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USA Rugby’s entire approach to age-grade rugby is like that nagging injury that just won’t heal on its own. It’s forcing All Americans of every level to limp into battle only to get slapped around, and it’s beyond the heat pad or Icy Hot stage. Complete reconstructive surgery is needed.

The most recent example of the age-grade failure came when the Junior All Americans lost back-to-back matches with Canada, thus failing to qualify for the Junior World Trophy – World Rugby’s second-tier U20 competition. This column is far from an impulsive reaction to one result, but the U20s program is the flagship example of why the whole age-grade system needs to be blown up and rebuilt.

The Junior All American program has for years been the poster child for USA Rugby’s ineptitude – constant coaching changes, camps and assemblies being planned then nixed for budgetary reasons, underwhelming results, etc. It’s difficult to get a former coach to go on record and speak honestly about the program, but rumblings have multiple coaches leaving because of a lack of funding and leadership from the National Office, and rumors even have coaches going as far as telling players they were set up for failure by USA Rugby.

Need an example of failure outside of the U20s? Look no further than last year’s Youth Olympics – just another instance of USA Rugby trying to be an inch thick and a mile wide on a shoestring budget.

The crux of the issue is almost always money – not enough to assemble for an appropriate amount of time, not enough to properly pay a coach to sink his or her teeth fully into the task at hand, not enough to wholly subsidize travel for camps, etc. Money’s not the only issue, as trying to pull collegiate and high school players away from their home clubs in season and an over-reliance on certain geographic areas are worthy of their own columns altogether, but cash is the king of problems. ​

Even with the High School All American programs being independently funded by private investors – and if we’re being honest, by rugby parents who saw a gaping wound and are now trying to treat it with their own money – American age-grade rugby is still losing the battle of trying to to keep up with the Joneses, the Joneses being traditional rugby countries.

I’m not privy to the detailed breakdown of expenses under the USA Rugby umbrella, nor is really anyone outside the National Office. While I concede the ideal answer for the USA's age-grade system might be doubling or tripling the current financial investment, it’s seems clear our governing body doesn’t have the resources to really do age-grade the right way, as evidenced by years of stories like the most recent U20s debacle. And instead of continuing to try to do more with less, USA Rugby needs to do something different with a sustainable amount of money.

Here comes what will likely be the least popular thing I have to say on this subject – stop touring. What is the purpose of age-grade rugby? Talent identification and development. The entire reason age-grade rugby exists is to help find and shape future National Team players, and that’s true everywhere in the world. 

Does our half-assed tour-centric approach lend itself to optimal identification? No. We become so obsessed with getting a result, and more specifically preparing to produce a result in an insufficient window, that sometimes we fail to see the trees through the forest.

It also costs to participate. It costs to get to a tryout camp, and if a player’s lucky enough to make the team, it costs to get to a pre-tour assembly. These costs fall on the players and their families, and they eliminate a portion of the potential player pool. With the growing emphasis on for-profit camps run by the likes of Eagle Impact and Serevi, the cost of getting identified is growing higher and higher. (I know there are a limited number of scholarships, but it still costs for the bulk of the participants.)

And scouting costs. Many age-grade coaches find ways to travel around to a handful of tournaments and see what talent’s out there, but the money and time to really comb the United States isn’t there, so we’re still seeing the players with the most money and most connected or tenacious coaches getting call-ups, and not necessarily those with the best skill or potential.

Anyone who claims the best way to identify talent is the status quo has their head buried in the sand. The development piece is more arguable. Defenders of the tour-centric approach will point to the amount of Eagles who’ve spent some time in an age-grade setup. But simply pointing out coincidence doesn’t prove causation. Is Blaine Scully arguably the best American rugby player in the world because he played a handful of games on tour with the All Americans, or is he a top-flight player because of his time at Cal?

