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The USA U20s are back home after the initial camp of the 2013-2014 season, and things are looking up, somewhat.

A new Head Coach is set to be named very soon, and all indications are that the person in charge will be Billy Millard, newly-installed as the USA Men’s 15s attack coach in October. Millard was not at the camp, in part because he hasn’t officially signed on, and with USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville having said he is looking for someone to oversee an academy system, it could be that Millard’s job will involve, in part, that system.

So in Tempe, Ariz., Michael Engelbrecht took a break from his work with the High School All American team to run the Winter Camp (full list of players here). Engelbrecht enlisted help from a number of quarters, with former Wellington Hurricanes and current Taranaki High Performance Manager Jono Phillips coming in, along with former USA U20 Head Coach Scott Lawrence, former Eagle Luke Gross, former SFGG Head Coach Paul Keeler, and Lindenwood coach JD Stephenson.

“All of these guys volunteered their time and were just amazing,” said Engelbrecht.

Notable in this group was Lawrence, who had been rebuffed by USA Rugby for his U20s plan in 2012.

“Scott was absolute class,” said Engelbrecht. “His clarity and planning for how he goes about working with the players, and his drill progression was just incredibly professional.”

Lawrence had another hand in the team preparation – more on that later.

Engelbrecht had the unenviable job of putting together a camp in just six weeks. With Millard not on the job yet, Engelbrecht had to somewhat guess what Millard would want in a team. He did rely on aging-out High School All Americans, but he also went further afield, sometimes using coach recommendation and taking a flyer on a player or two.

The result was a group that was missing players who couldn’t make the camp on short notice, and one that wasn’t known well by the coaches. Still, said Engelbrecht, they got a lot of work done.

“I came out of this pretty pleased with what we have,” said Engelbrecht. “It would have been good to have a baseline of what we have set forth in June. But we have it now, and while we were stressed and stretched, the players had a great attitude and worked really hard.”

The all hands on deck attitude from the coaching staff helped, as did the fact that the HSAA team was staying in the same hotel and working out at the same fields. Players who graduated from Salty Thompson’s HSAA program could see Thompson in the halls, adding an endorsement of the familiar to a U20 program that still has a hundred questions looming over it.

Not least of those questions is, what now? With Engelbrecht and Lawrence’s help, the players filled out electronic forms mapping out their personal performance plan to fill in the time between now and the next assembly. Those forms were sent to their regular coaches so that the players will have some support at home – certainly elements of this came from Lawrence.

The U20s will next assemble in February, likely at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, and then work toward the April Junior World Rugby Trophy in Hong Kong with another assembly and some practice games.

The scrimmages held on the last day of this winter camp were filmed, as were several of the training sessions, and they will be made available to the new Head Coach. That footage will likely show that the HSAA alumni showed stronger, on average, than those new to a national team assembly.

Hooker Codi Jones of Cal Maritime, prop Valdemar Lee-Lo of Sierra, flanker Zach Bonte of UCLA, and wing Matt Long of Cal Poly all had strong camps.

But Engelbrecht said there are holes in the talent pool. Front Row remains a thin position, while the locks all seem to be tall flanker-types, rather than the more bulky versions (those body types will have been playing a lot of football, most likely). Flyhalf is still a position where the USA needs depth and experience at all levels.