Article written by Pat Clifton and published on Monday, 26 August 2013.
The tsunami has hit, and now we’re just waiting for the tide to clear out so we can assess the damage. The initial blow was the movement of USA Rugby’s DII National Championship to the fall, followed by the creation of an independent fall 15s championship on the East Coast.
Now, seven-ish of the 10 DI (A or AA) conferences east of the Mississippi River are playing to a championship in the fall. Depending on who in the Keystone Conference you talk to, that group is either committed to the yet-to-be-named East Coast championship or still weighing its options. The Ivy League, Southeastern (SEC) and South Independent are the only confirmed holdouts.
People within both the SEC and South Independent expect their conferences to follow suit and switch to fall 15s next season. The Ivy already plays its 15s regular season in the fall, but is not opting to participate in the East Coast postseason.
The last few years USA Rugby and its committees had been pushing for the country to fall in line with the idea that spring would be for 15s and fall for 7s, but the early post-tsunami damage reports are pretty clear – there will be very little fall 7s east of the Mississippi, but plenty of spring 7s.
Fall 7s Taken Down a Notch
RUGBYMag has identified only a few eastern conferences which are playing even a single 7s tournament this fall – the ACRL, SEC, South Independent and Ivy. The Ivy is playing essentially three tournaments – two divisional competitions on the same weekend and then a championship the following weekend. The other conferences are playing one-off tournaments.
Some schools, like Davenport, want to play fall 7s, but there is no competition within a reasonable reach. So one of the best college 7s players in the country, JP Eloff, and a few members of the USA Falcons team from the Serevi Rugbytown Sevens, Ryan Hargraves, Sonny Adjei and Mason Baum, will be playing little-to-no 7s this entire competitive cycle, as Davenport will be playing 15s in the Mid-South next spring.
The East Coast championship group has discussed a 64-team 7s tournament for May 3rd and 4th that would integrate DI and DII teams. Several conference championships, other 7s tournaments and even series are expected to sprout up and lead into this tournament. In that case, DI and DII teams would have a viable, vibrant 15s championship to play to in the fall and a 7s counterpart in the spring, both not run by USA Rugby.
USA Rugby’s Championships in Jeopardy
Davenport is committed to spring 15s. Clemson, by joining the Varsity Cup, has committed to spring 15s. No other team involved in either the East Coast championship or DII, has hitched its wagon to spring 15s. Yes, any of the DI-AA or DI-A teams also have a 15s championship they can play to in the spring of 2014, run by USA Rugby, but they’re not bound to doing so.
Theoretically, the Rugby East and Big Ten champions could opt, like Central Washington and Texas A&M did in 2013, to not play in the DI-A postseason. That’s potentially a big blow to DI-A’s relevance.
If the champions of the Atlantic Coast, East Coast, Empire, Keystone and MAC decide to focus on 7s instead of USA Rugby’s championships in the spring, it could leave just eight or fewer conference champions, and eight or more at-large bids, playing for USA Rugby’s DI-AA title. That would definitely be a blow to DI-AA’s relevance.
And if numerous DI and DII conferences continue to show a lack of interest in playing in USA Rugby’s College 7s National Championships, it will call that competition’s relevance into question, too. Though, several conferences have been essentially ignoring this competition anyway.
Mid-South at Crossroads
More ramifications are possible, too. For instance, what does the Mid-South do? Those teams – Arkansas State, Davenport, Life and Lindenwood make up college rugby’s equivalent to SEC football. They want to play each other, and them doing so is good for the development of potential Eagles, but Life is better suited to play 15s in the spring, while Davenport is better suited to play 15s in the fall, and Lindenwood and Arkansas State could conceivably go either way.
If the Mid-South decides to stay playing 15s in the spring, Davenport could be faced with a dilemma for next season. The Panthers can join another conference, like the Rugby East, and play 15s in the fall and 7s in the spring, or they can all but give up 7s altogether.
If the Mid-South moved to fall 15s, it would essentially be saying it doesn’t care much about playing toward the DI-A championship. It would be conceding the system of playing its regular season straight into the DI-A playoffs.
But what is really to lose? Quarterfinal match-ups against Army and Kutztown? Those could be had in the East Coast championship setup, assuming Army is reinstated and rejoins the Rugby East, and Arkansas State and Life met each other in the DI-A semifinals last year. So the only difference would be a chance to play one game a year, or at most three, against teams from the West Coast.
The tsunami is going to force tough decisions, from USA Rugby, conferences and individual teams. As most of us have been forced to do since this college restructuring all started a few years back, we must continue to wait and see how it all unfolds.