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Lawrence stepped down earlier this fall, and named Kelly as an excellent candidate to succeed him. Kelly will have some big shoes to fill as Lawrence guided the USA to a Junior World Trophy title. Now Kelly will be saddled with the job of rebuilding a team that has aged out a few important players, and must now face the likes of South Africa, France England and try to stay in the top 12 by winning at least one game.
Already Kelly is some weeks behind, as the slow process of appointing a new
coach meant scouting was delayed and invitations to the January camps, one
on the West Coast and one on the East Coast, are just now going out.
Kelly told RUGBYMag.com that he was shocked that Lawrence stepped down, but is excited to take on the job. He is bringing back assistants Gavin Hickie and Vaha Esikia, while Rob Holder comes in as manager, and he expects little to change in how the team is prepared and coached.
“Like Scott I take nutrition and proper sleeping habits and preparation really seriously; I think what you eat is hugely important for an athlete and if you look at the Junior World Trophy, while all the teams had the same food available to them, the USA ate the best," said Kelly.
The goals, however, have changed. While no team should go into a competition thinking anything other than victory, the task in the JWC is a tough one. If they cannot win one game their pool of defending champions South Africa, hosts France, and England, they will find themselves in a consolation bracket playing for 9th, with a semifinal and a finalas well as an 11th/12th match. The team that loses that bracket gets relegated back to the JWRT
So in the end they need to win one of those last two games, against teams like Samoa, Fiji, or Scotland.
“It’s strange to go from winning the Junior World Trophy to talking about just trying to stay up in the JWC, but that’s the reality,” said Kelly. “We return about ten or 11 guys from the 2012 team, and while they aren’t guaranteed a spot, they do provide some veteran leadership and experience. We bring in players from the High School All Americans, and then we keep scouting all through the year. We know that with Madison Hughes aging out we’re going to need a goalkicker. We know we will need some size.”
They lose not only Hughes but captain Will Magie and hooker Cameron Falcon,
who piloted the most accurate lineout in the 2012 JWRT. But they also will
likely get some players from the 2012 High School All Americans who played
so well in South America. In addition, said Kelly, moving up to the JWC has
prompted player interest.
“We are getting a lot of interest from American-qualified players overseas,” Kelly explained. “It’s kind of interesting to see that happening, but we’ll look at those players just as we look at anyone else.”
Kelly, who coached the Las Vegas Blackjacks to a national DI title, and then coached the Denver Barbarians in the Super League, has stepped down from other coaching duties, although he will pitch in for Denver when time allows. A former USA flyhalf, he has the international experience that gives him cachet among the U20 players, who are hoping to be Eagles one day, as well. But being an Eagle is also about facing difficult challenges.
Interestingly, Jason Kelly is the only person on the entire USA U20s staff
who has a non-rugby job. Hickie, Esikia and Holder, as well as USA Rugby’s
Dave Williams and Luke Gross, all are involved in rugby as their job.
That’s not to say that coaching the U20s isn’t a full-time job, because it is. Kelly is soon off to Hawaii to scout talent and join High School All American Head Coach Salty Thompson at a clinic.
After that he runs camps in California and Florida. He wants to assemble his larger squad through the spring, including a four-day assembly in March if possible. Then the team will prepare to host the Canadian U20s in two matches in May, followed by a pre-tournament camp in the Atlanta area.
That final camp will be the key team-building experience, akin to the 2012 U20s team assembling in the Rocky Mountains. This time the team will be roughing it by a lake, training and living together for six days.
And then they go to France for the JWC, which is a tall order, but one Kelly embraces.
But the key message from Kelly for now is this: no spot on the squad has
“We will be looking at players through the spring, and there will be players from colleges that we will see for the first time this season,” he said. “Whether they are college players, high school players, or young guys playing with men’s clubs, we need to see them.”