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Since the emergence of full-time training contracts at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., few non-resident American players have managed to be regularly selected for IRB 7s World Series action. Lately, Mike Palefau is about the only guy who’s been parachuted in, and usually only when an injury has forced the trusted veteran into action.
But that’s going to change under new head coach Mike Friday, who is taking a different approach to the residency program than his predecessors. With the Eagles having so few full-time contracts to dole out, creating competition for spots amongst resident-only players has been difficult.
“That breeds complacency, and I’m not interested in complacency,” Friday told Rugby Today.
“Let me give you an example. If I’ve got a guy that’s got a good job, but is based elsewhere in the country, and he says, ‘I can’t commit to being a resident, but the reality is, Mike, I will make sure I hit the world class fitness standards you require, and I will make sure I can pass the ball as well as anybody else, I can tackle as well as anybody else, and I can do my contact skills as well as anybody else, and I come into the high performance camp and I earn my right, will I go?’ The answer is yes.”
Those words may light a fire under the likes of Peter Tiberio, Colin Hawley and Miles Craigwell, guys who left meagerly paid positions at the OTC, at least in part, to pursue professional careers. They all still play rugby at a high level, but have been left out of selections.
That doesn’t mean resident players won’t have the inside track, but rather that they'll have to earn their spots, and that there are going to be more players competing for them than before, as Friday plans to include players training remotely in his pre-tour high performance camps.
“I’ve said to the boys that are residents here as well, yes you’ve got an advantage because you’re in residency and you have us. You have all the resources you need,” said Friday.
“The reality as well as that is I want other things in your life if you’re a residency person. I want you to become a more rounded person. I want you to have education, to consider doing other activities outside your rugby, because a change is as good as a rest. An active mind makes for a far fresher rugby player.”
This season, as Olympic qualification begins, marks the first year the IRB’s regulation nine applies to the World Series, meaning clubs have to make players available at the behest of their 7s national teams. The USA has a few recently OTC-contracted guys – Brett Thompson, Thretton Palamo and Blaine Scully – who could help them win games, and via reg. 9, Friday could theoretically call upon them. However, he’ll have to delicately navigate that mine field.
“Those clubs don’t want them to be disappearing, because that will potentially affect his club contract, so we have to manage that very carefully,” said Friday.
“We have to manage those relationships – I know a lot of those players’ clubs in England – but by the same token, make sure that we give ourselves the best opportunity to qualify for the Olympics. So I think those types of conversations and decisions will probably take place more toward the end of the World 7s Series rather than now, when we can continue to build the talent pool and the ability of those athletes already either imbedded here or remote in parts of the USA.”
The bottom line is Friday is going to cast a wide net, including for players not embedded at the OTC, and eventually, maybe those playing for money overseas.