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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.