As we stare out the window at the empty fields of the pandemic world it’s hard to imagine what rugby will look like in the coming year. In an effort to better grasp the situation, we asked six coaches/referees their thoughts about the immediate future of women’s rugby. What is most hopeful is the perspective many hold that this pause is an opportunity to rethink issues like seasonality, competitive calendars, player safety and coaching styles. But it’s inevitable that many of our most sacred beliefs about coaching will likely be challenged going forward. As Phaidra Knight wisely offered in a recent Forbes article Covid-19 and Women's Sports: Another Casualty of Gender Inequity? :
“There's an opportunity for women to come out of this thing strong. We are used to not having. [Women’s sports] are used to surviving off of bare minimum and making something out of nothing. It's just what we do. It's the nature of our existence as athletes.
Although it’s just what we have done, it’s not what we accept. The buck stops nothing short of equity. But 3.2 percent of sports media is dedicated to women. So when there's a loss, there's a lesser loss to us. For a female athlete, it's just another day. I've got to dig in and improvise and do things a little differently. But this has been the story of my career. It's been the story of my life.”
Jamie Burke is an Assistant Coach for the Glendale Merlins' Women's Premier League team, helping guide the team to two National Championships. She is also the Head Coach for the Rugby Colorado Girls High School All-State Team and has recently stepped into a role as an Assistant Coach with the U.S. Women's National Team. She is a Coach Educator for USA Rugby and has the distinction of being the most capped USA women's player of all time with fifty caps. Rosalind Chou (Ros) is the Head Coach of Life University Women’s Rugby and Assistant Coach of the Atlanta Harlequins. She was the 2016 USAR Female Coach of the Year, has served on the 2018 Collegiate All-American staff and has been the WPL East All-Star Coach (2018 and 2019). In addition to coaching full time, Rosiland is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University Amanda Cox is one of the most senior female referees in the world. Her resume includes, CMO2, USARR Development Administrator, SERRS Assistant Referee Development Officer, and Executive Director, Referees, Carolinas Geographic Union. She is a Referee Coach for Major League Rugby and was Referee Manager for the Women’s Premier League. In 2019 Amanda was selected to attend World Rugby’s first Women’s High Performance Academy at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport in South Africa. Amanda played rugby for over 18 years and is a founding member of Raleigh Venom (winner of 4 National Championships). She’s an Analytical Chemist living in North Carolina. Kate Daley is the Head Coach of the Penn State Women’s Rugby team and Assistant Coach to the U.S. Women’s National 15’s team (focusing on defense). She’s active in Rugby PA’s Girls High School All-State Team and invitational high school teams. She was formerly involved in the age grade programs as an Assistant Coach (GHSAA, USA US20s) as well as coaching at the high school, DI, DII, DI Elite college level and D1 women’s club rugby. MaryBeth Mathews (MB) has been the head coach of the Bowdoin College Women's Rugby Team since 1994, with elevation to varsity status in 2002 thus making Bowdoin the oldest women's varsity rugby program in the country. MB has established Bowdoin rugby as a perennial contender, with the Polar Bears qualifying for the post-season in 20 of her 23 years at the helm, including placing first in their NIRA division this past year. MB is also the founder of the Polar Bear Rugby Camp, one of the oldest and most successful summer rugby camps and the first camp exclusively for girls and women.
Kittery Wagner Ruiz (Kitt) is the Commissioner of the Women’s Premier League (WPL). She was previously Head Coach of the Atlanta Harlequins and an Assistant Coach at Life University and is currently Lead Coach for Atavus and a College Advisor for The Rugger’s Edge. Kitt was previously Assistant Coach for the USA U-20 Women’s National Team and Head Coach of the Glendale Raptors and West Select Side 7s. She spent eight years on the US Women’s National 15’s Team and played in the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. She played for two seasons on the US Women’s National 7s Team and was selected to the 2009 World Cup training squad.
Will there be a fall rugby season, if so, what will it look like?
