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Florida Plan Afoot For College Players To Get U23 Club League

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Florida Plan Afoot For College Players To Get U23 Club League

UCF players might be pretty happy to don a different jersey if it meant they could play.

With the rebound from the COVID pandemic still far from a sure thing, rugby organizations around the country are trying to figure out how to avoid losing momentum and to keep players playing.

A plan is coming together in Florida that could offer collegiate players a way to keep playing while keeping their eligibility.

The idea is this: senior clubs in various cities will enter under-23 teams into a new statewide under-23 league. Rugby Florida is in discussions with USA Rugby governing groups to work out how players play in the U23 league and maintain their eligibility to play in college rugby when college teams are able to play. (An earlier version of this article said players wouldn't play for a club other than in U23, but that is not necessarily correct.)

“We want to ensure that our college teams do not have to rebuild from ground zero when on-campus play returns in the Fall of 2021,” said Florida Rugby General Manager Evan Haigh. Haigh added that playing in a club format like this shouldn’t affect a college student’s ability to play for his or her college in the future.

Finding A Way Through Eligibility

“This is not the NCAA,” said Haigh. “We are talking about college club sports teams; none of our schools are varsity and none of our senior club teams are professional. They just play rugby for the love of it and ultimately we should be promoting and helping players who want to play both senior and college rugby. This year is special because of COVID, so it has forced us to look at adjustments both at the College and Senior club level and I hope that it shows us what might be possible in the future.”

Because the Florida Rugby Union and Florida Youth Rugby Union work together as Florida Rugby, which oversees the game at all levels, they have some flexibility in working with clubs and colleges to potentially make this happen. But there are other organizations to worry about. The women’s college teams are members of the CRAA, and so there remain some discussions on eligibility with the CRAA. Chief among these is whether a season playing U23 rugby affects a player’s number of years available to play in college.

Haigh said that will likely all be resolved.

“There is only a small amount of players who stay in college beyond five years after graduating from high school and have played rugby in each of those five years,” said Haigh. “This means we are only talking about a small number of players, all whom I feel like we can help work through eligibility issues.  

“The College Women are governed by CRAA Women's eligibility guidelines, which are still being fully installed. I feel really comfortable and confident that CRAA Women's executive committee will make great decisions for our teams and players, they like the FRU just want what is best for the players.”

The men’s college teams are operating independently from any overarching governing body. As with some other conferences around the country, the Florida DIAA league feels more comfortable working directly with USA Rugby and not worrying about any other group representing them.

“Being independent gives us the flexibility to adjust our eligibility guidelines for situations like this,” said Haigh. “Ideally in future years we hope to be able to work more closely with the senior men's clubs to give our college players more rugby playing options.”

A Long-Term Plan

What that means is that Haigh and others in Florida Rugby want to see a U23 league spring up in Florida for the long-term. What they don’t want is for teams of college players to replace B teams, and they don’t want the U23 league to replace college rugby. It’s just that this coming spring, it is very unlikely that colleges will return to a place where club sports like rugby will be allowed. 

However, as the same time, states such as Florida could be in a position to ease restrictions on sporting activity. So while a college team is on hiatus, a college student who is a rugby player doesn’t have to be.

The plan is for clubs in cities where there are college teams will help establish a framework through which a U23 team can operate. It’s likely we won’t see teams that are made up exclusively of players from one college. It’s more likely the teams will be made up of hyper-motivated players from various colleges in the area. 

Haigh said the hope is for a league of eight men’s U23 teams and a league of four women’s U23 teams. There are currently eight DIAA and three small-college men’s teams in the state and seven women’s collegiate teams.

If this plan gets off the ground it would potentially be a blueprint for other regions to follow. By keeping the college players separate from senior club competition makes the Florida U23s leagues simply a form of collegiate select-side competition. And more importantly, it’s a way to keep players playing.