By Stephen Sheehan, FRU Media Intern
In the game of rugby, experience means everything. Luckily, the University of South Florida happens to have one of the most well traveled coaches around in Gordon Campbell.
Campbell has served as head coach of USF’s rugby club for 10 years—just a snippet of his 60-plus years around the game.
“My first match playing rugby was in the 1950s. My last match played was in the 1990s,” Campbell said.
His playing career included stops in England, Australia and Japan. For Campbell, who knows intimately the challenges of coaching players who often don’t learn what a scrum or ruck is until college, there’s a critical difference between rugby in the United States versus abroad.
“When I was 14-15 years old, I was playing 15-25 matches a year,” Campbell said. “When I was in Australia, we had five men’s senior teams, two college teams and maybe one other junior team. It’s been 26 years since I’ve left there and there are now over 20 teams.”
While most American kids grow up playing football, basketball, baseball and other traditional sports, rugby is typically low on the totem pole, if at all. It’s that experience gap compared to other countries that has held the United States back.
Despite the challenges, Campbell’s USF squad continues to show well in both 15s and 7s competition under his careful watch.
USF made it to the cup final of the Todd Miller 7s tournament but fell to Orlando by a score of 19-5. The Bulls once again found themselves in the cup final at the Sunshine State Games after a thrilling extra-time win in the semifinal. Unfortunately, the Bulls came up short against the Tridents by a score of 26-17. Even though his team had to settle for second in consecutive tournaments, Campbell is proud of the team’s development even though the roster fluctuates depending on who’s in town for summer classes.
“We have a larger batch this year, so we were more able to select the better people and also have good reserves,” he explained. “The number of people we have who are pressing for selection means we can play our replacements with confidence.”
The game of 7s demands incredible levels of fitness, and USF’s practice are centered around one simple facet: running. No matter if it’s running with or without the ball, every drill during the team’s three weekly practices is based on sprinting.
It’s clear the team’s hard work is paying off through their final results. One of USF’s most dangerous threats has been Brandon Gonzalez, who scored six tries at Sunshine State Games and leads the team with 10 tries through three tournaments. Andrew “Raptor” Woolston trails by just one try and has also been a major threat with the ball in his hands.
Seeing the development of his players is sincerely a joy for a man whose life has been intertwined with rugby. Campbell is truly a teacher at heart, a thinker who tries to get his players to see and feel the game with their instincts.
“It’s important that you’re big and fast. You can’t coach speed, but you can improve speed. You can get in the gym and improve your bodyweight,” Campbell said. “A good, smart, big, fast player will most likely beat a small, fast player. But I believe playing rugby matches in a competitive environment will increase your rugby IQ. If you have a high rugby IQ, you can beat guys even if you’re not as big or as fast.”
Campbell also added, “The guy on the field is going to make the decision. All you can do is give them the tools to make those decisions and trust them to make the right ones.”
Looking ahead to the rest of the summer and the 2014-2015 year, there’s plenty of reason for optimism for the USF rugby program. Campbell said the team’s goal is to win at least one remaining 7s tournament. When summer 7s is over, the team will shift its focus to 15s, which is a totally different ballgame when it comes to building a talent base.
“Everybody’s going to have ups and downs unless you’re a team like Life or Arkansas State or Lindenwood that has the structure that they can go out and recruit,” Campbell said. “Florida, Florida State and other state schools don’t have the funding, so we’re very reliant on who gets into USF on an academic standard and then we have to convert them to rugby players.”
While back-to-back D1-AA champion UCF is set to lose a majority of its starters, USF is lucky to have 12 of 15 starters coming back for the 15s season. That represents a solid core, but the team must still recruit for depth purposes.
Whether its 7s tournaments or 15s competition, USF is in good hands with Coach Campbell leading the way. And even if his players don’t have aspirations to play after college, there’s always something to take away from being part of the rugby family.
“Playing rugby gives you life lessons that you need to learn if you’re going to be a successful person in life.”