Ros: Fall season is up in the air. While of course we all miss rugby and our teams, the health and safety of everyone is paramount. If we do have a season, WPL holds a fall championship and, as of now, that’s the plan for the collegiate season. There are, of course, contingency plans being made in the event we cannot move forth with a fall season. Amanda: All we can do is be ready when they say we can play. Kitt: Honestly, the fall for WPL is up in the air. Currently we are operating under the assumption that we will be able to play. We have to prepare - things have to happen behind the scenes to make the season run smoothly. If we cannot move forward with WPL in the fall we will convene as a league and discuss how and when we will move forward. Kate: Penn State has not announced whether there will be a competitive sports season or not this fall. As a program we are planning and developing contingency planning for multiple scenarios. The hope, of course, is rugby continues in the fall on a relatively normal schedule. I think rugby is luckier than some sports in that many clubs and programs have flexibility in the seasonality of their schedules. This could allow us to start and finish the season at variable times. Perhaps we’ll be able to push back the start of the season until matches are allowed. Rather than thinking of rugby as having a fall season and spring season, this moment is an opportunity for problem solving. Our strength is our flexibility. If we think of rugby, for the foreseeable future, as having a 15’s season and a 7’s season, weather tends to dictate play but if we plan for a ‘non traditional competitive season’ and prepare our athletes to start later and play later we could come through this having provided our teams with a great competitive experience and also gain insights into possibilities for rethinking 15’s and 7’s seasons. MB: Collegiate rugby in New England and the Northeast is still up in the air. The health and safety of everyone is the primary concern and any move to open the college this fall will be based on the best knowledge at the time. The ability to pivot if things change in July/August is also a factor. If return to campus is deemed safe at some point, the College will look at all scenarios. Athletics and other extracurricular activities will be a lower priority than academics. If there’s a fall season, it could look very different from 2019 in terms of schedules, travel, best practices, clearance. Jamie: The fall is still a question mark. Sport (contact sport in particular) is likely to be one of the last things to come back because it includes so many factors of group-size restrictions, social distancing, etc. Both the National Team and WPL are working on a lot of possible options depending on what unfolds over the next few months
If not fall, when is rugby likely to return?
Ros: The return of rugby will be dictated by public health officials, university policy makers, and rugby governing bodies. So we are at the mercy of those decision makers. Amanda: Call me an optimist, but I think we will see some sevens this summer, and normal league play in the Fall. Kitt: I’m also staying positive and thinking that we will see rugby return by this fall. I am not sure that summer 7s will happen as it would need to start sooner rather than later and many cities and states have extended their stay at home orders. We will continue to monitor what will be allowed to keep everyone safe, that is our top priority. MB: Ditto above: the return of rugby will be dictated by public health officials, the College President and our rugby’s governing bodies. Jamie: I think we will see rugby return in different ways because it will be driven by a lot of factors - state and national health orders and recommendations, university officials, NCAA regulations, and national governing bodies. I don’t know that it will be a ‘one size fits all’ return to play but will likely vary depending on community and location.
What's likely to change when the season does start? Will rugby return to 'business as usual'?
Ros: We do not know exactly what returning back to rugby will look like. It’s a physical sport where we are in close contact with each other in training and matches. American college football is also faced with this question, as I assume the same for wrestling and even basketball. This is just another unknown in the current landscape. Amanda: I think once we really get a handle on this virus, rugby will be able to return to normal. Kitt: We will have to monitor what public health officials are asking of people. If it is that folks can’t be in a certain size group, then we will have to follow those guidelines. I do not think that the season will be business as usual. There will still be precautions being taken and people’s health will be prioritized. Kate: Many of these decisions will be based on the guidelines from the CDC and our individual states and institutions, and will largely be determined by when groups of certain sizes are allowed to gather. If we are able to return to campus but not compete or practice because of restrictions on group size or physical contact, then we will need to adjust our training or have classroom sessions in smaller groups. For small group instruction to be productive on a large ‘team scale’ we’ll need to think deeply about communicating with players, perhaps creating a central platform for sharing information, ensuring continuity and clarifying messaging.
MB: We need more knowledge about the virus. At Bowdoin, we are looking at new procedures from athletic trainers for clearances (that is, IF we can play). I’m normally an optimist, but rugby, football, wrestling, basketball, soccer - sports where athletes are within a few feet of each other may not be back for some time, at least until there is a vaccine. Jamie: I think there will be changes in the sport for a while whether in terms of general monitoring or limiting practice sizes or staggering practice times. To play a rugby game requires at least 50 people, and that doesn’t include any coaches or fans. So until we hit that group size limit across the country things will operate differently.
Do you believe that athletes involved in contact and collision sports at greater risk for exposure to viral infections if so, are there measures institutions can take to make the sport safer?
