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Is NDP Plan The Answer? Select Teams Have Questions

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Is NDP Plan The Answer? Select Teams Have Questions

David Barpal photo.

Coaches and academy teams still have a lot of questions about USA Rugby’s new age-grade high-performance plan, but the architects say planning ahead will make it all worthwhile.

“Getting a schedule set and holding to that for the next several years is good for everybody,” said Brendan Keane, USA Rugby’s Men’s High-Performance Pathways Manager. “I think everyone’s looking for some clarity and transparency of the process.”

And what is the process? First off, the USA boys age-grade teams have asked for June, July, and December to be blocked out for the national-team-tracked players.

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This request can be somewhat misinterpreted, said JD Stephenson, General Manager of National Team Pathways. They aren’t asking for there to be no events such as all-star tournaments, select-side 7s tournaments, or camps; what they want is for there to be competition for the players in the national team pathway.

“Have the tournament,” said Keane. “We need those tournaments, players need them.” 

But what they don’t want is for a player to be committed to a USA assembly in the summer and then find himself having to choose between that assembly and an academy team’s needs at a tournament.

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All-star and academy teams have voice some concern that their talent pool will be hurt because of this. Certainly Stephenson said that the focus for all-star tournaments may well become U16 and younger. While there would still be U18 select teams and events, if USA Rugby is looking to corner the market on 100 of the top players for the USA U18s, some U18 select teams will struggle to replace them.

“We want to target the best U18 players in the country,” said Stephenson, who has unveiled a plan to use neutral scouting directors in three regions of the country, all running a team of scouts to track players.

That’s partly why USA Rugby started a plan to bring academies under the umbrella of National Development Programs.

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“We need those coaches and those academies to find and develop those players,” said Stephenson. “This entire program is about building relationships so we can get better.”

So, for example, Eagle Impact Rugby Academy’s winter camp wouldn’t be seen as a competitor to USA Rugby’s U18 camp; it would be seen as a camp that serves players too young for the U18s, and for players who just missed out.

“Players develop at different rates,” added Keane. “So a player who doesn’t make the U18s can still develop into an Eagle later.”

And, similarly, said Keane, EIRA’s summer tours to Canada would still go on, more as they did at the beginning, with EIRA handling the U15, U16, and U17 levels, and the USA program handling the U18s.

Becoming an NDP looks to be difficult. The time, paperwork, and expense involved could well price many out of it. Some academy team leaders have said this could cost an additional $50,000 for programs that don’t really work with that kind of money outside of the travel costs that players carry anyway.

It does seem like part of the USA NDP program is directed more at the Major League Rugby academies, assuming they have more funds and professional oversight.

But there also seems like there’s wiggle room. The NDP verification checklist and the application form expect academy programs and select travel sides to have different models.

As a result, USA Rugby’s language has been somewhat loose, in part because they don’t want to verbally paint themselves into a corner. For example—there seems to be a place for the academy that operates several times a week all year, the academy that assembles periodically in camps and competition, and teams that basically assemble for one or two competitions a year. Could they all meet USA Rugby's standards? Possibly.

But coaches and those who run program and tournaments are worried. Will this gut some of the teams and, by extension, some of the tournaments? Will this price some programs out of getting USA Rugby approval? Will this shake up an already-vulnerable all-star season?

Or will it shake it all up in a good way.

Having a national plan that shows players what is expected of them over the course of years is a positive move. But academy teams are still wondering where, and how, they fit in.