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Team USA kicks off its Youth Olympic Games campaign Saturday in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The six-team rugby portion of the competition runs Saturday through Monday with a full round-robin.
After two pool games Saturday and Sunday and the final group match Monday, there will be a single round of knockout matches. The top two teams after the group stage will face off for gold, third- and fourth-place will battle for bronze, and the bottom two teams will contend for fifth place.
Head coach J.D. Stephenson’s team opens up against defending gold medalist France. The French bested Kenya, Japan, USA, Argentina and Fiji in rugby’s Youth Olympic debut in Nanjing, China in 2014, where the Americans finished 1-5 and in fifth place.
The stark difference between the 2014 team and this one is preparation. The ’14 bunch was thrown together on a tight timeline and a shoestring budget. The current team has been in the works for much longer.
“We don’t have any excuses not to be successful. We’ve had awesome people involved in the whole process,” Stephenson told Rugby Today.
“We’ve made sure that not one is unturned in terms of identification through open submissions, by asking pretty much every 7s coach we know that’s involved in the age grade, and by looking at the NAI 7s. There’s really not more we could have done in terms of allowing opportunities.”
Beyond talent identification and selections, the team has spent considerable time together, too. They assembled at the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. with the senior team during its most recent high performance camp before flying to Buenos Aires. They’ve had boots on the ground for a week, with scrimmages and training filling the itinerary.
A handful of Youth Oympians suited up for the Falcons in Rugbytown 7s in August, too, and there have been other assemblies to boot.
During the recent HP camp, Eagles Madison Hughes and Ben Pinkelman spent considerable time mentoring the crew. St. Mary’s standout Vili Helu, a member of the 2014 team, was in camp with the senior team and gave them a chat about what to expect.
Sacramento’s Junior Waqavesi leads the team. The talented playmaker has been called up to Eagles HP camps as a youngster, and his decision making will dictate how the team performs in attack. He was featured by the Olympic Channel.
There are some legacy players, too, like Tyren Al-Jiboori, the little brother of Eagle Malon, and Isaia Kruse, brother of Glendale Raptor Mika, who is currently in Uruguay playing in the Americas Pacific Challenge.
“We feel this is going to be the best defensive team we can put out on the pitch that can hopefully be very detailed around the restarts, and we’ll let the attack come to us,” Stephenson said.
The games are being shown on the Olympic Channel at the times below.
France 12:40 p.m. ET
Samoa 3:45 p.m. ET
South Africa 12:15 p.m. ET
Japan 3:45 p.m. ET
Argentina 10:30 a.m. ET
Knockout rounds begin 1:20 p.m. ET