Ros: While I am not an infectious disease expert, I will say if the science says that contact and transmission through bodily fluids is the way in which the virus transmits, then that mode of transmission is frequent for our sport. I’m really not sure there’s a way to play the game of rugby union without collisions in its current format. We coaches could alter the way we train, spreading out training areas if possible, and decreasing the amount of collisions in training, but that may put the athletes at risk for injury in competition. Amanda: I’m sure that any contact sport would have a higher infection rate than esports! Kitt: I do not think that contact sports are at any higher risk than any other sport. Even basketball players can pass fluids between each other and individual sports like track events pass droplets when running near each other. Touching or not touching, fluids can be passed. I am not an epidemiologist so I am not the one to ask about the infectious disease stuff, but that’s my two cents. :) Kate: I am certainly not an expert in infectious disease but it seems common sense would dictate that the number of people involved would be the driving factor of increased exposure not the sport itself. Is there a higher likelihood of that exposure leading to increased infection in contact or collision sports? It sounds like the WHO the CDC and several research articles would indicate any activity that happens within 6 feet of another individual would increase the risk of infection which would apply to almost every field sport regardless of it being a contact or collision sport. MB: Athletes involved in contact and collision sports MAY be at a higher risk for transmission but we simply do not know yet. Even a return to play for sports like squash, tennis and cross country, will require additional measures (testing participants, coaches, trainers and media, or banning media and fans), taking temperatures, having recent trace records, sanitizing all equipment and arenas, etc. This seems pretty exhaustive, time intensive and expensive and with college budgets already overstrained, I’m not sure we’ll see this happening. Jamie: I think that given the physical closeness that happens in contact sports, especially rugby and wrestling where there is significant potential for face-to-face contact (just thinking of my life as a prop), that there is probably a higher likelihood of transmission. But that is just conjecture. I have no doubt any sport has that potential.
Do you foresee an health oversight by a governing board (NCAA, WR, USAR?)
Ros: I do think we’ll see some recommendations and policies from both the NCAA and World Rugby. With the current state of USA Rugby, I do believe they will still have some guidelines and recommendations, but I am not certain what competitions they will oversee. Kitt: I imagine that we’ll hear from World Rugby. I don't know about USAR’s involvement as Chapter 11 was just filed. I do know that the WPL will be working closely with USAR High Performance staff to make sure that we are doing what is best for our athletes. Kate: If they increase oversight of this particular disease, I would think they would also increase oversight of other diseases, vaccinations etc. Universities and athletic departments already do this so it stands to reason that tracking an additional disease and vaccination would not be problematic or overlooked. MB: Yes, the NCAA is already involved. Jamie: We will definitely see guidance from the NCAA. I think World Rugby will issue recommendations, but I would guess those will largely reflect national health standards since every country is different. I also think we will see some guidance from USA Rugby, but I think they will have a hard time since our country is so big and many states have different standards under which they are operating. That said, USA Rugby pays for the liability insurance nationwide, so I don’t anticipate them opening up play again until we are at a place where a large majority of the country is able to participate. It just doesn’t make financial sense to pay for nationwide insurance for only a few states' participation.
In the short term, how can we keep our players and staff safe?
Ros: For now, we are all sheltering in place and regularly checking in with our players and staff. Amanda: We have an obligation to follow social distancing rules and encourage our staff and athletes to follow them as well. If we can keep people focused on learning and growth, then we can discourage some of the negatives that can creep into sports culture (i.e. hazing or binge drinking). I’ve seen some great challenges from the national team women, like #eattherainbow. Kitt: As leaders we can model good behavior and follow what is being asked of us by our local governments and the World Health Organization. I also believe that coaches can offer online opportunities for learning as well as keep their athletes interested with challenges and games. Kate: Continue to recommend and model the guidelines that are suggested by different institutions while providing direction and options to stay active and physically and mentally well in this very uncertain time. MB: Follow and model physical distancing guidelines, and encourage our teams and staff to do likewise to keep players safe. Another area of safety coaches can be involved in is their mental and emotional health, using all methods of communication to stay involved, connected and supportive at appropriate levels for each student-athlete. Jamie: We can do our part to maintain social distancing and encourage our players to follow suit. We also need to be sure to check in with them as this is stressful time and can impact folks' mental health in pretty profound ways.
How can players safely train when they are away from the team?
Ros: Right now, we have daily remote programming by our strength and conditioning staff that is team based but players workout from their individual homes. This includes nutrition, skill development, fitness, PT, and recovery, and does not require them to have any equipment or have to leave the safety of their homes. Amanda: At home training programs and webinars to do film breakdown are low risk and easy for us to complete during this break. Kitt: Many programs have workouts for their athletes. I know some gyms have allowed their members to check out equipment or folks can do body weight workouts. There are many resources in the world right now for people to watch and ‘do’ workouts virtually. Coaches can help train their athletes' brains by having virtual film sessions. Kate: Provide remote strength and conditioning programming, provide opportunities for social remote check in. Create layers of support (partners to small groups to specific leader check ins). MB: Our players have weekly strength and conditioning sessions via a phone app, on Volt Athletics, where strength sessions do not require a gym. They have access to student-led yoga classes, Sunday Stretches, Volt and cardio classes on YouTube and more. Through MS Teams and Zoom, we do video sharing on rugby skills, mindfulness and mental skill development, followed by discussions. Jamie: Continuing to train at home using online platforms, zoom workouts, e-training buddies. There are a lot of bodyweight workouts for those without any additional equipment. That said, when we are able to return to play we’ll need to be very cognizant of the potential training disparities that may have developed over the past few months.
