A quick glance at the South Independent Rugby Conference (SIRC) matrix schedule, and one notices a dramatic reduction in teams and games. Granted, last season provided for regrouping teams that didn’t have 15s strength (yellow and orange blocks), but it was still activity scheduled among SIRC teams. Nevertheless, conference co-commissioner Becky Martin, who serves alongside Sharon Lau, isn’t ringing the fire alarm just yet.
“Everyone who’s ever played down here knows there’s an ebb and flow,” said Martin, who coaches University of Georgia (asst.), DII Atlanta Harlequins, Atlanta Bucks and with Atlanta Youth Rugby. “There’s this overarching trend in the Southeast, a constant flux that doesn’t seem to be experienced elsewhere. I guess it’s because the sport doesn’t have as strong of a hold as it does in other parts [of the country].”
Don’t confuse Martin’s observations as acceptance, but rather knowledge of the cycle. Last year, Emory, UT Knoxville and UT Chattanooga dropped out of the 15s competition but are on the rebound this year. Most notably, UTC has 34 players CIPPed.
“Teams aren’t folding outright but taking an undefined back-step,” said Martin.
Martin and Lau do their best to be resources during these crucial periods, encouraging teams to keep playing games in whatever form possible (“Rugby is rugby; keep it front of mind.”), to connect with local women’s senior clubs if possible, and recruit. Recruit, recruit, recruit, perpetually.
“UGA has a strong hold of it,” “it” being the tenets of a club’s longevity, Martin explained. “Team’s had strong numbers for five years going and doing a good job. But it’s college, and everyone’s leaving in the near future, so you’ve got to keep an eye on it, constantly recruiting and developing younger players, or your day will come.”
That day has come for Kennesaw State, the former USA Rugby DII College Spring Champion that is not competing in the matrix 15s season this year.
“We were definitely sad about KSU. A former [spring] champion that’s unable to compete, that’s hard for the players,” said Martin.
But Martin is pleased to see that Courtney Coffee is at the helm, pushing the Owls to not only rebuild but also play games and keep the competitive spirit alive. The SIRC 7s tournament is an automatic qualifier for nationals, and Kennesaw State is going after it.
“I think KSU will bounce back,” Martin said.
But every team and school are different, and no solution is the same. Martin and Lau are trying to work with the absent Georgia Southern, which has a large student population and good relationship with the school, but no coaching. Spring Hill College, also absent, is more isolated in southern Alabama and just getting game time isn’t as easy. Louisiana State and North Georgia didn’t return to the matrix season, and Middle Tennessee State and Arkansas State.
Reviving one program at a time isn’t a solution, obviously. Martin works with Atlanta Youth Rugby and is presently trying to get after-school rugby integrated into a trio of middle schools. That’s longer-term solutions, and Martin is eager to build some momentum.