The Las Vegas Invitational is once again becoming the place where USA hopefuls take the field in 7s and in 15s.
Players who made their debuts for the USA in 2013 who showed off their skills in recent LVIs include Titi Lamositele, Brett Thompson, John Cullen, Joe Cowley, Cam Dolan, Patrick Blair, Ryan Matyas, Stephen Tomasin, and Olive Kilifi, while players such as Nu'u Punimata and Tai Enosa have played their way back into the USA mix by playing at the LVI.
This year, the Men's Elite 7s is heavy with American teams looking to get noticed. Serevi Selects, Tiger 1823, Atlantis, Chicago Lions, Azul y Negro out of Texas, USA Falcons, Kalihi Raiders, Northeast Olympic Development Academy, and The Selects are all in there.
Of these, only the USA Falcons are an official USA Rugby team. The rest are privately-run groups, either as invitational sides (The Selects is managed by Dom Budzisz, who has been involved in military rugby for years, Atlantis is run by the legendary Emil Signes with the almost-legendary Biddy Boyle assisting), or as long-term programs (Serevi, Tiger/1823, and Northeast ODA).
Many of these programs are fielding extra squads in the Men's Aces (Northeast), Men's Open (Selects), Women's Elite (Atlantis, Kalihi), HS Boys (Atlantis), and HS Girls (Atlantis and Serevi).
It's interesting to note, then, that more effort seems to be put into developing young players by grassroots organizations than by USA Rugby.
"Players want more," said Dallas Reds captain Kelly Kolberg, who has played with Tiger and spoke with players during the TOLA all-star games recently. "So many players ask me about wanting to play 7s for Tiger. They want to show how good they are. USA Rugby should want more [programs] like Tiger."
Budzisz is bringing a Selects group of 65 players that is about one-third military.
"Without a doubt Vegas is the most significant social tournament in the entire US for a number of reasons," said Budzisz. "Because of the way it's organized it gives us a large advance notice. We get foreign competition and the timing means we don't conflict with the rugby season. Playing the teams like Tiger, Atlantis, the Falcons, and the ODA team is great. Obviously it would be a little better if the US Head Coach wasn't committed to his own team so he could personally scout."
The Selects will be coached by former Eagle Vaha Esikia, with two former Air Force Academy All Americans, Mike Hobson and Josh Dean, helping. Budzisz said the players will arrive four days before the tournament to train under Esikia.
"We needed to do that because of the international teams we're playing," he said. That, of course, is how players get better.
Currently the opportunities to play tough competition are few and far between, with the Serevi RugbyTown 7s one chance in the summer. But not other venue offers the combination of international competition (the LVI Men's Elite 7s also will include national teams or development national teams from Belgium, Mexico, Peri, Canada, Cayman Islands, and pro teams from Europe, as well).
In that bracket alone, as many as 100 young American 7s players will get exposure to international and professional competition. Nothing anyone else does rivals that.
For more on the Las Vegas Invitational, click here.