What do you believe is likely to change in regards to rugby in the coming years?
Ros:: I don’t think there will be a change in the game itself, but I do think a lot of folks globally are seeing the need to be prepared for disruption to seasons and competition. Amanda: As a result of USAR’s financial struggles, I think we are going to see organizational changes as we move to a more independent structure with a renewed focus on grassroots rugby growth. Kitt: My hope is that women’s rugby has an opportunity to professionalize. I hope athletes and teams get the support and recognition they deserve. I really don’t know how this crisis will change rugby and/or if it even will. I know that USAR filing Chapter 11 has led groups/divisions/etc to explore other models for organizing. Kate: More than the pandemic, rugby will look different due to the USA Rugby’s bankruptcy proceedings. Sadly, in the college game, we are potentially going to be even more fractured than before but that also offers opportunity for increased autonomy and growth within our different spaces. MB: There may be changes to the playing calendar and potentially better alignments. Unfortunately, there may be a slowdown in women’s college teams elevating to varsity status due to tremendous financial loss colleges are experiencing so we will have to work that much harder to show the huge benefit-to-cost ratio of elevating women’s rugby. Ironically, USARs struggles and the lack of ‘homes’ for teams and conferences may help the NCAA and NIRA #sprintto40. Jamie: I think we may see a change in the overall calendar for the women’s rugby world, especially with the 2020 Olympics moving and now butting up against the ‘21 World Cup. If the WPL has to shift, that will impact a lot of things. I also think we may see a tightening of purse strings for typical sponsors who may have poorer margins than in the past which could impact all of sports, not just rugby.
How are YOU coping with the loss?
Ros: Obviously, there’s been a disruption to the normal flow and rugby is such an essential part of my life. So, after some initial shock and grief, I’ve done what I would ask my team to do and adapt to the conditions and control the controllables. So, I make sure to get in some activity every day, including lots of walks with my dog. I’m usually on the road so much, I don’t get to spend as much time with her. I have also been able to enjoy cooking again. I’m actively involved with our team fitness, nutrition, skills challenge so it’s fun to see what they’re up to and all the coaches and take part in it. I’ve also done a lot of projects around the house and the yard, so it’s been productive, while simultaneously being the downtime I needed to recharge. Amanda: This is a great time to do all of the little personal improvement things that you always put to the side. I’ve been focusing on completing my stack of half-read books. I‘m working on Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister and Fire & Blood by George R.R. Martin. There are all kinds of educational offerings out there right now, I just signed up to do a course at The Positive Coaching Alliance. I caught up on the Women’s 6 Nations matches and I am also binge watching all of the Premiership matches. Kitt: Personally things are wild: I have a 1 year old and we are in the middle of a move from Florida to Texas! I am missing rugby. I had planned to play in a 7s tournament or two this summer and am bummed that that will not be the case. Kate: I haven’t really looked at this as a loss, A loss would mean rugby was definitively over and something I could no longer engage in or is unchangeable. I am very hopeful and pretty certain that we will be able to play rugby again. Much like an injury, you continue to move forward and engage in your sport in whatever capacity you are capable of. MB: I’m following one of my favorite adages adjust and adapt and a quote I heard early on in the pandemic from a superintendent of schools in the Midwest: “Now is the time to practice patience, not perfection.” I’m also a ‘glass half full’ kind of gal, so although I definitely notice a persistent low level of stress and anxiety at times, I know it will sort itself out. I’m doing a tremendous amount of guilt-free self-care so that I remain someone who can support my family, my team and my community: good sleep habits, healthy food, getting outside as much as possible, running, biking, lifting, walking the dog, watching old movies, reading, calling and FaceTiming family and friends, sewing masks, cooking, and I can’t wait to start gardening. Looking for the joy in every day! Jamie: I am super sad to have lost out on the season for our D1 team, my high school girls, and huge amounts of youth programming. But I am filling that void by being a part of the group that is working on the USAR Chapter 11 and reorganization process. It has literally become a full-time job over the past few weeks so, in some ways, I feel grateful to have the time to commit to trying to right the ship, so to speak.