The Make Up Of NorCal D1 Is Changing

The make up of Northern California Rugby Football Union’s (NorCal) First Division (D1) is changing. Its changing in part as teams in NorCal are working to find where they can be successful and build and some of its is influenced by PRO Rugby. This past season a number of NorCal teams had their players selected to participate in the inaugural PRO Rugby season. With both PRO Rugby’s San Francisco Rush and Sacramento Express located in the unions’ fertile rugby grounds many players we selected from last year’s DI teams and the NorCal Selects the Pelicans.  Santa Rosa, East Palo Alto (EPA Razorbacks), San Francisco Golden Gate (SFGG), Sacramento Lions, Sacramento Black Hawks, and Life West all had players move into the professional ranks during their season which changed the make up of the teams as the season went on.

Additionally, the launch of PRO Rugby did in some sense make the Pacific Rugby Premiership (PRP) a great competition which was the highest domestic competition drop to second tier (compared to PRO Rugby).  So for some PRP clubs there is the risk of loosing some players to PRO which could impact their ability to play at the PRP level some, so is going to D1 a better option then? It would be much more cost effective. In NorCal’s D1 the Clubs are all within 2-3 hour drive, with PRP there are costs for flights and out of state travel.   We know the PRP will postpone its season while it looks at options, it does has four teams opting to play in the new California Cup which will feature Olympic Club, SFGG (both who played in the PRP and had a D1 side) and Life West already a D1 side.

It has been confirmed that Olympic Club (O-Club) who had once been a national power in D1 will field a D1 side in NorCal once again. O Club has been competitive in the PRP, but has not boosted a winning record in its time up at the PRP. With the changed to PRP the only real option for O-Club is to field a D1 side so it can continue to play (at least this spring).

The opportunity arose for O-Club to consider fielding a D1 side with three teams leaving NorCal’s DI to rebuild. San Jose Seahawks, the Sacramento Blackhawks, and Fresno RFC all opted to drop back down to NorCal’s D2 where they could try and rebuild their programs which with the exception of Fresno’s first year in DI (where they made the NorCal post season) none have been able to post a winning record in D1 and their numbers have been down.   That shift meant that NorCal would have only 5 teams and would have difficulty getting to the games threshold needed for post season play (Nationals), so O-Club ensures the teams will now have 10 regular season games and can still play a few “NorCal playoff games” to reach the mark for nationals. The move also ensures that O-Club will be able to play competitive consistent rugby as the PRP postpones play for this season.

We reached out to each of the clubs in NorCal’s D1 to get their take on some of changes in the league and how some of the changes (both the addition of PRO Rugby and changes to the Divisions’ make up will impact their clubs this season).

Adriaan Ferris (Athletic Director for Life West and also a member of the San Francisco Rush’s coaching staff) sees O-Club’s inclusion as “a positive move for NorCal Rugby. Now that 6 teams (Life West, OC, SFGG, EPA, Santa Rosa & Sac Lions) have confirmed their participation in NorCal D1, we know that all games are going to be very competitive - having the likes of OC and SFGG fielding strong D1 sides will see a far more interesting league season for sure”.

Arron Frederick, Administrator for the Sac Lions sees the addition of O-Club similarly saying “We are excited to see the transition in D1 and know this will continue to increase the quality of rugby in the region”.

Rick Humm, Coach for Santa Rosa RFC said it would be difficult to know its direct impact, noting the  addition of the California Cup and the PRO Rugby season. “It does look as through across the board, the division will be very strong” said Humm. “Santa Rosa will need to play their best rugby week in and week out to be competitive”.

Humm went on to say “the loss of the Blackhawks, San Jose and Fresno may eliminate some of the lopsided scores they experienced, but, again, its hard to know that the division will be like with so many unknowns going into the year…it will certainly be a tough task for Santa Rosa”.

“The addition of O-Club to D1 won’t have a significant bearing on Gate” said Kevin Sullivan of SFGG. Some of that is because at the same time Gate will also have access all its players which in the past with the PRP limited the pool of players for its D1 side.

The Suiplei Sakalia who was the senior veteran on the EPA Razorbacks side before joining the San Francisco Rush said---“we felt the competition was always good in D1. All those teams could at any time beat you.  I think the competition will stay as one of the top ones even with the changes and O-Club coming. It will really help teams be prepared for Nationals”.

