State of the Union: With NorCal President Ben Parker

NorCal is one of the two Unions in California and it can be argued they are both one of the top Unions in the County based on the clubs, the results and players that come out of them. We wanted to see what is the status of this large union and being that they just had their Annual General Meeting (AGM), we wanted to see where NorCal is headed in this coming season. 

For that reason we caught up with NorCal Presided Ben Parker, to ask him about his first year at the head of the Northern California Rugby Football Union (NCRFU or NorCal) and the plans for this coming season.  

NCRFU President 

NCRFU President 

Rugby Republic (RR): So coming in last year as the new Union president what were three goals you had for NorCal and how many were you able to achieve? And what if any are still in the works?
Ben Parker (BP) 1) Figuratively, Put up a big "open" for business sign. People have been enthusiastic in getting involved in pilot programs, initiatives, and inaugural events and in the case of the Pelican rep side a revival of that program. Our vocab is positive with an ever increasing calendar of events to match.

2) Supersites and games of the week. I looked at D3 Supersites as a solution to a referee shortage and as a vehicle to maximize the social & strongly contested games in D3. The same principle gives Pete Smith  the opportunity to showcase his vision with games of the week with PRP D1, D2 & Women in 2016. 

3) Coordinated cost effective administration. We now have an employee as our Geographic Union Administrator in Pete Smith. Pete was already assigning referees to 600+ matches a year in his role with the Referee Society. Doing the NCRFU Scheduling meant that became far more coordinated as well. 

This year we've seen that take on the even more complex strategy of layering the schedule so that clubs that have multiple sides have all their home games are on the one site. Example would be SFGG, Life West & the San Jose Seahawks all have men’s & woman’s teams and Napa, Silicon Valley and the Olympic club have teams in multiple divisions, so having them have home games on the same day at the same place makes more sense than sending them in different direction to seldom if ever play at the same place.

RR: How would you describe the state of the NorCal Union right now?
BP: Positive in anticipation of a busy year to come. A lot of the events on our 2015 calendar were firsts. Supersites brought together D3. We're ready for another round of Technical Coaching clinics in October, Pelicans are playing again. Lots to engage our players, coaches and supporters.

RR: How big do you think bringing the Pelicans Select Sides has been for NorCal?
BP: 57 players from 15 clubs pulled on a Pelican jersey in either the All Star or Development men’s teams. Our Women’s team is set to play alongside our men in upcoming fixtures with Texas on October 17th & SoCal on Nov 21st. The Pelicans is designed to develop players and give the best talent the opportunity to project to a national level. Moreover it's designed to develop the next generation of coaches. Older players are the next group of leaders so improving their understanding of the game has seen immediate benefits back at their clubs already and is set to pay dividends in the years to come. Players now have something else to strive for and it helps showcase all our clubs/talent. 

RR: Are you trying to move NorCal into more of a provincial system?
BP: We're looking to maximize what we currently have and to create opportunities from within that framework. We received the better part of 80 nominations last year for Pelicans. Ultimately our 23 Pelicans flew in for the match in Las Vegas at the LVI from 5 different airports and left on 4 different days. Some might say that’s a logistic nightmare. In NorCal that’s just logistics. And we came in under budget and with a win on game day over Texas.  The Pelicans match at Kezar Stadium in June was a welcome throwback for those that had grown up on the game in the 80's& 90's. The Union was established on a solid foundation and Rep rugby as a step between club and test matches is just as valuable today as ever. 

RR: We have some changes in DI what are they (addition of a few teams) and how do you think that benefits NorCal? 
BP: Life West Gladiators have swept D3 & D2 aside losing just the National D3 Final in their first year 2014 and winning the D2 National Championship game this year in only their second year as a club. In beating Belmont Shore for the D1 Cal Cup and Back Bay for the D2 Cal Cup shows the depth that Director of Rugby Adriaan Ferris has built. Credit goes also to Dr Brian Kelly for his ambitious vision in making a powerhouse program a reality. The Sacramento Blackhawks are the other new club in D1 for 2016. Founded 4 years ago they've spent just 2 years in D3, and 2 years in D2 en route to D1. 

RR: Last year there seemed to be less parity in D1 than the previous year, why do you think that was and how can it be made more competitive?
BP: Two years ago four  D2 teams moved to D1. Three clubs being San Jose Seahawks, Fresno and Santa Rosa remained in 2015. They should be applauded for that! It's not easy to build a program with or often times without a winning record. EPA Razorbacks won D1 in 2015 yet only a few seasons ago had a tough time of it. A less strong willed crew may have considered a move back to D2. There's a lesson there. This year with two more D2 clubs moving up to D1 we'll have eight teams total. Predictions on parity might vary. Time will tell whether it translates into better results in the post season at National level. 

