You don’t need me to tell you that professionalizing the USA Olympic Rugby programs will be big; it’s patently obvious it’s going to be big.
Eagle Eye is a regular opinion column on USA National Team issues by RUGBYMag.com Editor-in-Chief Alex Goff. The Eagle Eye column first appeared in another form in 1998.
Well look at it as coming up with a game plan. Think of how you lost your last game. Think how you gave yourself a list of things your team didn’t get right. You’ve got two training sessions, maybe four, to make things better. What do you do? You probably identify one or two things where you can make a huge improvement, thus making an impact on the next game.
That’s how the USA 7s teams must look at the next few years.
So here are some issues for the programs, and what the new US Olympic Committee residency program, plus some other things happening within USA Rugby and international 7s, will do to fix those issues:
Inconsistency in Men’s team lineup. The USA uses more players in any one season than any of the other core World Series teams. Part of that is due to injuries, and part due to Head Coach Al Caravelli sometimes using the final tournaments to blood new players. But a lot has had to do with players not being available, generally because they have financial and family obligations (often related to finances) that keep them at home.
But what if those players and their families lived full-time in San Diego, with a small housing allowance and per diem? When they were in camp they wouldn’t be away from their families, and going to tournaments would be more their job than something they do in addition to their job. The consistency problem is now addressed, and not because the player decides to quit his job in order to play.
Training. For years the USA 7s team has assembled for a few weeks, played, and then dispersed to their various home cities. Sure these players work hard on off-weeks, but if they are training together, under coaching supervision, all season, they will be more ready come the next tournament.
Money. This is, of course, related to consistency, but also has its mental aspects, too. If a player is worrying about paying the bills, can he give his best performance? Some can compartmentalize that way; some can’t. The players won’t be paid a high salary, but they will be paid a small amount of money to be in the program. The money can help them feed their family, and, combined with healthy insurance, food provided at the Olympic Training Center, and housing, they can make ends meet. Some with families might need to take a part-time job, but the basic needs will be met.
Will it still cost players to play? Sure, especially those that give up careers to focus on rugby. But it won’t cost so much that they can’t do it.
It’s not an uncommon story to hear of young players, with kids, who are in the prime of their rugby careers, but also have to consider how to put food on the table for those kids. Don’t be surprised to see the residency program populated with that type of young player.
Warmup Tournaments (men). The residency program provides training consistency, but we’re unlikely to see warmup tournaments for the men’s team. This is because, with the nine-tournament World Series, the Pan-Am Games, and the NACRA 7s World Cup Qualifiers next year, the calendar is pretty full to start with.
Tournaments (women). The women will finally get a better schedule. After playing in one or two tournaments a year since the 2009 World Cup, the women’s team will now be put in a position to get back to the upper echelon of the women’s 7s game. They will play in Dubai, Las Vegas, Hong Kong, London, and the NACRA (even though they have automatic qualification to the 2013 7s World Cup). That, along with regular training for eight players, will be an enormous boost for their level of play. Head Coach Ric Suggitt, who has been trying to piece together a coherent approach on just a few assemblies a year, will have much more freedom now to implement his game plan and concentrate on his go-to players.
All of these issues listed above have been well-documented in the pages of RUGBYMag.com as speed bumps to success for the USA 7s program. Almost all of them will be addressed by this program. Is it huge? Yes, it’s huge. It’s a major step for both programs to start thinking Olympic medal, and those thoughts would not be realistic without it.
USA 7s team captain Shalom Suniula isn’t backing down from a challenging draw at the Dubai 7s this weekend.
The Eagles face off with New Zealand, South Africa and Portugal in a very tough pool, and will need to pull off a first-time upset of either of those first two teams to get to the Cup Quarterfinals.
But Suniula told RUGBYMag.com that the team feels they know what they can do, and came out of their 17-12 loss to South Africa at the Gold Coast 7s feeling as if they should have won.
Only some small mistakes – a turnover here, a missed tackle there, and a shocking five restart errors – hurt them, rather than an overall inability to compete.
“There restarts were an uncharacteristic mistake of mine that won't happen again,” said Suniula, who made four of those five errors. Head Coach Al Caravelli said the team would fix their restart problems immediately, and Suniula is ready to show that has been accomplished. Outside of that, the USA did some good things in Australia.
“There were lots of positives to take out of last weekend,” said Suniula. “We are going into this weekend with a boatload of confidence knowing what we are capable of doing.”
USA Rugby confirmed today what RUGBYMag.com reported November 19, and CEO Nigel Melville outlined on the latest episode of RuggaMatrix America, that starting in January 2012, a partnership between the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and USA Rugby will allow 23 rugby sevens athletes to receive full-time training contracts at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Chula Vista, Calif.
Fifteen men and eight women will receive contracts which will provide monthly stipends, meals, world-class training facilities, and high-performance support services at the OTC, marking a crucial step on rugby's journey to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
In October 2009, the International Olympic Committee announced that rugby sevens would be included in the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games, a massive development for the sport of rugby all over the world, but particularly in a country like the USA that has such a strong Olympic tradition.
“As we prepare as a nation for Rio 2016, making our men’s and women’s sevens teams fulltime is a crucial step for our sport,” said USA Rugby CEO, Nigel Melville.
“There are so many advantages to living and training in a high-performance environment year round - fulltime coaches, trainers, dieticians, sports psychologists, and so on – it really is necessary if the USA are to be on the rugby podium in 2016.”
The athletes will live off-site but nearby the OTC with fulltime access to training and recovery facilities, high-performance specialists, and of course, coaches.
The USA Men’s and Women’s Sevens teams will also take part in more international competitions as part of the USOC and USA Rugby partnership, allowing the USA to more regularly engage the best teams in the world.
The NACRA Sevens, to be held in the fall of 2012, will serve as a Rugby World Cup Sevens 2013 qualifier for the men's team.
The Women’s Eagle Sevens team will compete in five tournaments in the 2011-2012 Season as part of the IRB Women’s Sevens Challenge Cup and the Women’s NACRA Sevens. Because of their success at the 2009 Women’s Rugby World Cup Sevens (the USA made it to the Cup Semifinals), the team has automatically qualified for the 2013 tournament.
In the RuggaMatrix show, Melville outlined that this commitment to the women’s 7s team – the most for USA Rugby since 2009 – will require more investment by USA Rugby. So while the support from the USOC will save money on the men’s side, it will likely cost more on the women’s side.
The women’s team will also compete in the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, where women’s rugby will make its Team USA debut.
“The USOC is a fantastic partner to have on our journey to 2016. They have been very supportive of our national teams and are also invested in developing American rugby athletes for 2016 and beyond,” Melville added.
The sport of rugby has grown drastically in the United States over the last six years. In 2005, USA Rugby had about 62,000 members and it recently tallied over 98,000 in 2011. The inclusion of rugby sevens in the Olympics has provided momentum for the sport at all levels.
While the contracted players will enjoy the excellent OTC facilities year round, high-performance training opportunities will also be extended to USA Rugby’s All-American athletes at the high school, under-20, and college levels, an added benefit to rugby’s new status with the USOC.
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