For the most part the clubs in NorCal D1 see the changes as positive and feel it will mutually benefit all the teams in the competition.  Ferris said “This is a new season and we take nothing for granted. We realize that we have to earn the right to participate in the National playoff series. But without question, whoever emerges victorious at the end of the NorCal season will have earned that spot and also the right to progress! I don’t see any easy games in local league play. I see there being close fought games and I’d like to think the quality and competitiveness of the league will be an improvement from last year. Each team gets to play one another on a home and away basis, so that will mean that every game counts – there will be no let up all season. So in that respect, I believe the NorCal D1 Champion will be as prepared as they could be heading into the post season. As a union, we want all NorCal teams going all the way to the finals at Nationals. So the tougher we make the league locally, the better prepared that team will be.”

We also asked the teams how the emergence of PRO Rugby has impacted the clubs? Would that impact continue or would they be able to help with some of the season? Ferris informed us “We have been told that all Pro players will be released to their clubs subject to receiving approval and a waiver from Pro Rugby HQ. The PRO preseason is set to start on 15 February 2017 so I wouldn’t imagine any of our guys who are now professional players will be available for the bulk of the D1 season. However, they will be able to play in the new California Cup/winter league season that is being been set up for December & January.”

This means that teams can’t rely on their returning professional players for the regular league season or for nationals, which can hurt a team, but it means that its going to fairly be balanced for all the teams in NorCal’s D1, so this will still mean the season should be competitive and really be an incentive for the players to step up their play.

The Impact of PRO Rugby

No one can deny that PRO Rugby had a big impact last season on a number of clubs in NorCal.  The Sac Lions felt that it was a big positive as for them since that’s been the goal always “to see rugby progressing to this next stage in the United States” says Fredrick.  While PRO took a number of players for the D1 clubs and the union (NorCal) teams like the Lions feel it really helped those clubs’ profiles as these were players from their ranks and their competition that were deemed good enough to play professionally.

Similarly Life West who lost 12 (yeah 12) of is players to PRO Rugby didn’t see it as a negative “We had a number of Life West players go on to play Pro Rugby but rather than be concerned about losing them from our program, I embraced it as a good thing and actively encouraged the guys to play Pro. Coming from NZ and the layered system that exists there, means that players need to take opportunities that will get them to the next level. Back home that means progression from club rugby to NPC, then to Super Rugby and ultimately to the All Blacks” explains Ferris. He goes on to say “To me, as a coach, I’m a strong believer of helping players grow, develop and take every opportunity they can in the game. I¹m lucky at Life West to have a Board of Directors that believe in a growth mindset - for me that means helping young men and women grow and maximize their potential - both as a rugby player and more importantly as a person, so when we lost 12 players to the pro league last season, I saw it as a challenge to grow rather than catastrophic event that could end our season”. Life West indeed had developed a program and depth which allowed them to win out in league make a serious run at a D1 National title after winning the D2 title just the year before.

The EPA Razorbacks had five, yes five players jump to PRO. Some players were on “game-day” contracts but there were players like Suiplei Saklia and Langilangi Haupeakui who made an impact on their PRO teams.  “I don’t think PRO (Rugby) hurt the teams in NorCal, it actually allowed for some guys like myself and others with great talent to get seen” says Sakalia.  “I wish we had this a few years earlier, as I think more guys would have made it from the area. So many great players in the bay and NorCal” reflected Sakilia. There could have been more Razorbacks involved with PRO Rugby last year said Sakalia, but for some not having full-time contracts and having to work and still train proved too hard.

Golden Gate was not as impacted by the launch of PRO Rugby last year, as many of its players were already playing with the team’s PRP side, but some former Gate players featured well in the league including Volney Rouse (who finished the season as the top point scorer). Sullivan of Golden Gate stated  “Professional rugby was going to happen. What different forms it takes remains to be seen (PRO, Premiership, etc.)” meaning that as the game grows more clubs will loose players to the next level, but the focus for Gate is on their club now.

None of the clubs remaining were “un-touched” by the launch of PRO Rugby. This isn’t a bad thing, but it did have an impact. Santa Rosa saw two players make the promotion including Robert Meeson.  

