The Runner Sports

Seattle Saracens Women’s Club Unable To Defend Club Championship; Why USA Rugby is Right and Wrong

The governing body for rugby in the United States, USA Rugby (USAR), has determined the Seattle Saracens Women’s program will be ineligible to pursue a third straight USA Club Rugby championship. The reason? Seattle does not play at least six matches against club competition in the United States. Currently, the Saracens play in the British Columbia Rugby Union’s (BCRU) Women’s Premier Division (WPD) not in a USAR sanctioned competition. In past years they have received waivers to play in the BCRU due to the lack of competition in the Pacific Northwest. That waiver was denied by USAR in December 2016 and after being told to schedule at least six matches with US competition, Seattle was unable to do so and have been deemed ineligible for the US club competition.

Why USAR is right

It’s no secret I agree with USAR’s decision to demand Seattle compete against US competition in order to be eligible for the USA Club Rugby Championship. I have hoped for years to see strong governance come out of Denver and finally they’ve done it. Imagine if an MLB team got a chance to go participate in the Korean Baseball Organizations playoffs. Maybe NFL teams should be allowed to compete for Canada’s Grey Cup or have NHL teams vying for the Gagarin Cup? By the way, I know what the Gagarin Cup is because it’s easier to find professional Russian hockey than women’s rugby on TV in the US, but I digress.

You may say it’s unfair. You may say USAR doesn’t have the right. Well, it falls well within the USAR’s capabilities as granted by rugby’s world governing body (World Rugby) to demand such compliance. I have provided the link for you to read the approved 2015 USAR bylaws, but to sum it up in laymen’s terms, sections 2.1 and 2.2 clearly spells out USAR can basically do whatever they want when it comes to rugby in the United States. The overall charter of USAR is basically to govern and grow rugby in our country. As for BC Rugby, the BCRU states, and I quote, “PURPOSE: To grow, develop and manage the sport of Rugby in the Province of British Columbia.” Notice no mention of developing and managing rugby in the United States. Seattle is essentially a Canadian team. Now, that is no fault of their own and Seattle should be allowed to participate in the Women’s Premier Division but they must focus on growing rugby in the US as well.

Seattle does a fantastic job growing rugby in the US by developing players…in Seattle. They grow and groom future Eagles and once in a while play clubs in the US but their focus is winning the WPD and the USA Club Championship; Seattle’s DII squad doesn’t even play in the Pacific North Women’s DII division, where there is ample local competition. Let’s face it…Seattle has gotten comfortable playing in their Pacific Northwest bubble while teams like Glendale, Twin Cities, Atlanta, Oregon Sports Union, New York, Berkley, San Diego, and District of Columbia deal with costs associated with participating in our nation’s premier league.

Why USAR is Wrong

This problem was ultimately created by USAR and now they’re making Seattle pay for it. The continuous approval of waivers set the precedent that Seattle need not look elsewhere for competition and gave them the sense of security playing in the Pacific Northwest against BCRU teams, where travel is easier and far less costly. Unless there is something not being reported, USAR failed as an organization to give Seattle the proper amount of time to realign their schedules after years of social conditioning.

That’s it. I totally agree with them in every aspect of this decision except the timing. Allow Seattle to compete this season, give them one calendar year to either begin competing in the WPL or schedule at least six US-based clubs for the 2017-2018 season and demand Seattle’s DII team play in the Pacific North Competitive Region. They are more than welcome to continue competing in the WPD if they like but the above stipulations must be met in order to compete in the 2017-2018 USA Club Championships.

The Problems

Geography is Seattle’s problem but they still should have been playing US-based teams all along. Communication is USAR’s problem and they should have given Seattle ample time to adjust.

If we as a rugby playing nation are to develop the sport in areas where it’s not yet taken root, USAR must explain to Seattle why they are required to travel and play teams like Tempe, Belmont Shore, Santa Monica, Metropolis, Chicago, or Little Rock. Travel too expensive? If that’s the case and Seattle is unwilling to comply then an explanation must be given as to why it’s imperative they go out and clobber those DII clubs in the region in order to bring teams like Tacoma, Portland, Emerald City, and Boise up to the DI level.

Sure the scores are going to be lopsided, so are some scores between nations, but those beatings make the lesser squad better. Let’s look within our own borders at some women’s club rugby scores. How about Sep. 24, 2016, when Austin Valkyries played Dallas Harlequins and beat them 87-0? How about Sept. 17, Providence versus Burlington, 87-7. Sept. 10, Chicago North Shore 77-0 over Minnesota or fourteen days later when they thumped Wisconsin 98-7.

