Last weekend was a historic weekend for women’s rugby. The first-ever, stand-alone Women’s IRB 7s Tournament was held in Houston at the beautiful BBVA stadium. This is the first year of the IRB Women’s 7s series, which is part of the plan to help make the 2016 Olympics a great success for rugby. The first stop for the women was in Dubai, but that event is paired with the long-standing men’s tournament. In the Dubai tournament, New Zealand beat South Africa in the women’s final. In Houston, it was the USA Women who showed great determination and skill to beat Australia, I believe for the first time, before losing to England in the final.
Results from the IRB 7s series will determine the seeding for the World Cup. As a result, with the USA making it to the Cup final in Houston, the Women’s Eagles moved up in ranking and are in a better position for seeding. Currently, there are 7 teams that all have the chance to beat each other, each having demonstrated a very high level of competition so far. England, New Zealand, Australia, USA, Russia, Holland and South Africa are all competitive, which was seen at both the Dubai and Houston tournaments. The goal of the IRB is to have every team that goes to the Olympics in 2016 be as competitive as possible, and if you add in Spain (who made the semis in Dubai) women’s rugby is pretty close.
USA Rugby did a great job with the event even though there was some disappointment with the crowd turnout on Friday. I am one of the few USA Rugby staff who has been around since the first hosting of the Men’s IRB 7s stop almost a decade ago. That event had about 3000 fans each day with the wonderful story of the Home Depot Center in LA, running out of beer by noon on Saturday even with the small crowd because they did not understand how much a rugby crowd drinks during a 7s tournament! If you look at the USA 7s now, with over 20,000 on each day in Vegas it is difficult to remember it was not always like this. Houston 7s will grow and it will become a place to be for supporters of USA Rugby.
The USA 7s team certainly used home field advantage with some great performances and great games. Day 1 was inconsistent for USA, with a great comeback against Canada to tie, scoring on the last play to beat South Africa, and getting a strong performance against Argentina to win the pool. The Eagles really had two very strong games on Saturday. They dominated Russia, only leaving it close because of missed conversions, and then really gave Australia no chance to win in the Semis. The only try Australia scored was from a long break from their own line. Other than that, the USA controlled the ball and the game. In the final against England, the USA kept it close through the first half, but in the second half allowed England to pull away.
The overall performance by the USA in Houston shows significant progress since Dubai, but it also shows how close all the teams are. Kicking was a consistent issue for the USA and other teams. It is interesting how important conversions are in the outcomes of the games in 7s, and yet how little we really talk about it as coaches. The USA Men were able to tie England in Wellington on the last play of the game because the England kicker missed a conversion in front of the posts.
Ric Suggitt, the USA Women’s 7s coach, and I spent quite a bit of time together in Houston. Ric and I work well together and I have learned a lot from him as a coach. He has been to both the men and women’s 15s World Cup with Canada and was also the coach of the Canadian Men’s 7s team when the IRB circuit was in its beginning stages. You can see the improvement that Ric is getting with the team and the potential that they show to be able to play with the best. However, the team will need to be more consistent in China at the next stop to make it back to the final and win it.
I am coming to the end of my time in France and am still learning a lot about the French’s approach to the game. On Saturday I went to watch USAP (Perpignan) against Bordeaux. The game had an extra edge as the current USAP coach was at Bordeaux the year before.
I had watched the USAP practice this week and spent some time with Dan Leo, a backrow forward who plays for USAP and Samoa and whose sister plays for the USAP women’s team.
I will write a little later about the game USAP plays and my thoughts on it, but what fascinated me was the reaction to the game the next day. I spent the day with the USAP Women’s practice and had lunch with their staff. They had a staff of 11 (everyone from the coaches, to the doctor, President etc) and during lunch they talked about the USAP men’s game from the night before.
“Terrible” and “Catastrophe” were some of the words that were used for USAPs performance. What is strange is that USA actually won 26-16! For the French public, winning is not enough. You must also play well. In fact I think that playing well is probably more important than winning. The opposite of what is true in the US culturally and what is certainly true in the UK where the Premiership and demotion is thought to create negative rugby.
So how does the attitude towards winning effect how we coach and how we play. Certainly it is more difficult to be innovative and try new things when you are focused on winning, but much depends on the standing of the team within the competition. I have two different contexts that I coach – Penn State and the USA Eagles – and in each there are different forces driving how I coach.
At Penn State we have consistently been the best team country and our greatest strength is our player development. Generally we can win our games by having the best players and we usually only get challenged in a couple of games a year. It is easy to play a very simple game plan and let the superior players perform. With the development of varsity programs this difference will begin to change.
With the Eagles we do not have the luxury of having the best players as the difference at the international level is not great. In this situation the need to innovate is great as you find away to maximize the potential by developing a game plan to put your players in the great position to perform.
However we need to find a way to continue to develop our game at Penn State to challenge the players to play at a higher level, and we need to fight against the super complex game plan for the Eagles and let the players be able to just go and play what is in front of them. Keeping this balance between structure and freedom is the greatest challenge of the attacking coach.
Last week was a great opportunity for me to get a taste of French rugby. Nigel Melville opened the door to the Toulon Rugby Club through Olivier Azam. Olivier had played for Nigel when he was at Gloucester and was a very generous host at Toulon. I have been to a number of professional teams and Toulon was by far the most welcoming. On my first morning almost every player came up to welcome me and introduce themselves. This included all the internationals on the team like Johnny Wilkinson, Joe van Niekirk, Freddy Michilak etc.