Life West’s success can be attributed to those just those 12 players who made the transition to the professional ranks, or it can be to the other players who then stepped up and earned those victories and competed at Nationals, but is also has to be a credited to the coaching and the club’s philosophy. That can not be denied! “I was disappointed to lose against the Austin Blacks at nationals, but looking back I was proud of what we had achieved over the past two seasons. Having an unbeaten winning streak of 43 games through D2 and D1 is a record we can be proud of - that may never be repeated in this program. And some say you need to lose one to win one, so our goal is to improve on what we did last season and get ourselves to the Championship game”. Ferris’s approach of looking and moving forward rather than dwelling in the past may be the secret to their success.

So What About This Year?

Life West- Even after Life West lost 12 players from its D1 side last year it still finished out the season as the top team in NorCal and went on a serious run for the National Championship before coming up short in the semi-final to the Austin Blacks.  So where will they be this year with not having those players back for the NorCal regular season?   For Ferris while loosing 12 players will impact any team, for Life West it allowed them to expose some of their younger players to a higher level of play and to get quality time against some of the top sides in the county.  “Last year” says Ferris “we threw some young talented boys in the deep end to see if they would cope and from my perspective, as long as they believed in our style of play, system & structures, then I knew we would be competitive. And that is all a coach could ask for from his players - the willingness to compete. If there is a willingness to compete then winning or losing is irrelevant”.

What will drive the success of Life West this year? Ferris goes on to say “I think people realize that we are a strong and well organized program. Players have come to realize that if they want to improve their game and help themselves progress to another level that Life West is an option for them. We pride ourselves on creating competition for places on our starting roster and we play a style of game is exciting to watch. Our program is about continuous growth development and we aren’t resting on our laurels or thinking that what we have done so far is enough! In fact, far from it, because we are working harder now than we have in the previous three years since the program was first established. We now have the new Sports Performance Institute at the college and we are using the Institute to help develop the players & coaching staff. We now have better training facilities, more advanced strength & conditioning modalities, improved performance care for all players and just by having the opportunity to monitor individual development, we feel our players will be better prepared for the season ahead. They will need to be because all other teams will have improved.” So clearly Life West is not sitting back, but being as pro-active as it can with getting its players ready long before the season starts.

Sacramento Lions- We have seen the Sacramento Lions change up a bit in the past few years and that not meant as a slight. The Sac Lions had really become a national power going into the national playoffs almost each season, being written about by other rugby publications and being ranked as a top 20 club in the county on a regular basis.  Comparing the Lions of the past two seasons (while talented) it has not had the results they have been accustomed to. Aside from PRO there has been what seems to be a great deal of turnover with the Lions as well. 

“Yes some guys have gotten older and stepped away to care for family, tend to work, or just had to accept age” said Fredrick about the turnover.   “For the senior leaders on the team we are proud to see their rising leadership and in some cases the passing of the torch to the next generation of players.  It has been great to see players coming out of the high school programs plus elsewhere in the United States or world to play rugby in Northern California” shared Fredrick.

What the Sac Lions do have to their advantage is reputation for success and an experienced coach which has helped in recruiting players to reload their roster.  Fredrick said “Players are attracted to the Lions because of the culture and coaching staff.  With coaches such as Ifereimi Tawake and Epeli Naituivau, who both played with the Fiji National Team, we are seeing a new level of training and coaching that we did not have years ago when the club was player coach based.  This along with a track record of being one of the top teams in Northern California has been helpful in attracting new players”.

So will the Lions be back on top this coming season?  We posted this question to Fredrick who responded with “That is hard to answer.  The club has always been a top team in NorCal to contend with and we foresee that to continue.  As the senior players are learning to work together with the new players it is only matter of time before that chemistry pops and puts the club back in the National playoffs”. The Lions have the talent and the coaching to easily make them a contender, so we suggest that readers keep an eye on them as well as all the D1 teams in NorCal. The Lions have the past experience, talent,  and coaching to win!   

Santa Rosa RFC- Santa Rosa who in the early part of the decade established themselves as a D2 power making several run at nationals have had success in D1 (really one of the only teams who came up from D2 a few years back). While Rosa has not been made it to nationals in D1 they’ve been part of the upper echelon of the DI teams in NorCal showing an ability to play with any team on any Saturday. Rosa also lost several players to PRO, but that didn’t impact Rosa as much as other teams.

