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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Could A U-23 Academy Benefit U.S. Players?


If there is one major thing that we've learned from the years the Eagles 7s have had in residency it's that the ability to train in a full-time environment gets results. No question that the desire of players and talent plays a factor but when they are put in an atmosphere to succeed and build upon their talents they excel. Not only is the 7s team benefit, but the backs, and to a lesser extent the back-row, on the Eagles 15s team are improved as well. Zack Test, Folua Niua, and Brett Thompson were all at the World Cup along with Danny Barrett and Andrew Durutalo. Other players like Thretton Palamo and Shalom Suniula have spent time in residency as well. This next World Cup cycle could see even more players make their way into the team like Maka Unufe.

Still, the backs have traditionally be a strong area for the Eagles. Where they have struggled in the past is in the forwards, in particular at prop. Make no mistake, the Eagles scrum has improved a lot over the last few years under Justin Fitzpatrick. Eric Fry has really come on lately and Titi Lamositele has a chance to become the most capped Eagle of all time. That said, one of the problems at prop, and to some extent other spots in the forwards, has been depth.

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So what can be done to improve that depth? Having more players play at a higher level is a good thing and has been working. Players like Ollie Kilifi, Joe Taufet'e, and Chris Baumann benefitted for playing with Seattle and Santa Monica respectively. Chris Wallace has improved with Glendale while young players like Angus MacLellan, Ben Tarr, and Val Lee-Lo are also in a good environment. While that is nice, it still doesn't make up for a full-time environment.

PRO Rugby is going to add to this even more. A five to six month season where players are playing and training with the best in the country is going to work. The U.S. is going to be able to get much better because players are coming into Eagles camp at a higher level. The next Eagles coach is going to have players that don't necessarily have to be taught or reminded of how to do things right. They are going to be able to come in and learn tactics and nuisances of the scrum.  Still, PRO Rugby is only a five month season. That is very short by international rugby standards. Most players playing international rugby have their club seasons that see them play at least 20 matches. PRO Rugby isn't going to reach that level in their first year.

Again, so what to do? Our suggestion is fundraising for a national training center for the best rugby players U-23. Acting like the OTC for the 7s but with a focus on 15s the national training center would allow the best young players to train full time to improve their conditioning, nutrition, and learn the tactical aspects of the game. If the competition was based in California or Denver, they would play in a competition like the PRP to get even more matches before players are disperse to PRO Rugby teams.

Besides a money obstacle (we're talking millions to make it work right) there is still going to be a conflict when it comes to schooling and work. If you have 30 players in residency, even if they make a small stipend and housing players will still need a little extra to survive. It might be hard for a player who got into Cal to give up that type of education to play in an academy that plays in the PRP. Additionally, a club player may have a hard time leaving a lucrative job. Still, if it's limited to U-23 players it would make sense that players would be willing to give up or delay some things in order to try and give rugby a go. Our guess is that a lot of players would jump at the chance to go to residency and then potentially play in PRO Rugby.

If you look at other sports, in particular soccer, in the United States, you see that the growth of academies or powerhouse schools has helped fuel the sport. Every MLS side has their own academy now but for a long time it was U.S. Soccer that ran an academy in Florida that produced a lot of players for the national team. While that would be ideal in rugby there simply isn't the infrastructure to support an elite U-14 through U-18 team in the United States. It would be much too expense to fly them to Europe for matches. It makes a lot more sense to work with players 18 and older.

Will it work and could it happen? As things currently stand it probably won't happen as there are too many obstacles. However, that doesn't mean that it wouldn't solve a lot of problems and isn't worth trying to obtain.

5 comments:

  1. Bravo! Love that idea. My nephew would benefit immediately, if such a thing existed (he's 17)

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  2. Yup and we should get Murry Mexted from IRANZ to run it. He has already offered to run an academy here. IRANZ only regularly produces ITM Cup, Super Rugby, and All Black players. Why would we possibly want such a great organization here in the US? If you can't tell, this idea is long overdue.

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  3. ODAs are already U-23. Mandate of ODAs can easily be extended to 15s from 7s. A physical academy with residency is unrealistic. Even the virtual academy model used by ODA's will require significant additional staff and funding to develop 15s.

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  4. I think the concept is a fine idea. Let's be honest, not everyone is destined for college and I am not convinced that senior men's rugby is always the best place for kids right out of high school to continue their rugby maturation.

    I would go a step further and suggest that USA Rugby push the development of a U23 level across the US in all the major regions. Here in Oregon, I feel we lose many kids who are not going community college or working that are intimidated by the club scene.

    Having this avenue could aid in player retention and in the overall development of players.

    Now if only USA Rugby was a receptive to outside ideas...

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    1. The club I played for in South Africa had U-20s. Two sides actually. It's a great idea but rugby clubs themselves needed to develop to where they have enough players for such a side. Most clubs struggle to field one or two sides, let alone a specific age grade side.

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