The recent naming of the USA World Cup squad showcases in part what’s going right in USA Rugby’s age-grade programs.
If the 30 players named to play in New Zealand, eleven have played for the USA U19 or U20 teams, while six others had a look or were involved in U19/HS rugby in some way.
Three of the players on the squad: Mike Petri, Scott LaValla, and James Paterson, were captains of their respective age-grade national teams.
The system is working, said current High School All American Head Coach Salty Thompson, who coached the USA U19s from 2003-2006 and then the U20s, before switching to the HSAAs.
“We are developing players,” he told RUGBYMag.com. “It’s not the only pathway. Some players develop later. But what is happening is that we’re seeing a really diverse group of athletes. We’re seeing lot of second-generation Polynesian athletes embracing the program; we’ve got kids who track to DI football, but who could come back to us later – such as what we’re expecting with Nate Ebner and possibly Thretton Palamo.”
The HSAA program’s latest trip to South revealed several potential Eagles – Thompson said he can think of four or five, but opted not to name names because he didn’t want to put them under pressure.
But the program isn’t just about developing Eagles. It exists to make all the players involved better, and to give them something meaningful to do.
Their four-match tour of South Africa resulted in one blowout victory, two tough wins, and one very tight and fractious loss.
“The guys learned a lot,” said the Tempe-area schoolteacher. “I’ve been to South Africa twice with the U19s, at the World Juniors in 2004 and 2005. That was a great event, but what was nice in this trip was there wasn’t much pressure on us. We were there to develop our game, but the guys could also go on safari, and experience the culture – especially some of the less-advantaged areas.”
On a rugby level, the HSAAs got a crash course in life in a rugby country.
They had a session with the Sharks Academy, sat in on a Sharks U21 practice, and watched the Sharks play the Bulls in Durban.
“It was rugby paradise,” said Thompson.
Of course, not all of it was perfect. The tour was marred by the Glenwood game, the second on tour. Glenwood HS is a proud rugby school, and stepped up to play the tourists with their typically physical style. The HSAAs entered the match determined to stand toe-to-toe with their hosts.
“We didn’t know how tough a team they’d put up against us,” said Thompson. “But we did know to compete with them we had to be physical and contest at the breakdown. Things kind of boiled over out of nowhere.”
In a tense game that the Americans led until late, three HSAA players were involved in some off-the-ball incidents. Both teams disciplined their players following the match, and online reports that the Americans were the only bad boys in the game were not correct (note that the original report on how the game went down was written by a Glenwood old boy).
However, Thompson suspended two players for a game, and one other player for the remainder of the tour. Glenwood coaches told Thompson he might have been a bit harsh, but the punishment was warranted, said Thompson.
“You wish you could have stopped it,” said Thompson. “But we never saw it coming. It was a sour note on a great game and a great tour, and it was disappointing. But we had to deal with it.”
The message to the players was clear: be tough, but be in control. And message received. 25-14 over Tygerberg and 26-16 over Durbanville ended the tour.
Other lessons had to be learned also on tour. Getting a squad that had 30 percent new players on the same page was a challenge, but ultimately one they conquered. They spent a lot of time upgrading skills, and moving players to different positions, and scouting top talent.
“Every team will have cream rise to top,” said Thompson, who might also see three or four former age-grade players on the Pan-Am 7s team. “This year we had 30 days with them, and 20 of them in South Africa. That will accelerate some of them, and then [USA U20s Coach] Scott [Lawrence] will take them on from there. We do have some issues to deal with; we struggled for height, but that’s a national issue. We saw how much the Western Province teams work on catch, pass and footwork, and that’s something we all need to work on – fundamental skills.”
Thompson wonders if more work needs to be done on the national rugby identity: nailing down fundamental skills, and then, “what if we brand ourselves on being good, or the best, at something?”
It’s a possibility, but now we can be pleased with the High School All American team that went to South Africa, immersed itself in rugby, learned a lot, and, for better and sometimes for worse, never backed down.