Want to know what is happening in one of the largest rugby unions in the county? The rugby season is in full swing out here in California. We are just a few weekends into league play for one of the nation’s larger rugby unions, the Southern California Rugby Football Union (SCRFU). The off or pre-season in Southern California was not been quiet however. The has there has been the reestablishment of the select sides the Griffins, there has been restructuring to create greater parity within the divisions and now we have PRO Rugby in the picture, and will have a SoCal team (San Diego) and their emergence on the rugby landscape has an ripple effect). To understand what the rugby landscape in Southern California will look like going forward this year we spoke with SCRFU president Geno Mazza.
Geno is in his second term as the SCRFU President, but had also served as the SCRFU Vice President for two years prior to that and has been involved with SCRFU for close to six years. Geno is also a member of Old Mission Beach Athletic Club (OMBAC) and the Director of Operation for the Pacific Rugby Premiership (PRP). Needless to say Geno is the person with the insight on what’s happening in Southern California.
Below is our interview with SCRFU President Geno Mazza.We should note that Geno was available to us and helped us with calls, emails and follow ups we appreciative it as he's a very busy man.
Rugby Republic (RR): Based on your work last year and efforts this year with is the state of SCRFU?
Geno Mazza (GM): We’ll this is my second year now as President (but I’ve been involved with SCRFU for six years). We did have at one point 3 presidents in 3 years, so for now I think there is some stability. With the stability of leadership in place, we can start to lay the foundation on the next steps in growth. Main focus is the clubs and helping them grow. Better coaching and organization with in their club everyone benefits on and off the pitch. The biggest thing is seeing how the union has grown. We are really working to be more organized as far as a union and to help our clubs be more organized. We want to connect the club and the union. We now have the All Stars (Griffins) for our Men’s and Women’s clubs and added an Under 23 Men’s team to focus on the development of the younger player who may not be in college.which involved all the clubs and we had several DIII club players who had a strong showing during the Griffins trials, so we are making everything more inclusive for all the players, as well as coaches.
RR: What are one or two goals you or the Union has for this coming year/season?
GM: One is to improve and increase communication with the clubs and provide greater transparency from the Union. For example we provide a itemized budget to all the clubs and for the first time in a long time we passed a budget with nearly a unanimous vote from the membership. We are trying to invest back in the clubs, so this year we gave each club 10 match balls, ball bag, 15 bibs, 20 cones, just some basic stuff to help them with training and games for this season. We want to make sure they get something for their money.
The other big goal was to get the Griffins back up and running, for 7’s and 15’s as well as launch an Under 23 program which we have how. We were able to get a few games in prior to the season starting. Our Under 23’s played an Australian Aboriginal Touring side and Santa Monica’s PRP team. The Men and Women played the Nor Cal Pelicans on Dec 5th. And we plan on taking 7’s teams to Las Vegas to compete in the LVI in March.
RR: Lets talk about the Griffins program.
GM: The goal would be to break the Union into 4 territories and teams, that would be a 120 players playing higher level games then what they are seeing within their own league. Then take it down to 2 teams, North vs South for a lack of a better name. After this game was played we would select a squad of 30 for the year, to play games and train on Sundays. The under 23 men and women’s teams maybe a smaller pool to start but time will tell. Another side goal is to focus on the Eagle Eligible Players to the program and help and identify potential Eagles. SCRFU has turned to Tiger Rugby and Ray Egan to lead the charge in player and coaching development. We are excited about this Partnership and the vision and experience that they bring to the table. Well I’m super pumped to get the program back up and running! We know that is a bit difficult for all these players to travel for training, trials, etc. Now that we have the Griffins up and running we want to see if we can break it up to several SoCal geographical area/territories with 30 players and have those play each other and players from those sides through scrimmages/games would play into a the Griffins rep side which can then play NorCal, or touring sides, etc. Just to get more reps from more teams. We really want to get other players from more isolated areas, or who maybe play for a smaller club of lower divisions to maybe be seen now by PRP clubs, or to come to the attention of USA Rugby to get into the Eagles pool and ideally to find the next Eagles.
We want to be able to have three to four games for them a year so for now we are going to just have training once a month (plus our season starts in days).
We also are really working to find games for our women’s Griffins. There aren’t a lot of options right now, and we don’t get a lot of touring women’s sides through Southern California so that’s a challenge. We may enter our women’s side in this year’s Las Vegas Invitational (in 15s) so that will afford us a good game.
We also have the U-23 Griffins Side which we want to get to match more like the U-20s programs around the county. We opted not to allow any of the college players into the U-23 because there is a format for college players, so this is for guys who are young, not in college and may not able to complete with the senior men’s players just yet. So our U-23 is going to focus more on 7s for now and also kids not in college so that we can offer some opportunities and or incentives for kids to keep playing after high schools.
RR: How did you guys come up with doing a performance program and connecting with the likes for Tiger Rugby? Will they be working with the Griffins only?
