The Olympic Club’s bid for this weekend’s Division 1 championship highlights an ex-Super League team’s alternative approach to top-class domestic rugby.
After several forgettable seasons, the San Francisco outfit left RSL following the 2005 campaign, in order to focus on a ‘club experience’ and competing in Northern California. ‘O Club’ immediately reached the national quarterfinals in 2006 and will finish at least one level higher this year.
‘Our fortunes all changed when we pulled out…. [The Super League] was a hard sell to the club and the players, whereas now we train, travel, and play as one club trying to be the premier club in Northern California and on the West coast, which is something our guys can really get behind,’ according to coach Ray Lehner.
Now comprising 18 of the country’s more successful and administratively capable teams, the Super League has been designated America’s top competition by USA Rugby, which wants to aggregate leading players into a single league for comparative (i.e., national team) purposes. But particularly as RSL uses a franchise system rather ‘promotion-relegation,’ it’s never been clear that the nationalized structure is stronger than some regions, notably Southern and Northern California.
Further, some RSL clubs are finding that necessity of spending $100,000 and more each year solely on its first team has worked to the detriment of their overall health. Even Belmont Shore, the Super League’s most successful team, found it necessary this year to put more emphasis on its second-grade unit.
Along with Mike Strain, former 7s Eagle Kevin Barth, and Paul Limbrey, Lehner values recruiting graduating college players, greater numbers at training to promote more intense sessions, and seeking out top competition to supplement a highly credible local schedule. In other words, focus on inputs, rather than the fixture list as well as the promise of future commercialization.
Do these things well and national honors for the team and its players will take care of themselves, says the former Cal All-American, Oxford Blue, and 38-cap prop, who attributes “most of what I know about the craft of coaching” to his time working with Jack Clark and Tom Billups at Cal.
‘The nay-sayers predicted we would lose all quality players and recruits to the other local RSL club, Golden Gate. We did lose some recruits for one season but we have gained many more since, even some players who originally left us to complete in the Super League with [Golden Gate],’ Lehner says.
Skippered by Andrew Armstrong and featuring discarded Eagle backrowers Tony Petruzzella and Kort Schubert, O Club tackles the Austin (Texas) Blacks in one semifinal, while the Cincinnati Wolfhounds meet Northern California’s Hayward in the other. In the Super League final, Belmont plays the Chicago Lions.