Santa Rosa’s biggest challenge this year may be numbers. Over the past few years Santa Rosa has had difficulty in having numbers on a consistent bases, but was able to be in the top half of the competition. While Santa Rosa is team with great coaching, great support, youth programs and talent, it has not been able to have the numbers it needs to ensure week in and week out it will not only have the personnel it needs but the players to make it through the long grinding NorCal season.  “Santa Rosa does need to build” said Humm. He believed the key is “that the building and play need to be fun AND challenging in order to attract players”.

SFGG- Will likely be more competitive than its D1 sides have been the past few years and that has been mostly due to the PRP. Golden Gate had moved many of its players to its PRP ranks and was using its D1 side as more of a developmental side. Also the departure of Coach Mike Caravalli had left Gate with inconsistent coaching at that level.  Kevin Sullivan of SFGG said the big difference (other than having availability of PRP Players would be coaching.  Said Sullivan “We’re bringing in new coaches, which is always a challenge, but with Neil Foote with us for the next five years, plus our relationship with the London Harlequins, we are confident that our coaching staff will grow stronger and more consistent”. So Gate with its long established traditions and club structure will be able to draw talent, and with some additional coaching the having some of those PRP players available for its D1 roster they can immediately become a formidable club in the already stacked league. 

EPA Razorbacks- the Razorbacks proved to still be a formidable side battling to the end for the league title before falling to Life West for the NorCal title. The previous year they’d made a run in nationals before falling to Dallas. We say “still formidable” because the team returned from their 2014 success ready to take on NorCal, but then lost as noted five players to PRO Rugby.

However the one thing the Razorbacks have shown to be over the years is resilience.  This year is no different. PRO has helped the Razorbacks according to Sakalia. “We have more guys out than ever before. While we are working to clear up some financial items so we can start registering players, we have more guys wanting to play for the Razorbacks then ever before” shared Sakalia. While the Razorbacks haven’t poled the new players to determine why the sudden increase in interest in guys wanting to play for them (nor does it matter as they think it is great) they are attributing it to the number of players from their club to get the attention of the Pelican’s and PRO Rugby coaches.  The game is growing and more guys now see some potential especially when the likes of Langilangi Haupeakui who played with the Razorbacks last season just signed a professional contract to go play for the Glasgow Warriors in the Pro 12 this season!

The Razorbacks believe they can make another run at the NorCal D1 title, as they feel the competition will still be similar as last year, and most the PROs will be gone by Feb meaning that they have more numbers (and potentially some additional diamonds in the rough). Sakalia simply says “boys been putting in work”. Sakalia says the team has been training all summer, doing gym sessions twice a day (4am and then at night) and that work from so many players will help them this year.

Lastly there is Olympic Club, who is returning to NorCal’s D1. Now O-Club had been playing in the PRP and while it didn’t experience the success it desired, it was not because of the talent or pool of players. Now with O-Club returning to NorCal D1, it will be bringing most of that PRP roster (minus a few players who they’ll likely loose to PRO Rugby). With that said O-Club should be one of the more experienced teams with depth which in a physical and strong league can sometimes be the difference.  The return of O-Club will continue its rivalry with fellow city dwellers SFGG as well as old foes in the Sac Lions and the Razorbacks.

It will really be hard to argue that this will not be one of the top two or three competitions/leagues in the county this year based on the clubs that are playing. The clubs in NorCal’s D1 either have established programs, or ability to tap into some great local talent. You now also have two clubs that will see their PRP side players coming back to their D1 sides which will change the landscape for them. Think of SFGG can go from the bottom half of the league to the top with an influx of numbers just from its PRP side. Life West continues to draw and attract new talent. Sac Lions sit in a youth rugby rich community (Sacramento). EPA Razorbacks have seen the largest showing of players interested in rugby in its history.

This level of talent and experience should ensure parity in NorCal’s D1 and really foster some of the best club level rugby (outside the California Cup). SCRFU’s 1 may be equally competitive this year or maybe one other union but there are only a few that will be at this level.  NorCal seems to be one of the top places to play this year.

Make sure to follow us on-line or social media for more updates on the clubs in California.  We are on Twitter-@RugbyRepublic1 on Instagram @therugbyrepublic and on Facebook.