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Ellis Rugby in San Francisco

Several months ago, I was contacted by two members from the San Francisco Golden Gate rugby club. They wanted me to travel to California and assist with coaching a local school side and work with coaches in the area. At the time, the New Zealand borders were not fully open and while I was free to leave, I was not sure I’d be able to get back. That thought was a little daunting. However, we continued talking in the hope that the borders would eventually open.

Moving forward a few more months and I am standing in a deserted Auckland International airport about to board the plane to Los Angeles. Armed with my recent negative Covid certificate and any similar documentation that I thought I may need I stepped onto a very spacious plane and quickly secured a row to myself. The best cattle class flight I have ever had!

Landing in Los Angeles is never easy, but the lines were far shorter than normal and the process was relatively smooth, even though you always feel like you are a suspect for some heinous crime when going through US customs. On to San Francisco!

Landing in San Francisco, I was about to meet the two men who would be my guides, my taxis, my landlord, my advisors but most of all my friends for the next few months – Ali and Tony. I was immediately taken to the home of Ali and his wife Ramsay where I met Deb, Tony’s wife and sat down to a meal of buffalo burgers. Straight away I wished my wife Esther was with me. They were such wonderful people and I wanted to share them with her.

After dinner I was taken to the apartment that would be my home for the rest of my stay. To say it was in an interesting neighbourhood would be an understatement. I had already been warned by Deb and Ramsay not to shop at the local Safeway about 200 metres away. This proved to be good advice as there was a shooting there a few weeks after my arrival. The history in this area was one of diversity and rebellion from the emergence of gay rights in the Castro region to the anti-war hippy movement in nearby Haight street. All this and the music of those times from Janis Joplin, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead. It was very cool.

Now for the rugby. I genuinely had no idea who I would be working with and what my a

ctual role would be. I turned up with whistle at the ready and rugby shorts set to go. The later turned out to be a poor choice as the weather in San Francisco is a little cooler than I expected. A fact that was often pointed out to me and one I appear to have never learned.

As I observed the first session, I was immediately impressed by the number of coaches working with the players. They appeared to be fully in control and there was a level of respect between players and coaches that was great to see. My first thought was ‘what am I doing here, these guys don’t need me’. Maybe it was just a fresh set of eyes or perhaps a little more detail here or there or just the vindication that they were doing a great job. It was heartwarming that they all accepted me straight away and we were pretty soon discussing methods and tactics etc. Over the many trainings and games that followed I felt we became pretty good friends, and I would say one of the most enjoyable coaching groups I have been involved with. So Tony, Ali, Kevin, Mateo, Dixie and Birnie, I can’t thank you enough for your openness and dedication. There was another equally dedicated coaching group running the younger player program.

SFGG was not my only focus on this trip. Ali and Tony have a vision of growing the standard of rugby in the area and they encouraged me to reach out to other teams in the area (many were direct opposition). We ran a coaches session for NorCal rugby which was attended by around 20 coaches from around the region. With limited tech facilities I was unsure how to do this, so I decided to open the floor to a general Q&A. Two hours flew by in an instant. We discussed and demonstrated things from pass development to breakdown work to attack shapes and defence systems. This turned out to be a really enjoyable session even though I felt like I didn’t stop talking for the full 2+ hours. I was also very fortunate to spend time at St Mary’s college with their Head Coach Tim O’Brien. Once again, an enthusiastic and dedicated group of players and coaches who went on to play army in the national final. I thank them for their openness and the friendly way they welcomed me into the group.

In my time in San Francisco, I saw players who have the ability to go on and play at the highest level. Young players with all the attributes of some of the greats. A player who has the natural fearless attacking style of a young Christian Cullen, a teenage forward who works hard and carries well much like All Black Ardie Savea. All of this from the small group of players I observed in the San Francisco area.

Going back to the team of young men I was lucky to work with. They were respectful and enthusiastic, making my job relatively easy. They were not the biggest or the most athletic, but they had a real ‘grit’ about them that I really loved. We stretched them at times and probably introduced several things beyond their experience however I believe for players to develop they need to be exposed to aspects of the game that challenge them. Did they improve? My answer to that would be yes, all of us, players, coaches and myself. It was so refreshing. Professional rugby can be cutthroat and intense and often we lose sight of what we are really about, we get blinded by results and in the desperation to achieve we forget that we are dealing with people. People are what make this a great game, they maybe international super stars or a fifteen-year-old who just wants to be part of something fun with their friends. Each of them is important to the game along with the coaches that help them along the way. This trip reminded me of that.

I think my two friends and their enthusiasm for the game can offer a pathway to success in USA rugby. Developing the game in the High Schools and the Colleges will give the country a greater base of players to choose from. Players who are motivated to go further and represent themselves and their country on a higher stage. Hopefully from here we will see a brand of USA rugby that is theirs, focused on the strengths of the American athlete. This could all culminate in an exciting 2031 and 2033.

I was very fortunate to be joined by my wife for the last month of my trip. This allowed me to share many of the experiences of living in this diverse city. The tourist things such as Alcatraz, riding over the Golden Gate etc. but also the less wonderful things like the desperation of the homeless on the streets and the tent cities formed under the highways. Talking of highways there is also the legalisation of marijuana and how many of the apothecaries that sell it are more like entering a fancy shoe shop on the high street (no pun intended) than the expected shadowy doorway down a dark alley. Hard drugs are an issue and evidence of this can be seen in the blank faces of the addicts who sit slumped over their pipes or are asleep with their needles scattered around them. Seeing this puts life in perspective and looking at the bright young people I was involved with I can’t help but think that many of those on the street may have also been bright and enthusiastic at one stage. Could rugby have saved them? Who knows?

Our trip finished with a positive Covid reading for us both and a desperate push to be symptom free for our flight home. While we achieved this the flight home was not as pleasant as my trip over. Planes were now full; passengers are confused and officials are on edge as we try to navigate through travel in a Covid world.

Now sitting at my desk writing this blog and looking forward to a new adventure for me and my wife.

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