“… unfortunately rugby is not something that you just pick up.”
Last week we spoke about what USA Rugby should be focused on and there were quite a few comments. In all fairness, it seemed to be a very hotly contested debate. The major concerns from all the comments were :
1) Where does the Youth Game and the Youth Development fit in?
2) Player Development? What that is?
Here are my thoughts on the above:
1) The Youth Game has a huge role to play in everything we have going on. Through the youth game we begin to grow our base of rugby followers but we also get the opportunity to introduce the game to an entirely new group. Yes, we have an unbelievable pool of athletic talent here in this country, but unfortunately rugby is not something that you just pick up. Rugby really happens between the set pieces and that is the hardest part for every athlete that tries to make the transition from another sport. Before we go any further, I would just like to say that the term crossover athlete is used very poorly in rugby circles. Someone that excelled at one sport and now wishes to take their talent and try and excel at another is just an athlete… plain and simple .
If you look at American football, for instance, you have a playbook and you run a play that lasts about 6 seconds. Your job is to know where you should be and what formation you should set up in and the route you should run. There are incredible athletes in NCAA Football and the NFL on display and they are amazing to watch, but that does not translate. If you ask the best rugby player in the world if that believed they were a perfect rugby player, I am pretty sure that they will answer “No.” In rugby, you rarely see the same situation twice and you very rarely react the same way twice to a situation and that is the beauty of it.
So… The key is to get kids when they are young expose them to the very raw aspects of rugby from the age of 6 though about 13. Then they can go off and focus on their other sports and work towards a scholarship or pro contract. If that dream doesn’t come true and they feel that rugby is a good fit for them, then when they then focus their talents on rugby, at least they’ll understand the game and that transition will be a lot easier. It just makes more sense.
A great example of that is Zack Test, who currently plays for the USA Sevens team – and who I’m sure is not far off the 15’s team, either. He had an introduction to rugby when he was younger, but he wanted to pursue a dream in football and went for it. But it did not work out and he turned his attention to rugby and is now one of the best players in the side. That’s why youth development is so crucial. It grows the game, but it also has an influence on that huge pool of athletes we have in this country for it to make sense for that transition to take place.
2) Player Development: I touched a little on that above, but Player Development for me is two fold: You have the athletes that come through the U20/All American programs, where the goal is to develop those groups of players all the way through, so a vast majority end up on the National teams and representing their country at the highest level. But even at that point as a player, you still need to be challenged and pushed and developed to become and even better player. The second part to this is developing players that have entered the competitive rugby world at a later stage. That is not to say that they have never played rugby before – their aspirations were just different for a few years. These players need to be placed in a system that works in a strong relationship with the National Team coaches but at the club level, these players need an environment that will help them develop under the guidance of someone that is trusted by the National Team coach, monitoring their progress. After a period of time they should have to go through the same channels that any other player would for recognition at the highest level and the opportunity to play rugby for our country.
Hopefully these additional thoughts shed a little more light on what we started last week. It has been a tough year for the Eagles 7’s team, but they held strong over the last few tournaments and know that they have a lot to work on over the summer. They have a great opportunity to start fresh and come out swinging at the World Cup Qualifiers in August.
Feel free to leave your thoughts and look for the interview with USA 15s Head Coach, Mike Tolkin.