How did they do it?
How did the USA U20s team go from being 7th in the 2011 Junior World Trophy to sweeping Canada, in Canada, and then making the final of the 2012 JWRT?
In 2011 they lost 42-36 to Russia. In 2012, they beat that same Russia team 36-13. That's quite a reversal.
There are several factors involved:
1. The coaching situation. No coach for the U20 program has been bad, but consistency has been a problem. Ray Lehner was the coach, then he stepped down. Salty Thompson was the coach, but he was more suited to handle the HS All Americans, and so he switched places with Scott Lawrence. Lawrence coached the team last year, but had very little time to put together the program he wanted.
So in essence, this is the culmination of Lawrence’s first year with the team. He was able, following the 2011 JWRT in Georgia, to set forth a plan for 2012 that was detailed in the extreme.
2. The calendar. After plenty of lobbying from USA Rugby, the JWRT was moved to June. This was, in part, due to the fact that the USA hosted the tournament this year, and were able to influence when it was played. Because the tournament is in June, players who couldn’t be available in April or May due to academics, or due to the fact that their college or high school or club teams were in the playoffs, were available.
(Note – this isn’t to say last year’s team was chopped liver. Several of those players moved on to become All Americans, All D1-A players, or valuable members of college and club teams. If you put together a team with Joe Cowley, Tyler Black, Will Farrell, Bubba Jones, Mike Juszczak, Charles Koehler, Patrick Latu, Dan Metcalf, and Adam Sandstrom, you’d have a pretty useful team.)
3. The players. Part of Lawrence’s plan was to find a team that he wanted, following his profile. He did that. In addition, adding Vaha Esikia to the staff has helped him recruit more Polynesian players – raising the comfort level for young players from California and Utah.
4. Preparation. The Junior All Americans went to Canada, and won twice. However, had they lost twice it wouldn’t have made a difference (except, perhaps, for their confident level). The games were important in getting the team ready, and so was the team’s assembly in Colorado, working on their own initiative (with help from coaches) before the official assembly in Steamboat Springs.
5. Coaching. The coaching at the high school and college level continues to improve. And more than that, freshmen are coming into college having been coached well in high school, and, working with Lawrence and his development plans, their college coaches helped their development throughout the year.
6. Fans. It doesn't hurt to play at home, and it's gratifying to see fans at every USA game at Murray City Park.
So the success so far has been a multi-layered approach. USA Rugby the governing body, the fans and parents, the USA coaches, the USA Men’s National Team, which trained with the U20s and gave them a taste of where they’re going, the coaches in college, club and high school rugby, and, most importantly, the players, have all contributed.
Now it narrows. It’s down to the players at this point. Lawrence and his excellent staff have a plan for Saturday’s final against Japan, and certainly it will be one centered in part around taking care of the rugby ball. But more than anything, it will come down to the heart, the intelligence, and the execution of the players. We’ve already seen some inspiring performances along those lines. They know they need to be that much better.