I would argue that the development benefit of a handful of days in camp and a couple of games on tour is outweighed by the cost. Are a couple of matches against Belgium going to be the difference between any of the U17 All Americans who just went on tour to Europe becoming Eagles or not? No, not really. It was no-doubt an amazing and enriching experience for all involved, but National Governing Body dollars shouldn’t be spent on experiences.

I don’t have a plan all worked out to supplant the status quo, though I do like the idea of reallocating the exorbitant amounts of money it costs to send numerous teams overseas unprepared on an annual basis to domestic talent identification and development. Whether that means subsidizing and beefing up the Stars & Stripes model, or turning five-day pre-tour assemblies into three-week fully immersive and competitive camps, I’m unsure.

I also like the idea of leaning on the college game more. What has made America an Olympic powerhouse is collegiate athletics, not academies or age-grade national teams. In American rugby, we tend to look overseas for every model and answer for how to get better, while professional clubs from around the world look to American sports for innovative ideas and processes. In what other sport does the All American team embark on a costly international tour every year? The "All American" or all-star teams of traditional high school and collegiate sports either play against one another domestically or are in name only. I'm not saying we blindly follow that model, but let's spend more time investigating whether the right example for American rugby is dangling in front of our face instead of across the pond.  

The American collegiate game is not good enough alone, yet, to make the United States a Tier One nation, though Cal has largely carried the bulk of the water in terms of developing Eagles for many, many years. Recently, programs like St. Mary’s, BYU and Life are kicking in, too. And varsity or quasi-varsity programs are sprouting up yearly, it seems. More coaches are being paid, and in many cases full-time, to identify and develop rugby talent here Stateside than ever before. Why not throw what little financial weight we have as a rugby nation behind that movement instead of trying to copy foreign models?

One of the best things USA Rugby ever did was help subsidize professionals in the high school game by meeting State Rugby Organizations halfway in coming up with salaries for full-time administrators. I’d love to see high performance money, like those hundreds of thousands of dollars chucked in the dumpster fire known as D1A, put towards a similar program for college coaches. Perhaps savings created by not going on age-grade tours could help fund such a project, too.

The point is, I’m not entirely sure what the answer is, but I know it’s not continuing on this never-ending carousel of underfunded underperformance that is USA Rugby’s age-grade system. And I'd like to see us use some American ingenuity in solving the problem instead of trying to adapt a foreign model that so obviously isn't working. 