My point is this, this season Austin beat Dallas 87-0, next year maybe it’s 70-10, the year after that 65-20…the trend moves toward closer competition as Dallas gets better. If they don’t improve, teams should be relegated. It’s really simple and there are several examples around the globe to look to as guides

The Women’s Premier League

This entire issue brings me to a much larger topic that has bothered me for some time now and I feel is a far bigger issue than Seattle playing in the USA Rugby Championships; where is the support for the Women’s Premier League? Why isn’t USAR pushing clubs like Seattle, Chicago North Shore, and Austin into the WPL? Why isn’t USAR promoting and relegating the divisions with the ultimate goal being participating in the WPL? Where is the financial support and marketing for our women’s top competition? Where are the promotion and relegation standards that nearly every rugby competition in the world uses? Many of the Geographic Unions have them, Texas Rugby Union, for example, but where are the USAR and WPL standards?

The WPL is the bigger issue here. As the rugby community craves a professional men’s competition there seems to be little support for our domestic women’s competition that provides fantastic rugby and develops our women’s Eagles. This is a Women’s World Cup year and I’ve heard little about it; our women have won a World Cup, our men have yet to make it to the quarterfinals. Let’s give the women the support they need.

Instead of denying, let’s enable. I applaud USA Rugby for taking a stance, strong leadership is key to development but let’s make smart decisions focused on support, not punishment.



-By Jason Graves

  • The problem is USAR as a whole lacks the upward mobility. Ideally, USAR doesn’t view club competition as it stands as the top professional competition in the states so it’ll never support it as such. It can certainly find a way to promote and relegate clubs to that point, but the entire thing needs a structure and somebody to focus on the actual organizational outline of professional rugby in this country. I get that’s ultimately the international union that oversees that, but it’s in itself also a unique organization within that. Just look at the tree in the English Union. There are nearly 100 different tiered leagues. Baby steps here, but before you can ever see club treated with actual respect, you need to find out what we you want your top league to look like. They thought they had that in PRO, but obviously that’s been a rocky path in itself.

  • Tony Ridnell

    I’m going to process this, but nice job Jason.

    I had the opportunity to speak to the committee member at the center of this one. He was very engaged, totally on top of his game, knew the subject matter well, and gave me an education on the ‘state of play’ in the current club system for both men and women. Summary is, what a total disappointment. Everyone loses. He gave a modestly compelling argument regarding USAR’s stance, but one of the main issues is that Seattle could have scheduled games in the fall if they knew they had to. The BC League came out with their schedule in late December, the Sarries were notified their waiver was not approved in December, so the fall season had passed. It’s not like this team is not competing every week. Now, they face the decision of ‘allocating resources’, i.e. money to literally ‘squeeze’ a weekend in San Francisco to play two games, including the D2 Champs, Life West in the “CR1” game, in order to get into the final 8.

    It seems like someone decided to play ‘hardball’ in the middle of the rugby year. Precedent that had been set before went by the wayside; i.e. the waiver was not granted due to the growth of Women’s Rugby – all the slots can now be filled without waivers. There is no one at USAR that ‘made a bad decision’ per se, or was ‘out to get’ the SSaracens women.

    Ultimately, the problem is a result of years of neglect of the club system, both men and women. In this case, everyone loses. Certainly the players. There should be some solution for this year, and I am confident one will come (if the Saracens elect to make a trip to SFO). A huge issue is money – how is Seattle expected to play the top “local” competition, and literally fly to every match of relevance they have to play. I do understand the USAR position, and the committee has worked with SSaracens to try and work it out (and a solution may still be possible).

    A downstream outcome is the marginalized reduction in quality of competition (w/out SSaracens) effects others as well, robbing other high level players the opportunity to compete against the national champions.

    Summary, rules are rules – especially when enforced mid way thru the year.

  • Jason Graves

    Thank you for the comment Tony. As a military veteran I’m a proponent of strong central leadership with decentralized execution, this stance does my heart good but unfortunately USAR screwed it up. The decision is right, the execution is wrong, and the communication is poor. Is there a plan to assist Seattle? Geography is a major hindrance that needs to somehow be addressed. The DII squad has no excuse, they have plenty of local competition.

    I think Seattle should be allowed to carve their own path in the BCRU but they are a US club and should be required to play the minimum in US competition as well.

    I truly hope USAR continues the strong leadership but they must have better council.