RR: NorCal has sought to develop a D4 division will that happen this year and how will that grow the game? 
BP: Anyone involved in D3 in the last few years wouldn't regard the matches as social or friendlies. They're fully contested. They're social afterwards. Rightly so. D3 in 2015 started with 16 teams and there was disparity and defaults. Several Clubs were short of numbers as happens due in part to the cyclical nature of a single team club.  Humboldt & Shasta have been a clubs in D3 and find themselves short of numbers able to rebuild in D4 for 2016 rather than potentially fold. They'll rebuild and keep playing albeit as many matches as they can handle. This is an example of "one team - one town" clubs playing and building in the right grade for their players right now.

RR: In the past few years NorCal's D2 and D3 clubs have also had post season success how is NorCal supporting that? 
BP: By hosting the National Championship events in 2015 being the first time since 2002 we saved our member clubs the massive cost of flying four squads out to Texas. Better still the NCRFU event was recognized by those in attendance and USA Rugby who assigns hosting rights as a success. Unless there are unforeseen changes that 2015 event puts us back in the host National events rotation once in every three years with Texas & SoCal. So in its simplest form we've lowered the cost of post season participation by hosting events, running them efficiently, creating a quality experience and making a modest profit. 

RR: What are some of big things/news with NorCal that we can break to the world right now?
BP: Strong Club Initiative is about Union assistance to buy larger Capital improvements. The example is a $4500 scrum machine with the club paying three equal payments of $1500 at the beginning, 12 months and finally at the 24 month stage. The Union pays the other 2/3rds being $3,000 at the time of purchase. This model works for scrum machines, cargo trailers, score boards, goal posts, bleachers. It is not designed for disposable items like balls & bibs. 

RR: What are some of goals for this year for NorCal? 
BP:  Four years ago the Union operated on around a $12,000 budget. Last year it was around $35,000 and this year upwards of $80,000. The games got played on $12,000. Pilots and training initiatives got started on $35,000. Now there's an expectation that in 2016 there's funding and significantly improved events.

RR: How can NorCal distinguish itself as one of the top Unions in the country? What is needed? What are we doing to secure that claim?
BP: NorCal continues to produce an enormous amount of talent from the best Colleges programs in the Nation and Rugby NorCal with the youth as feeders. Not all of it stays or makes the move to Adult rugby in NorCal. We're mindful of that. Making the NCRFU an attractive place for young adults to continue to choose to play is key. It’s a choice. Young adults have lots of choices so we need to make our clubs stronger with initiatives to buy equipment and improve facilities. Advance the elite level of our game with coaching and Pelicans and improve the social experience for all participants at all levels of the game. Games get played. Events take planning and resources. We're committed to putting on quality events to grow the game.

RR: How can we also grow our women's sides in NorCal who have been national contenders as well?
BP: By using the same strategies as a Union across all divisions to all our members. Supersites would work just as effectively for woman as men. Our Pelican Men & Women are under a single Director in Adriaan Ferris, as are our technical coaching clinics with Paul Keeler. A single game on a back field at a middle school has been for too long been a best kept secret. Let’s publicize and get our supporters along to watch at a supersite event, or at a game of the week event. 

RR: Anything else you can share on the status of NorCal going forward and into your 2nd term as head of the Union?
BP: 30 of our 35 clubs attended our August AGM. There were no proxies. That might be a record. In large part because people are engaged. The Agenda was extensive and NOTHING was tabled. I really appreciate all the written reports which enabled the meeting to be faster moving, [mindful of people’s time] and with increased the visibility and accountability of our Union. Special thanks to Dan Wilson the NCRFU Treasurer.  The open for business sign is up; the ever increasing number of events on the calendar for 2016 is in year two becoming hard wired. So that bodes very well for the overall health of our expanding Union up 7% in 2014-2015 as we continue to add teams and overall add more player numbers to our existing clubs again in 2016

It should be noted also that NorCal has also demonstrated through actions their commitment to clean up the game. This year they saw Red Cards reduced to 18 from close to 30-40 which was the average in past years. However with 18 Red Cards, NorCal was still the top offending union so the Union is working to address the issue. It comes from supporting referees, making sure referrers are trained, but  comes down to are players being taught correctly and so more coaching clinics, as well as holding players accountable! NorCal has  made use of its disciplinary committee.  All home matches must be recorded by the home teams, and when there is a Red Card that footage is reviewed by the committee. Everything is being done get the Union to be where it needs to be. NorCal looks to be on the national scene again this year across its divisions, with its women as well as men's sides and its select sides. 

Ben Parker says "The success of the Disciplinary process this past year is attributed to having a weekly hearing with the Committee which is chaired by the Hon. Robert McIlhaney as retired Superior Court Judge and Terence Brennan a retired attorney who serves as the Disciplinary Committee Secretary".  

Thank you to Ben Parker and the staff at NCRFU/Pelicans for taking the time to help set up the interview. Good Luck this season.