Written by Alex Goff    Saturday, 21 December 2013 15:19    PDF Print Write e-mail
Eagle Eye: Starting Too Late for USA U20s
Columns - Eagle Eye

The announcement of the winter camp for the USA U20 men, and the list of players, is the first official announcement of anything to do with the team since June.

The program is getting ready to play in the Junior World Rugby Trophy in April, less than four months hence, and this is the first announcement of anything happening.

Cold and calculating maybe, but Scott Lawrence, at right, got a medal around his neck by planning everything down to the minute. P. Crane photo.Most observers close to elite age-grade rugby say that the U20s more than any of the teams has to be recruited for. Normally, the head coach is asking players to give up the meat of their college, club, or high school (mostly college) season in order to play for the Junior All Americans.

And while it’s reasonable to say that it should be an honor to play for your country, that doesn’t mean you give up everything for a chance at a bad experience. And that doesn’t mean coaches will OK player availability without assurances that the players will get something out of it.

(USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville said to RUGBYMag in November that “college trumps playing for the USA U20s.”)

The problem for the current USA U20 team is that Jason Kelly was not retained as Head Coach, but a new head coach was not brought in. In fact, if you look at the announcement, there’s still not a head coach. USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville told RUGBYMag.com in November that a coach would be brought in for the winter. And last week he reiterated in an email that an announcement would be forthcoming. The announcement of the MJAA and HSAA camps, and the fact that Michael Engelbrecht will be an assistant, came through. But no head coach as yet.

Because of this, there’s been no plan set in place to recruit and scout players starting in the summer. There’s been no process of developing relationships with coaches throughout the fall, identifying talented players who won’t be starting for their college and club teams. There’s been no official announcement on how this team will assemble and prepare for a JWRT that kicks off April 7 in Hong Kong.  April 7.

In 2011, the U20s finished 7th t of eight teams in the JWRT. The day after they won their only game (by a single point) to avoid last place, then-Head Coach Scott Lawrence spent the flight home mapping out a plan to put in an improved performance the year following. The process toward winning the 2012 JWRT, which they did, started that day.

Having led the U20s to qualification in the Junior World Championship, Lawrence submitted a plan to take the next step. The plan required more funding, however, and was rejected. Jason Kelly, a good rugby man who didn’t have the organizational skills of Lawrence (few do) was given the unenviable job of leading the team in 2013, but wasn’t confirmed until December. He didn’t have the time to put together a plan the way Lawrence did, and, not surprisingly, the USA lost all of their JWC games, all by large margins.

So the proof is there – the one time the USA U20 program had a coach in place in June who had time to set a plan in place and work with the players and coaches, the USA did well. When they didn’t, they performed poorly. Remember, under Lawrence’s first year, the Junior Eagles finished second-to-last in the second-tier competition, the JWRT. The planning is as important as the planner.

So, what do we have this time? We at RUGBYMag.com do not want to denigrate any of the fine players who are in camp this fall. Many of them we know a lot about – some we don’t – but we applaud their commitment to playing for the USA U20s and hope they do well. It’s likely a future Eagle will come out of this group who no one thought would be an international rugby player.

There are players, like Christian Adams, Ben Pinkelman, Joe Kelly, Andy Sandoval, James Wolfer, Joe Whalen, Valdemar Lee-Lo, Jake Feury, Oliver Drew, and Scott Dean who are really, really good.

But … you notice there are some high-profile colleges not represented in this group. No players from Cal, BYU, Kutztown, Central Florida, Dartmouth, Bowling Green, Clemson. Other top programs such as Arkansas State, Life, Cal Poly, Utah, Penn State, Indiana, and Arizona all contributed just one player to the group of 73 players. (We don’t mention the Service Academies because they can’t provide players and there’s no point and expecting them to.)

If you look at RUGBYMag’s last all-divisions Top 20, 24 players from those programs are in this winter’s camp. That might seem like a lot, but 21 of them are from four schools – Central Washington, Davenport, Lindenwood, and UCLA.

It’s clear there has not been a systematic effort to connect with coaches around the country, and to recruit players in the U20 age group who might be available. Some players aging out of the HS All American program have clearly told their new college coaches, I am playing for the U20s. That’s fine. But we’re still recruiting in pockets.

The USA U20s were blown out in every game last year, in part because their opponents were almost all professionals, but also in part because Head Coach Jason Kelly didn't get started until December. Martin Seras Lima photo.(Melville said as much in November, saying that the program would recruit from clubs and colleges that could spare the players, but that was a response to having missed the boat already.)

Even this group of 73 will have a tough time of it. They will need to be away at least from the end of March to late April. That’s the middle of the season, and the middle of class time (spring break is in there somewhere, too).  And, remember, they will travel o Arizona after Christmas without any systematic preparation instruction – diet, fitness, skills. Setting that up is the guy in charge of the program, and we don’t have anyone in charge of the program.

So the obstacles remain:

  • No Head Coach as yet.
  • No systematic preparation plan for those coming to camp.
  • No systematic recruiting to find the best players in the age group, but more to find whoever’s available.
  • No activity within the program until December for a tournament that kicks off April 7.
  • Games April 7, 11, and 15 against Hong Kong, Georgia, and Tonga – all very losable.
  • A finals game on April 19.
  • No publicized plan on how these players will be whittled down and prepared for the toughest tournament they have played in so far.

Now, they could overcome all of this, but USA Rugby’s job, and Nigel Melville’s job, is to put these players in the best position to win given the constraints of geography and economics. They haven’t done that.