The Director of Rugby at Toulon is Benard Laporte, the former French National Team coach. It was great to see him work with his team and develop their attacking structure. I spent some time with him on the second day talking about his approach – which was half in English and half in French! On both days the majority of the time was spent in their “collective” work where they play 15v15. I picked up a lot on the 2 days, and one of the things I will definitely take away was the having the forwards and backs in different colored pinnies so you can see the shape of the attack and defense and who is where on defense. Of course it was also amazing to see all these players put in extra work, even when they were world class players. After practice most of the team hung around and worked on some specific skills…and the last one to leave each day was Johnny!
After my trip to Toulon I had a weekend of watching rugby as I saw Biarritz play Connacht, USAP men play Worcester and the USAP women play Bobigny. The women’s game was by far the best match of the weekend as USAP pulled away in the second half. After the match I caught up with the French Women’s backs coach and we talked for 30 minutes. I then caught up with Henri Sagol, who was the former coach of USAP (and Toulouges as it was before). Henri and I have known each other for 8 years as in 2004 Penn State played the Toulouges team, and beat us by over 100-0! He has won 5 French Championships and has worked with the French National Team several times. He is one of the early pioneers of the French women’s game.
Henri and I had a great conversation about the “French style” of play. Henri believes that there are two parts to the French approach. The first is the way that they practice – the collective – with forwards and backs playing together. This is unlike the Anglo-Saxon approach that has lots of skills and technical work and a team run. The collective work (or general movement) is what Laporte did with Toulon and in the 45 minutes of “collective” only the last 10 minutes were from scrums or lineouts. Everything else was from particular situations – go forward ball, go backwards, turnover etc.
The second thing that Henri talked about was how, to the French, that rugby was more about their spirit, that it came from the heart. The fact is the French love the brutality of rugby. It is the physical nature of the game that is evident more than they passing and running that you think of. At both women’s games I have seen there has been a real fight with fists flying. I am struggling to remember if I have seen a fight in a women’s match in the US. But it is that passion that defines French rugby and it is that passion that allows them to move the ball around and play with such width and adventure, and also to step up and fight for their teammates.
After the tour of the Eagles, I have stayed in France and settled in the south Catalan city of Perpignan. I am based here for 6 weeks as I do work for a consulting client in various offices in Europe. Perpignan is an old town and has a tremendous rugby tradition. The local men’s team, USAP, is one of the best in France. Rugby is everywhere here including on the front of the local newspaper and being the dominant sport. When I walk around with any USA Rugby gear I get stopped and we start a conversation that I sort of understand about rugby. They always ask “quinze ou treize” (15 or 13) as rugby league is very strong here and Perpignan is also the home of the Catalan Dragons, a rugby league team that plays in the British Super League.
This past weekend was a great weekend of rugby for me. On Saturday I took the train to Toulouse to watch the Heineken Cup match between Stade Toulousain and the Ospreys. I spent the morning at the Christmas market and the amazing Victor Hugo covered market before heading out and watch a good game where Stade Toulousain pulled away at the end. The city is definitely a rugby down with the ST symbol of the team everywhere.
On Sunday I went to watch the USAP women take on Rennes in the French Division 1. The game was in a small stadium, they charged 5 euro for entry, had a beer stall open and about 100 passionate fans on hand to support. USAP is everywhere in Perpignan and much of the passion is based on the sense that it represents Catalan and not just the town. It was great to have everyone on their feet cheering when USAP scored.
Both teams are in the middle of the table, but USAP has the better pedigree as a 5-time winner of the Championship (although as Toulouges). The game was very interesting to watch and completely different than watching a women’s club game in the US. The level of skill in the backs was very high, with every back being able to kick and only one pass being dropped in the whole of the first half. They also played a very wide and fast game with the ball being moved constantly. The style of play was very similar to the French National team, with the forwards attacking the fringe and the backs swinging around to space.
The skill level was so high that there were very few scrums in the first half and many more lineouts. However the game was close with USAP scoring at the end the to make it 7-5 at half. The Renne center and former France International Sandrine Agricole was classy and their Australian Fullback was a threat and scored both of their tries. However it was the half-back pairing of Marie-Alice Yahe and Christelle Le Duff that controlled the game. Yahe is the current captain of France and Le Duff has 58 caps for France (and played in the World Cup twice). The quality of their play was outstanding. Yahe missed one pass the whole game, with her service always putting Le Duff in a positive position. Le Duffs transfer and kicking were outstanding, and she made 5 drop-goal attempts (all from the 10m line as a way to keep Rennes in their half). It was wonderful to watch two women play such a skilled position so well. They both come from rugby playing families and both started playing rugby relatively young.
As the game broke down there were more scrums and the forwards tired. USAP actually used two tighthead prop subs in the game and this showed as their dominance in the scrum told and Rennes were penalized. USAP pulled away finally winning 25-12.
So the question is how would a team like USAP do against the best USA club teams. This game was far more sophisticated than a club game in theUSA. There were more kicks in the first 15 minutes than you would normally see in the whole of a game in the US, with both scrum-halves showing good box kicking skills. However the fitness and overall athleticism of the French sides are much lower than their US counterparts. I would believe that US forwards would have the edge, especially near the end of the game. However the French backs running lines (they never ran straight) and skills would get the edge. Not unlike the international match between France and USA at the Stade de France where we need to improve for the Eagles is in our play in the backs.
You can check out the write-up of the game online.