been inconsistencies in the way rugby has been developed. Next year Canada will take advantage of the IRB’s Get into Rugby mass participation programme to develop a community strategy. We also want to develop consistency in our rugby principles, on what and how it is taught.”

“Our philosophy,” continues Chu “is to develop alignment across the country and, from community to HP, to ensure athletes are well prepared.”

Olympic appeal

The calling card, similar to the USA, is that rugby is now in the Olympics and is a worldwide game with international travel as a bonus. “And the spirit of rugby is something we are keen on, in that it brings people together,” says Chu.

Targets and strategies are in place to ensure national teams are consistently competitive. While the men’s team is ranked in Tier Two, the women’s Sevens team was silver medallist in the recent Rugby World Cup Sevens. The women’s team is heavily supported by a Canadian government programme called ‘Own the Podium’ that is massively assisting their preparation.

Rugby Canada has recently acquired a new plot of land across the street from their Langford offices. “We want to develop an HP Centre of Excellence that helps us provide a daily training environment where High Performance is demanded every day and we develop a ‘culture of excellence’,” explains Chu. “Having the new facility will allow us to work in the same venue at the same time.”

Once funding is secured work will start on the 1,700m² site, with a gymnasium and weights facility, recovery rooms, changing and dining rooms, offices and accommodation all in the master plan. “For a Tier 2 nation we are maximising our resources,” Chu concludes. 

USA go down the homegrown route

The IRB takes a proactive role, in partnership with North America Caribbean Rugby Association (NACRA), in supporting both the Canadian and USA Rugby Unions. With an investment of more than £10.5 million each year in high performance programmes and competitions for Tier Two countries, this year has seen an unprecedented competition calendar, with 14 Tier 2 Unions playing 20 Test matches in November.

Mike Tolkin was promoted to the position of USA Eagles Head Coach in April last year and as such faces the challenge of selecting players spread across a huge country. Having an American, New York-born coach, is part of a welcomed change in policy, after 12 years under foreign coaches.

“Having been involved in rugby since I started playing at 11 gives me a great understanding of the country and the people,” remarks Tolkin.

“Player numbers are incredible, with a huge amount of mini and youth rugby programmes. We now need to put more coaching programmes in place.”

The USA and Canada face a number of similar challenges, with the need for a more centralised focus on talent identification and player monitoring being key to USA Rugby’s growth. “In order to make our High Performance more effective, we must identify clubs with infrastructure and good coaching. I encourage players moving to better clubs,” says Tolkin.

Rugby’s image in the past seemed tarnished, buy not anymore, according to Tolkin. “More people are now staying involved as programmes and parents are brought into an organised game. The quicker we can get colleges to give opportunities to players, we’ll grow even more. We are now seen as a serious, thriving and growing sport.”

Regional rugby

If Tolkin can get his way, regional rugby will make a positive return. “In my playing days, we had four regional teams and they had the best players. If we can have more and better players competing at a higher level more regularly, then our national teams will benefit.”

USA’s strength lies in numbers. As a participation sport, more than one million Americans have been exposed to the game in some shape or form in the past year, starting at a younger age. “Rugby is now on television, the internet, websites…Kids are more knowledgeable and we need to get our players to play high level rugby week-in week out.”

Tasked with the responsibility of leading the USA into Rugby World Cup 2015 via next year’s qualifier against Uruguay, Tolkin is all too aware of the importance of the Eagles’ presence on the biggest stage of them all.

“It is most important,” he stresses, “because it validates what we are doing as a successful programme, brings immense attention to the sport, which, in turn, brings more funding.”
One third of rugby players in the USA are women, making it the world leader in terms of female participants. With rugby now being in the Olympics, it now has a bigger profile than ever before.

“Maybe soon, the giant will finally awake,” says Tolkin.