Comments

The SBROs can form Academies based on the successful ODA model and adapt it to the local needs of age-grade athletes. Combines can be held once a year to identify talent. Weekly training session and/or monthly assemblies can be used to bring top players together for elite training. The Junior ODA team can play teams from their neighboring states to limit travel costs. Spending SBRO, parent, and sponsor funds on Junior Academies provides much a better return on investment than an international touring. Junior Academies can also partner with existing Senior Academies to share resources and best practices.
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While I share the frustration expressed in this column, it's a perfect example of what is wrong with American rugby right now. Everyone has an agenda and try to wrap their agenda in a facade of helping. In this case, a paid college coach is arguing to kill a program and funnel the money into (you guessed it) college coach development. Don't know how paying more college coaches will turn the US into an international powerhouse since most of them never played high level international rugby. I do like the some of the suggestions put forth but to follow a good suggestion up with self serving remedy doesn't help create a solution. It only extends the problem.
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"Don't know how paying more college coaches will turn the US into an international powerhouse since most of them never played high level international rugby." So how do we convince very many people who "played high level international rugby" to coach American rugby if we don't pay them? The premise of the article is correct. Something is not working, and we need to take a serious look at alternatives. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Paying college coaches a living wage seems an obvious step in the right direction, but would that be a panacea? Highly unlikely. One need only look at our mediocre presence on the world soccer scene to realize that. Tons of colleges have paid soccer coaches -- it is even a NCAA sanctioned sport -- yet we remain mired in international soccer mediocrity. Not even having our very own professional soccer league has seemed to help that much. No, the only real way the quality of American rugby will grow to an elite level is if it becomes more popular. I hate to say that, but I see no alternative.
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Mark, I agree that something needs to be done. My point was that the author has a conflict of interest in writing a column condemning a program only to suggest that the money be put into something in which he would directly benefit. This is why USA Rugby as an organization is a joke. The only ones who benefit from most of their decisions are the people who work are USA Rugby i.e. Nigel Melville and the higher ups. It's their mismanagement of funds that have led us to where we are now. Until changes are made at the top, the teams on the ground won't feel it. The problems go far beyond the U20 side.
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I can see your point, but look at it this way. Coach Clifton is being paid to increase the level of rugby play at his school. His mind is constantly on that problem day in and day out. It's a part of his job, a BIG part of it. If he didn't improve play at his school, he would quickly be out of a job. Me, personally, I welcome the thoughts and opinions of such a man. I want to hear what he has to say on the matter. Do I take them as absolute truth? Certainly not. For one thing as you said, there is an inherent conflict of interest when he suggests we need to have more paid college coaches. For another, he is just a mortal man expressing his mortal opinion. But that doesn't mean we should denigrate and throw out his ideas just because we think he might personally benefit from them.
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On the topic of popularity, how much time to clubs spend developing their fan base? How many games each weekend have more than 100 spectators? If rugby wants to be taken seriously it needs to make an effort to be seen has a serious sport.
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I disagree that changes need to be made at USA Rugby to improve the game of rugby in the US. Bitching about USAR is not new, not original and not constructive. Clubs, SBROs, College Conferences, and Senior GU's can all do a great deal to improve the game within their regions. If all the regions are stronger, the game will improve nationally.
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Man, what a load of crap. The kids that get chosen for these tours have worked intensely to make these teams. I believe that dreams and ambition are formulated on these tours. The fact that you say so and so may or may not have progressed solely because of these tours is rubbish. The HSAA system as I see it is the exact platform to launch young men into their belief as to what is possible in their rugby careers. Is it perfect? Do the best guys always get picked? Will you pick the best guys for your college? Will some people not be able to attend your school because they cant afford it? ,,, What it does do for the kids on tour is show them where the ceiling is and allow them to decide if they want to work hard enough to compete at that level. As a result of this tour my son had his rugby dream stoked, and will receive a college scholarship. It would be easy to say it was because of my rugby past, if that was true I could have slept in every morning the last six months instead of spending my time and money on my sons dream. That assertion by you really calls into question the integrity of awesome HSAA leaders. Full disclosure, my son was on tour, I was a rugby scholarship athlete, I did pack my kitbag and travel to play for the best clubs that would have me. We are a rugby family. We are blessed and thankful that the HSAA program picked our son to represent his country. It let him know the work that needs to be done. I guess you can ultimately judge if igniting a fire is valuable to USA Rugby. More power to the few men that are trying to push rugby forward in this country. They do it usually pulling deadwood kicking, screaming and criticizing.
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Bigdaddy - I have nothing to benefit from more paid coaching jobs, other than more competition. I am lucky enough to be a paid coach already, so I don't really understand your premise that I have some kind of agenda or something to gain from the increase of paid coaches. There is an undeniable correlation between paid coaching and player development. Duane - I am not taking anything away from your son or the people that have coached him. I'm not tearing him down, or his coaches. I'm simply suggesting there are better ways to identify and develop young men such as your son. As far as sparking the fire, are those dreams and hopes not sparked by all-star and all-american games of other sports? Why do we have to pay to put people on planes and fly them around when we can't afford to properly train them for the competitions we're entering them in?
