Olympic sevens fuels search for next generation of American rugby talent

A wet field in upstate New York may be a long way from the heat of Rio, but the search for talent for Tokyo 2020 and beyond is already well under way

Montauk sending a few lads, read the tweet from a friend. Look out for a kid called Brandon. 6.3/ 220. Wing/ full-back.

At Saratoga Rugby Grounds on a wet afternoon in June, there he was. Brandon Johnson, No62, lunging after an opponent to drag him down and win possession of the ball.

The enormous 17 -year-old was attending a talent tracker camp run by the Northeast Academy. He had survived a morning combining: sprints and jumps and something called Illinois Agility. Now he was mixing it with talented players five or six years older. He came off the field for a breather. Another man went down. Johnson operated back on, took a knocking of his own and disappeared to the medical tent.

In Rio de Janeiro on Saturday, after 92 years, rugby union will return to the Olympic Games. Americas men and women have genuine hopes of a medal. In Saratoga, the Northeast Academy was looking for players to follow. Sevens will again be played in Tokyo in four years time; the decision on 2024 and after comes next year.

The Olympics has always been an eight-year project, said Alex Magleby, performance director for USA Rugby, down the phone from Boston. Among the elite, the end of Rio will be the start of the road to Tokyo. Contract renegotiation is to be done for stars like Carlin Isles, Perry Baker and Alev Kelter and, vitally, coach-and-fours such as Mike Friday and Chris Brown. Magleby said all the coach-and-fours bargains had been verbally agreed to, some have been put in writing and some have been signed. Preparations for the 2019 World Cup will also be factored in, Olympic status having helped develop the likes of Danny Barrett and Zack Test, who played 15 s in England last year. Budgets will be discussed, targets set.

Away from the elite, development work will continue and hopefully grow. It has been going on for four years , now in nine academies spread across the country. Overseen by Magleby, the network includes private companies Atavus( Seattle and San Diego) and Tiger Rugby( Ohio ), and a promising startup in Utah.

Magleby said: We started because players coming into US camps from club sevens were just far below the standard required. We needed a step to the 300 or so trains a year that guys at the OTC[ Olympic Training Center, in Chula Vista, California] were getting.

So we needed to create quasi-professional training environments for amateur athletes to use with the caveat to ensure that we didnt take away from the club game, to make sure it was actually improving.

The academies stage tryouts and camps, monitor training schedules and send sevens squads to compete at home and abroad. As with anything in the American game, they are not richly funded and local drive counts for much. The 133 men and women who answered an open call to Saratoga did so at their own expense from New York, Buffalo, Boston and beyond. Entry was $60 each.

We started in May of 2013, said Sean Horn, the Northeast Academy founder whose day task is athletics director at the Kings College in New York City. It was all unknown. But we had a pretty good turnout our first summertime and we took a team to Twickenham and did well at the World Club Sevens, and that really propelled us ahead.

Steve Lewis helped establish the Northeast Academy in its New York iteration the other operates around Boston before moving to run the playing side of PRO Rugby, the 15 -a-side league which merely concluded its opening season.

These camps have been evolving, he said in Saratoga, pacing a narrow space between two pitchings, from strictly NFL-style testing metrics to how do you introduce rugby into it. So we started abilities, drills and games, but last year we felt we needed players to demonstrate themselves in live rugby. Since then its men and women. We have considered a concomitant rise in the standard of womens sevens to the rise of mens.

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The USA Rugby growth academies. Photograph: Screengrab/ usarugby.org

The Northeast Academy has made Eagles Nate Augspurger and Nicole Heavirland are in Rio as injury reserves. Perry Baker, who spent day with Tiger in Ohio, is also in Brazil, as is Atavus womens product Ryan Carlyle. Asked which Saratoga attendees stood out as potential successors, Horn picked out crossovers: a couple of way athletes, a division one basketball player. Most striking, though, were two rugby-bred youngsters.

We have two 17 -year-old boys, Horn said, who will go a long way, I believe: Jack Miller and Brandon Johnson.

Where Johnson was something like a Springbok in his muscular threat from wing or full-back, Miller, a high school All-American from Brookline, Massachusetts, was raw and rangy, reminiscent of the England flanker Tom Croft. As they tackled, passed and ran, combining scores and coach-and-fours notes were loaded, via a laptop in a pitchside tent, to a database called HiPer. The project is logistical as well as statistical Saratoga, chosen to benefit upstate players, is a three- or four-hour ride from Boston and New York. In America, rugby is perpetually constrained by distance.

Horn said: Whenever we need to look up a player, we can go into the system and look at it all right there. Its outstanding for us. We can do it regionally, way all the athletes say from central New Jersey right up to the top of Vermont, all at the click of a button.

About Miller and Johnson, one simple number stood out: their age. There are some 18 – and 19 -year-olds out there too who have impressed, said Horn, and thats what were seeing now as rugby grows in America. The skills are coming at a much younger age. You never would have seen that years ago.

Northeast
Sean McGarrity and Mike St Claire train before game play in Las Vegas. Photo: Mike Lee/ taiwanmikephoto.com

The challenges of nurturing such young talent are of course considerable. If necessary, Magleby said, players can progress outside the academy system, such as in the case of the Olympian Maka Unufe, a junior star from Utah who flirted with college football before joining the US men via an apprenticeship at Chula Vista. Ideally, they are monitored within the network.

I was the[ USA mens] head coach when we set the network up, Magleby said. It was difficult to get out to the sites when I was traveling about so much. Thats why we havent rushed to add so many, because right now I can call Sean, I can call Steve, I can have a weekly call with Tiger, and theyre very active. The hardest portion is having that quality control as these things expand, particularly into junior play.

Other problems include a lack of competition for academy teams, international events in Twickenham and Limerick having failed to thrive and the domestic calendar being squeezed by competitors including the one now run by Lewis. Nor is it easy to raise funds American rugby is not a blue-chip sponsors dream.

The Rugby World Cup Sevens will be in San Francisco in 2018, but success in Rio would help. The first annus mirabilis was 2009, when the then IOC chair Jacques Rogge, himself a rugger, announced the return to the fold. Since then, many have predicted a huge boost for the US game. Before then, Bob Latham, a player turned trial lawyer, toured the worlds committee rooms, arguing the example for his sport.

Now a member of the World Rugby executive committee, Latham is also chairman of the board at USA Rugby, ultimate overseer of the Americans who will play in Brazil, those who will follow and the system which will seek to find them. He too is now in Rio. Speaking from Dallas before the off, he said: It will be nice to take a breath and say, Its been a long road and isnt it great were in the Olympics. But you know, the minute the Game are over, were right back to work.

Latham praised athletes who were drawn to rugby by the Games among them New England Patriots football player Nate Ebner and field hockey and gridiron athlete Jessica Javelet. But like Horn and Lewis on their touchline in Saratoga, he also cast a hopeful eye at high-schoolers and college student, the lifeblood of the development system.

The Olympics will really give them a boost, he said. Ive been happy, the[ academies] are developing good athletes. Theyve had some success with crossover athletes, fast-tracking them. But I think that the next four years youll have a lot more who came to rugbies as their first choice or one of them. Thats what I think this next generation will be about.

In Saratoga, some of that next generation stimulated their suit for a role on the road to Tokyo. Some, physically outmatched, were run around or smashed to the ground by those with brighter hopes of a national or Olympic future. At the end of the afternoon, as the top men and women played their final games, coaches watched closely. Those not selected shivered on the sidelines or slipped away to shower and change. No one ever said rugby was easy.

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