GM: I sat down with Alex Magleby (of USA Rugby) and asked him on what they are looking for, what are the things they want in players. We would film players post them or sent them in and seek feedback on players to help out players but also to see what they wanted to see from the players. This allowed us to work closely with USA and their vision for players so we could work to get them there. Tiger Rugby has set up shop in our back yard and their performance program is affiliated with USA Rugby 7’s, so we felt it was a good fit. Ray Egan is working with Tiger Rugby; he’s also running our Griffins program so that’s a great fit. Ray works also with Belmont Shore (and has experience with Munster). So it was some of the coaching that Tiger Rugby has, and their faculties. You have to see their facility it is outstanding.
We are also working with the Rhino Training Academy for our youth.
RR: How many clubs do you have in SCRFU going into this season (men’s and women’s total). And how do you support that many clubs across such a large geographical area (Vegas to Bakersfield to San Luis Obispo to San Diego)?
GM: We also two women’s clubs in Arizona. Overall we have 42 teams. We have 7 DI men’s sides, 10 Men’s DII, 14 Men’s DIII, we also have 4 women’s in DI and 7 in women’s DII. So it’s big.
While we have a large geographical territory it’s not that bad. I know teams in the Red River Rugby Conference who travel approximately 6hrs for a game, so we aren’t that bad. Most our teams are fairly clustered and so we are able to make adjustments if need be to kickoff times for those who have to travel. The issue is more for the selects with players having to travel for training, but that’s why we are looking at moving the trainings around the Union to try and make it easier and also the idea for breaking up the selects to a smaller territorial side that can train regionally.
RR: As a Union you have some of the top clubs as well as top players in both 7s and 15s does tip the scales or does having that much talent create parity?
GM: I think we have a good balance for the most part. We’ve really tried to make the competition balance and to have that parity. We don’t have a promotion/relegation requirement, but at the end of the each season we sit down and we talk about that. We work with the clubs to move them up or down. We’ve had Back Bay go down a Division to reorganize, we’ve had Pasadena move up to DI. The Union and the clubs work to make sure that each club is where it should be.
We moved a number of teams out of D4 into DIII and really consolidated that competition so its more balanced and consistent.
For us a good game is one that is decided by 7 points. Not where teams are loosing by 50, that doesn’t help that club, it doesn’t help with retention etc. Guys wont want to travel and come to loose by 50 each week.
The only time it’s an issue is more at the national level (in playoffs) where there is a team that is playing DII but really is a DI side, etc. We can’t control most of that. What we have started is a conversation with the Pacific South about those type of issues. Arizona clubs like Tempe play DII, because there are no DI teams in Arizona but they may be more on par with a DI side. So there is talk if some of those teams make it to nationals next year that they play in the DI competition. Tempe is on a one year notice depending on their results this year that the following year for nationals they’d have to play up a division. We are also working with the Pacific South to rotate the playoffs each year so SCRFU goes to Arizona, Arizona goes to New Mexico, and then New Mexico comes to SoCal so the travel is shared.
RR: What are the plans to support the growth of some of the women’s sides in SoCal? Ventura had a great run last year, with the 7s the Surfers made great run, so how can SCRFU make sure the women’s game is also recognized?
GM: We have the Women’s Griffins and we have the skills camps as a way to help grow and develop those players. The Surfers, aside from 7s are playing in the Women’s Premier League (WPL) so we aren’t really affiliated with them, nor are their players at this time play in the Griffins, but we want to develop more of the players so they can play at the WPL and to play for sides like the Surfers.
We are also working to grow the competition and just opportunities to play. We’ve added a women’s side out of Temecula and also SLO, so those are good moves to grow the game.
Fullerton’s Coach Emily Ortega is an outstanding coach and is also the Women’s Griffin’s coach. We’ve asked what they need and some of the request from the coaches has been to get them training and develop them so they can in-turn develop those players at the club levels to become Griffins or better players.
RR: So how does the arrival of PRO Rugby in general impact SCRFU?
GM: A lot is still up in the air. It didn't sound like this year there was going to be a team in SoCal. That has changed. We haven’t gotten final on coaches either so we don't really know.
We aren’t sure if the Griffins will be a selection option for PRO Rugby this year or in the future but that could have an impact. We think there are 30-60 players in the Union who could fill out spots across that league. The combine that was held this past weekend and had a good turn out. We found some good players in their and think they would have as well.
Some of the big names or former pool players did not show up for the tryouts, mostly lack of knowing where teams may be. A professional that plays rugby on the weekends is maybe less likely to take a pay cut to play rugby fulltime.
Our performance coaches also work with USA and PRP and so we think that there will be connection with PRO Rugby. PRP Films all of their games and shares the game films with the USA Rugby staff, SCRFU D1 teams (men and women) will be doing the same this up coming season.
A lot of credit though needs to go to Steven Lewis of PRO Rugby. He’s been taking the time to come out and meet with the clubs and unions and has been working his way up from clubs down here with OMBAC up the state to the SFGGs, etc. He’s really engage and working to coordinate their season and working to not hurt the club level etc. I don’t know what his specific conversations with coaches or his contacts with clubs are, but I’m sure he’s gotten some information on local players.
Thanks to Geno and the team at SCRFU for their time and help with the interview. The SCRFU’s season has started and it should be another great season with the Griffins and some outstanding rugby in everyone of their Divisions.
You can also follow the PRC on-line with their own site and social media feeds.