Rugby Talk with Indiana’s New Rugby Development Officer

Most of the people I know involved in rugby do what they do because they are so passionate about the sport.  They love the culture, and want to be ambassadors for the sport in any way they can.  This holds true for the new Rugby Development Officer for Rugby Indiana, Sam DiFilippo.  I thought it would be fun to talk rugby with Sam, someone who’s grown up with the game, seen it from many angles, and wants to grow the sport as much as me (probably more!).

Karen:  Congratulations on becoming the new Rugby Indiana RDO!  You’ve been involved with rugby nearly your entire life – just how long would that be?

Sam:  I’ve been around rugby my whole life.  My dad played and introduced me to the game.  He started playing in the mid-70’s for the Fort Wayne Rugby Club. I spent a lot of Saturdays at Franke Park growing up watching games.  I started playing in 2001.

Karen:  How excited are you about your new role with Rugby Indiana, and what do you hope to accomplish?

Sam:  I couldn’t be more delighted with my new position.  This is a rare career opportunity to do what I love for a living.  My hope here is to add to Rugby Indiana’s fine reputation.  I hope to help get more teams started in areas of the state that do not have rugby yet.  I’d like to help get rugby into more Phys. Ed. classes, and give more middle school students a chance to play rugby.

Karen:  When you tell someone you’ve never met, who doesn’t know of your passion for rugby, that you work for Rugby Indiana, what is their first response?  And I’m going to guess (maybe incorrectly) ahead of time what it is – how do you counter it?

Sam:  Rugby is one of those sports that many people have heard of, but they have never experienced.  Most people you meet ask questions about how the game is played, they may have known someone who played, or they have seen it on TV.  I always make sure that they know that rugby is being played in the area and where the teams are located.  When they ask about injuries, I try to explain that the rules and coaching revolve around safety.  I’m usually deferential when talking to people about rugby.  Once I talked about rugby to a guy who was making my sandwich (I was in my coaching gear), and when I handed him my card, he said, “Oh, like you’re THE rugby guy in Fort Wayne.”  I like to promote the game, not my knowledge of the sport.

Karen:  And I have to chuckle – THE rugby guy in Fort Wayne!  I like to promote the game, too.  My knowledge of actual plays/strategy/etc., however, could fit in a small jar.  My love for rugby is immense, though.  What about rugby intrigues you the most?

Sam:  When I see how much rugby is a part of life in Europe and the southern hemisphere, it blows my mind.  In the US, we have the NFL, and you get the same amount of excitement, but the value of sport I just think has been lost when you go from youth football to the pros.  Rugby has less commercialization, which can hurt it to a point, but I still think that if you want to introduce modesty into an athlete, you should introduce them to rugby.  I guess it’s just a culture thing.

Karen:  I totally agree about the modesty thing.  The culture of rugby is much more team-oriented, to me.  My goal is to get rugby here to that same level of popularity that it enjoys in Europe and elsewhere.  For better or worse, and I’m chuckling, now some people immediately think “Rugby!” when they see me, like our principal at the high school open house the other night.  🙂

Karen:  You’ve been a player, a coach, and a coaching instructor, in addition to your newest position as Rugby Indiana’s RDO.  I look at rugby and its development in our country sort of as a 3-legged table – we need players, coaches and refs, all supporting each other; one cannot grow without the other.  Can you give me some of your thoughts, having been involved with the sport in these different areas, on how we can increase any and/or all of these 3 areas?  Where do we have bottlenecks?

Sam:  I agree, these groups need each one for their own success.  The bottleneck, I believe, comes with training and quality control.  USA Rugby has taken major strides to improve coach education, and I believe we will start seeing the impact of the new system in 2014.  Better coaches make better players, better players stick around longer and bring their friends, too.  Good referees make a better game and that makes everyone happy.  Bottom line when it comes to rugby, we need all groups working together for the better of the game as a whole, and I’ve seen first-hand people that believe in that mission.

Karen:  One more thought…  Do you find that it’s getting easier to find referees since rugby now has been around for awhile?  I know the referees undergo training as well, and some of our referees in Indiana spend a lot of time with these efforts.

Sam:  Finding referees is not as easy as it looks.  We’ve been lucky in Indiana, but the need for more better-trained officials will not go away with the growth of the game.

Karen:  I would add that better coaches/players/referees also make better parents in that you’ll have more supportive parents, which is so important.  More supportive parents = more kids playing longer/younger = more rugby knowledge as they grow older.  It’s a win-win-win-win-win.

Karen:  As a coach, you deal with not only kids, but parents.  Can you give me some suggestions for new parents – what to expect, what is helpful, and what is the best thing a parent has ever done for you?  And these suggestions might be helpful for new coaches, too.

Sam:  As a coach, you need to understand that parents are the top stakeholders of your club.  Keep them informed the best you can and your life will be much better as a coach.  They can provide the stability your club needs to grow.  New parents need to look at rugby with an open mind, do your homework on the game, and research the club.  Have questions about what you don’t know, and talk to other parents who have players that have been on the club.  The best thing a parent has done for me has to be laundry and providing food after the game.  Rugby players get dirty and hungry, so when I can get help in those areas I am always grateful.

