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EIRA Success Shown in RAST Winners

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EIRA Success Shown in RAST Winners

Eagle Impact Rugby Academy, (EIRA), a network of development academies set up by Salty Thompson (HSAA Head Coach), and Michael Engelbrecht, (HSAA and U20s assistant coach), is beginning to make a difference in high performance age grade rugby.

The EIRA idea grew out of a conversation between Robin Reid, owner of Aircraft Charter Solutions, Engelbrecht, and Thompson during the HSAA tour to South Africa in July 2011.

With a decade of experience at age grade international level, including five World Junior Championships and two u20 years, 2008 World Junior in Wales and the 2009 World Trophy in Kenya, Thompson and Engelbrecht knew a change was needed to accelerate growth and begin to close the gap on global competition.

Reid, whose company is the main sponsor for the High School All Americans, wanted to help found a program to get players ready for international age-grade rugby. Thus the EIRA was formed.

The concept is simple - find and help develop the best high school players in the USA. The challenge is to provide quality instruction and sequential development in player's own backyards.

Southern California, a growing hotbed for youth rugby provided the pilot Eagle Impact Academy in the fall of 2013, quickly followed by Washington state, Indiana and the Carolinas

"SoCal's climate and concentration of rugby talent was a logical place to start," said Thompson, adding that it helped that the All Star program is successful and that the staff, led by Griffins Head Coach Jeff Bonnett, were on board to change the paradigm.

"We asked returning Griffins players to commit to two trainings on Sunday afternoons, twice a month, with the idea to get as much skill and decision-making development done before their regular season kicked off,” added Thompson. “The end result was that So Cal players showed a marked advantage over their rivals in the HSAA Winter Camp!"

The cozy climate of Southern California was a stark contrast to the EIRAs that followed in Seattle, Indiana and Charlotte. Pete Sullivan, the Loggers Head Coach, and his longtime assistant Mark Sullivan, have developed a consistent program in the Northwest. They were on board along with Rugby Indiana's Eddie Abel and North Carolinas Brendan Keane, the former Charlotte player and teacher at Charlotte Catholic.

"The goal of EIRA is to improve skills in the off-season and give them back to their clubs as better players," said Thompson.

Eagle Impact's curriculum has been molded to adapt to varying geographies and needs of various regions. "We done mini-camps in areas ranging from New Mexico to Virginia," added Thompson.

The Eagle Impact Rugby Academy is now expanding.

“The first year with four states was perhaps more than we expected to do,” said Thompson. “But we will be expanding. We see it at the high school level and at the senior level - the assemblies are crash course for specific games, where, because we’re not together much, we can struggle,” said Thompson “We want to avoid that. The whole concept of the Eagle Impact Rugby Academy is, how can we get better and extend it beyond camps or mini-camps.”

Thompson said the idea has been to work with coaches who are enthusiastic about the project, but he won’t step on toes of someone doing the same thing. So there is no EIRA in Northern California, because Paul Keeler’s program there is doing a good job.

“We want to complement what is already there,” Thompson explained.

Eagle Impact Academy will likely expand its reach on the DC area, Virginia, and the Carolinas, and starting up programs in Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and likely New England, also. Already in Virginia they’ve started working EIRA into the rugby curriculum.

Dale Roach heads up the High Performance program at Rugby Virginia and has had Engelbrecht and other EIRA coaches in to work with players.

“We have three goals - to raise the level of play of the players in camp and by extension the level of play of the state as a whole; select our all-star teams; and get our players seen by national team coaches,” said Roach. “What having EIRA sessions does is help players develop through the year. We’ve been able to use the sessions to focus on defense - tracking, and team defensive schemes - and then ball-handling, decision-making - how do you get past the next phase.”

Roach says the plan is to use EIRA resources through the fall to give players reminders of what they can be working on, and then hit the ground running for the spring HS season.

The impact can be seen at the national level, where several EIRA players from Southern California and Indiana were a big part of the Santa Monica and Cathedral teams that made the HS Club NIT final.

Select sides from Southern California, Indiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Washington all boast EIRA players. In the Great Northwest Challenge, Washington and Southern California met in the final.

“Being able to get players out of their clubs and into an assembly even for a short time really helps keep them focused,” said Washington Head Coach Pete Sullivan.

“EIRA development has been huge for us, and you can see it in how the guys perform,” added Southern California Head Coach Jeff Bonnett. “We got kids from San Luis Obispo all the way down to around San Diego and everyone in between. The guys from San Luis Obispo were driving 2-1/2 hours to practice. We have good team unity. We only had four weeks to prepare but having the kids work within the EIRA system has been great for them.”

Virginia EIRA is more of a mini-camp model, as opposed to a long-standing program, and that model is working in San Diego and New Mexico, as well.

Roach in Virginia sees the difference.

“To have kids come in and get this kind of instruction and shown how to play better and have the price per kid be so economical is really great,” he said. “We will be using EIRA to kick off our season, get the kids together, learning soothing, then have a barbecue afterward.”