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We’ll call it the USA National Team. Getting to the top of that mesa is hard work, partly because the top is so far up and note particularly large, but also because there are other sporting hills around you – some taller or steeper, but still easier, somehow, to climb.
The emergence of college rugby programs at universities that aren’t extremely selective helps those kids, but USA Rugby has to be more pro-active in finding those talents and giving them opportunities to shine.
Why? It’s not just for the USA team. It’s for the clubs and, much, much more importantly, it’s for those young athletes. This sport can help give get them out of bad neighborhoods and bad habits, and give them a sense of purpose that can translate into better lives for them. We’ve seen it happen, and it’s happening right now.
Rugby can do that, but a cohesive scouting and athlete development program – where players are expected to work hard, be good teammates, and dedicate themselves to something – is crucial.
We don’t have that, and didn’t have it five years ago, and we didn’t have it ten years ago. We had hard-working people doing the best they could, but that was it.
Picture American rugby players coming to the base of this mesa. They take many different paths depending on their background, and at the end of their path, they find a ladder up which they can climb to the top. Some have good ladders, some don’t. One or two might not have any ladders at all.
The paths that lead to this cliff face are many and varied (see sidebar). Each has its own challenges, and each has a different journey up that cliff. For some, there are little ledges to rest in. That would be the High School select sides, the High School All Americans, the Junior All Americans, and the elite college teams.
On a broader scale, the USA Selects and 7s territorial teams are also places to rest, reassess, and move on up.
The options are there for some, but for many, it’s a straight shot from the base to the top. Even if they get there, the shock of how different every is can be intense. Even making the top from a professional club to the national is a long climb.
Among USA Rugby’s jobs is to ensure that the players who have the ability, the commitment and the courage to make that climb do so with different stages along the way to help them get there.
We’ve got age-grade national teams and a national league, but it’s not enough. We we need to return to some form of the National All Star Championships.
It doesn’t have to replicate the old NASC (last played in 2007, that features eight teams each playing two matches over three days). The old way was flawed, expensive, inadequate, and at a lousy time of year, but it was way, way better than nothing, and nothing is what we’ve got now.
The current plan to help players get to that clifftop is a one-off match between players trying to make the USA Selections.
But that one game, even when you fold in the next stage, that of the USA Selects in the Americas Rugby Championship is inadequate on two levels – it’s just one game, and it doesn’t help enough players.
In the past five years, USA Rugby has made no concerted effort to produce a territorial or regional all-star program that could provide competition for top players, as well as a source of pride. Canada used IRB grant money to create their own provincial championship season. The USA got the same grant money, which I am sure they used wisely somewhere else, but they didn’t use it to expand the ARC.
As USA Rugby reevaluates its pathways and its High Performance player development, it has to take some real action. One-offs here, single teams there, don’t work. We need something that puts a large number of players – perhaps 100 – in the same cauldron.
That requires planning, and it requires listening to a lot of voices. It requires assigning resources, including personnel, and it requires money.
We’ve brought in Mike Tolkin to coach the USA 15s men’s team, but is that one hire going to solve all of the USA’s ills? Certainly not. We need to start building those ledges in the cliff-face so players can make their way, from any background, into the best level for them to play.