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Simply put -all star programs do not mimic the speed and intensity found overseas.
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It is important for our high achieving kids to see what the best is, and be able to gauge themselves against them. What team is the hsaa football or basketball team going to play? There is nothing like a tour to elevate the players Game IQ and ability. Lets face it, most HS teams here give Rec league effort at best. I applaud Eagle Impact for attempting to fill the void that is apparent in the United States.
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Well, Duane, they usually play against one another. Ever heard of the McDonald's, Under Armour, Jordan, or U.S. Army All American games? They usually air on network TV in front of millions. And Belgium's the best?
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The current tour format exposures a few dozen elite rugby athletes to a standard they don't get at home. The US needs hundreds of players playing at elite levels to create a decent elite player pool and there is not enough money to send hundreds of players abroad. The money going to international travel would be better spent on regional development.
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When they win USAR claims success, but when criticized,... it's regions can do more. Leadership and direction come from the top ! Pat you knew that being a paid coach and a paid independent journalist covering himself would cause conflict perceptions, so get over it and get ready for someone to bring it up again. In a way, all the opinions presented here have a little truth in each statement, which more than anything is reflective of the top to bottom horseshit in U.S. Rugby.
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Both USAR and the regions can do better. Most people have more influence in their region than they do at USAR so a regional focus is a better allocation of their time, effort, and money.
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How many current senior Eagles on BOTH the 7s and 15s went through the age grade system? Why is your opinion the one that matters - why not ask them?
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Yes, ask the players who went through the system. Who's system ? Salty' s or Jack's ?
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Michael, you're right. I did know there would be a conflict of interest on many occasions, and there already have been. This instance, though, there isn't. In fact, I'd argue publishing this column acted against my interests as a coach.
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I suggest emphasizing territorial/regional rugby with the Eagles being a touring side akin to the British Lions. Possibly the Pacific, East, West, Midwest, and South. We have the population in each region to support good rugby. Heck, Chicago has about the same population as all of Wales. I believe more regular, concentrated and intense training within each each territory will produce better teams and better players. Ultimately, however, to improve, US players must play WITH, not just against, top international players. One season in New Zealand and it became apparent to me US players who have not played with top club players in a traditional rugby country simply cannot know the intensity with which the game is played in England, NZ, SA, etc. In America, the gateway to popularity and funding is the NCAA and Olympics. Rugby has made it to the Olympics. Let's work to make rugby an NCAA sport. We cheer Olympic inclusion, but there are many who do not favor NCAA inclusion. As much as both are distasteful, cronie filled organizations, both can boost rugby. USARugby, another cronie filled organization, cannot.
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@Rick, believe it or not, the NCAA is even worse than USAR. NCAA are just a bigger version of the cronyism and incompetence. If anything VC is setting a pretty strong standard, maybe because their focus is way smaller, but the approach and strides they've made in a few years is far greater than what USAR has accomplished in decades.
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One of the biggest problems with the NCAA is that gridiron football is king. Few decisions are made where any possible impact on football isn't considered. <p> Another big problem is it's also mired in hundreds of rules and regulations as they try their best to keep money out of college sports. They are obsessed with making sure everything is "fair". The result is the morass of rules that only a lawyer would love and/or understand. <p> (The one nice thing about the "club" structure that exists in collegiate rugby today is they avoid all that. If a booster wants to sponsor a promising rugby prospect, he can do it without worrying about Big Brother NCAA swooping in and killing the deal.) <p> Personally, I think the best solution is likely a system similar to the one we have in Basketball today. Each level is governed by their own authority. High Schools are governed by the NFHS. Colleges are governed by the NCAA. Professionals are governed by the NBA. And international competition is governed by the FIBA. When you have one organization attempting to control all levels of a sport such as USAR tries to do today, you get the mess that USAR is today. It is inevitable.
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"If anything VC is setting a pretty strong standard, maybe because their focus is way smaller, but the approach and strides they've made in a few years is far greater than what USAR has accomplished in decades." <p> Very true. The main reason for that is because the VC is worried about college rugby and only college rugby. They are not concerned about high school play. They are not concerned about developing Eagles. They are focused exclusively upon college rugby.
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The original article and (most? :)) of the comments thereafter really deserve a wider distribution and discussion. Particularly to our representatives who don't seem to care to know how money is spent and policy and strategy developed. The pyramid is still a good model for talent development and we have thrown out some pretty good pyramids over the years (e.g. ITTs). Keep up the debate guys -- at least until some action is rolled out.
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