Karen:  “Rugby players get dirty and hungry…” – yes, they do!  And they seem to love it.  Those are really good suggestions for parents and anyone looking to play, really.  I love washing jerseys – makes me feel like I’m taking care of our kids. 🙂  How can parents and/or coaches get a team together?  What kind of certification is required?

Sam:  We have some great resources at www.rugbyindiana.com for parents and coaches looking to start a club.  USA Rugby (www.usarugby.org) provides the certification for all coaches.  If it’s a non-contact club, the certification is online.  If it is a contact team, one coach must attend a one-day training session.  It costs $65 a year to be certified as a coach, including a biennial background check and liability/accident insurance.  Also, touch judges can be trained online; we are always looking for good touch judges.  Or just contact me, and I’ll help you get started.

Karen:  I love how parents and fans can be active participants and helpers by being a Touch Judge.  If the coach doesn’t have anyone to help do this, then the coach ends up being a Touch Judge.  This doesn’t work well sometimes because it’s more difficult to coach – your concentration is divided.  Plus, at tournaments, I’ve seen coaches who’ve had to Touch Judge, and it’s hard to not coach in those situations where the Touch Judge needs to be completely and totally impartial.  Makes it tough to coach your team.

Karen:  If you could name one thing to grow the sport of rugby in the good ol’ USA, what would it be?  And conversely, what is holding back our sport, if anything, in your opinion?

Sam:  To grow the sport we need more players to come back to the game, but we also need to identify our best players sooner.  Who used to play that can give back as a referee or a coach?  Who is playing now that could be the next USA Eagle?  The things holding us back are fixable … the sport needs better marketing; it needs more friends that are connected with schools and varsity sports; it needs better venues; it needs better professional development; but these things are coming.  It takes time.  We will get there.

Karen:  I have a dream of a huge list of people that have played rugby in our state, and it just takes a little bit of the “Kevin Bacon game” (6 Degrees of Separation) to figure out who knows who.  I think part of getting the better venues and better positioning in schools goes along with people like me and you just talking about why we love the sport, and the great positives associated with it.  Would you agree?  I’d also love to see our young, high school players be given the opportunities to referee more elementary grade leagues, much like kids in baseball/softball/soccer are able to do.  That’s a win-win – rugby kids working, earning $, and learning more about the sport.

Sam:  The rugby world is a small world. I tend to agree with that a lot. Everyone knows someone who has played or has a friend who played. That’s the blessing and curse of our sport. We live and die by word-of-mouth marketing. The way things are going, however, with more exposure in the media and social networking, I think we will see a lot more organized rugby community in the future.

Karen:  Do you like 15s or 7s better?

Sam:  In person, I like to watch 15s.  On TV, I like 7s.  As a prop and coach, 15s is the best – 30 players going at the same time.  It’s great.

Karen:  Name your favorite team or rugby players…

Sam:  I enjoy watching Wales and All Blacks, they are just the top of the totem in rugby.  I liked Luke Gross and Jonah Lomu growing up.  Luke is from Decatur, IN and has 62 caps with the Eagles and is a great guy.  Luke came and talked to us at a tournament when I was in high school, and to me at that time it was like having Peyton Manning at a football camp.  Jonah Lomu’s comeback story is just inspiring.  Now I like to watch Todd Clever, Leigh Halfpenny, and any forward from the All Blacks.

Karen:  That is so great that Luke came back to the area and talked to all of you!  Of course, he’s a Hoosier so I think that’s great :).  I’d love to have him talk to our team!  I’ll have to learn more about Jonah Lomu, for sure.  The All Blacks are just inspiring to watch, and I’m just talking about the Haka!  Any chance our team can do a Haka??

Sam:  Until we get a player with Maori ancestry on the team, I don’t see a Haka in our future.  It’s certainly fun to play a game that is international.

Karen:  What has been your best experience with rugby, on both a high school/men’s team coaching level, and as a player?

Sam:  As a player, my best experience was winning a state championship my senior year and getting to be captain at Bishop Dwenger.  As a coach, our senior side went 8-0 in 2008.  However, the most rewarding experience is getting to watch my high school players grow to love the sport; I wish I could bottle up the excitement of some of my guys.  It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up when you see good high school rugby.  Some days I just love to watch.  I’m a fanboy at heart.

Karen:  Awww… That just warms my heart and makes me smile.  It’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Sam:  I wouldn’t put in the hours if it wasn’t worth it.  Thanks for doing this, Karen.

And thank you, Sam, and all of our coaches, referees, and administrators… from USA Rugby to our State Rugby Organizations to our high school/youth clubs to our adult clubs to our college clubs.  The hours that all of you put in allow someone like me, an ordinary parent, to enjoy this great, international sport through the participation of my kids.  Thank you!