Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Harlequins Visit California, Continue U.S. Interest

By Derek Sagehorn

Members of the Harlequins F.C. visited the West Coast last week in an effort to coach players, train coaches and deepen their understanding of the American sports landscape. The visit follows-up on Harlequin visits to Philadelphia for a match against the Eagles in 2015, a training camp at San Francisco Golden Gate’s Treasure Island facility and prior coaching visits. Harlequins F.C. has also invested in Rugby International Marketing, the parent company of the The Rugby Channel. This Is American Rugby spoke to Tony Diprose, Harlequins Academy coach and Global Development Director to learn more about this initiative.

This Is American Rugby: Tell us a bit about your trip so far to California?

Tony Diprose: I actually just got into San Francisco this morning. My first visit was to Seattle to meet with the coaches from Atavus Rugby. We met and discussed coach and player development. I’ve been in email contact with Atavus coaches before on various issues so it was good to work with them in person. In addition, I got to reconnect with Shawn Pittman, a player I knew during his stint at London Welsh. Another highlight was visiting the Seattle Seahawks training facility.

TIAR: The Seahawks are known for adapting rugby tackling techniques on defense in an effort to reduce traumatic brain injuries. Did you work on that issue with them?

TD: I was more of an observer to be honest. I was trying to soak up as much of their sport science process and see what could be translated to what we do in rugby and at Harlequins. There is some cutting edge work done at the Seahawks but the question is always: how does this help rugby skill acquisition? You don’t want to mindlessly mimic everything you see.

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TIAR: Your coaching team [including Gary Street and player Kimber Rozier] went down to Stanford University to work with the women’s team, correct? What were their takeaways?

TD: I spoke to them and they had a great time. They spoke highly of the athleticism of some of the cross-over athletes that Stanford has been able to attract. Track & field, basketball and other sports are well-represented on the team. It’s just unfortunate that some of the women are picking up the football during their freshmen year of university. Hopefully they can be exposed to the game earlier and earlier.

TIAR: You’re set to visit a training session with the Pleasanton Jesters. This is a u-21 team for athletes not enrolled in four-year colleges, but not yet ready for senior club rugby. How do you manage that transition from schoolboy to senior rugby at Harlequins?

TD: It’s really important that you get players in this age group game time—you’ll stunt their development if they’re sitting on a bench. But you want to manage the minutes. You also want to emphasize the decision-making aspect; often-times these are players that dominated their local competition through pure physicality or speed. That’s not going to work when you’re propping against a 32 year-old man or running at a seasoned midfield. Some people can make that transition fairly quickly: Joe Marler and American Titi Lamositele are outliers in that respect. Others need more time, so you focus on that decision-making and upskilling their game.  

TIAR: You’ll be attending the Grand Finale of the California Cup. Have you been involved with any of the coaches in that competition?

TD: We’ve trained previously at San Francisco Golden Gate, so we’re well acquainted with Gate coach Neil Foote. We’ve also worked with Adrian Ferris of Life West. These two and some of others we’ve worked with are professional coaches with experience in New Zealand, so the learning curve isn’t radical. But we’ve acted as a sounding board of sorts. We’d like, however, to create contacts with as many clubs as possible in California. We’ve visited the San Francisco Bay Area several times already. I’m looking forward to visiting Sacramento for their high school Kick Off Tournament, and going forward working with coaches in Southern California as well. The rugby in California has been good for a long time, but it is a fractured landscape.

TIAR: Langilangi Haupeakui trained with the Harlequins last August when the team visited San Francisco, but ultimately went to Glasgow Warriors. Given Northern California’s record of producing Langilangi, Samu Manoa, Todd Clever, and others, is there any part of Harlequins efforts in the region that is simply scouting? To borrow from Moneyball: are Harlequins trying to find undervalued assets to gain that competitive edge?

TD: Yes, that’s certainly part of it. There are some really great athletes here. But there are challenges to getting players signed and playing; these are often-times logistical or labor law related. For that reason it’s important to establish relationships with both youth programs and senior clubs. You certainly want to identify talent early but also be open to late-bloomers. If we can create pathways and lines of communication between us and the players, we can gain an edge by finding the next Samu Manoa.

TIAR: What’s the future of Harlequins in the United States? Will the team be coming back for a match?

TD: We plan on continuing our investment in coaching and player development here. We’re also looking forward to helping promote the Sevens World Cup in San Francisco in 2018. As to the Premiership side, we hope to make an announcement on another visit in the coming months.

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