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Op-Ed: Fixing USA Rugby Part 2; The Road to Redemption

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Op-Ed: Fixing USA Rugby Part 2; The Road to Redemption

USA U20s score vs Japan in the 2012 Junior World Trophy. Photo P. Crane.

Op-Ed Column By Josh Williams and Jacob Campbell; edited by Ashley Sullivan—This is the second of two contributions on how to improve USA Rugby, to not only ensure we qualify for the next Rugby World Cup in 2027 but that we develop a culture and process for continuous improvement and better outcomes on and off the pitch. 

Op-Ed: Fixing USA Rugby Part 1

The first article focused on some specific recommendations to improve the general administration of rugby in the USA and the identification and development of coaches, particularly for the Senior team. This second set of recommendations is focused on identifying and developing the talent that will go into the pipeline for USA Rugby’s future. 

Recommendation #3

Create an Advisory Group from the leaders of the most successful Player Development Programs

The size and diversity of the US and its rugby programs and pathways is both a challenge and an opportunity. At this point, the barriers associated with the considerable geography and the diversity of rugby programs and pathways has largely created a disconnected and fragmented approach to player development in the US. Successful university programs, MLR academies, competitive U18 clubs, and single school high schools all have different priorities and approaches to player development and often serve players from different backgrounds and communities. The most successful programs in each of these groups should have a voice in how we develop and improve our players and the pathways into the national teams. They should also be continuously educating and updating USA Rugby on the players in and the priorities of their programs. 

Here are some specific next steps for this recommendation:

  • Identify the top rugby programs and pathways from each region (West Coast, Mid-West, East Coast) at high performing universities, MLR academies, men’s clubs, U18 clubs, and high school programs. Leading coaches and administrators from the most successful programs and MLR academies should be recruited to serve on the advisory group with the goal of developing a stronger national program while also respecting the plans and priorities of the successful programs. It is important to recruit the best coaches and administrators and not just those willing volunteers who lack a history of successful programs, player development, and the respect of their peers.
  • Create a unified schedule across the country for all clubs, universities, high school/U18 programs and MLR academies. I suggest that from November through May all programs play in their own specific seasons, with specific weekends set aside for MLR academy competitions. Then from June through September there are USA Rugby programs across each region to build camaraderie and connectivity for identified high-performing players. This universal schedule should be discussed, revised, and agreed upon by the Advisory Group and USA Rugby coaches and administrators. 

Recommendation #4

Commit to Long-Term Player Development while identifying Coaches and Players who can win important games in the Short-Term 

Several years ago I had a USA Rugby instructor tell me that, as a youth club and high school head coach, I should not be concerned with winning or losing, but should only prioritize long-term player development. I appreciated the sentiment of the instructor, but it demonstrated a fundamental flaw in thinking that as a coach there was somehow a conflict between developing the player effectively and creating a culture that emphasized being results-driven, accountable, and striving for team excellence.

I understand that we need to give players the license to take risks and learn through failure, but it is equally important that players recognize they are accountable to their teammates, and that, as rugby players, their ultimate goal is to maximize their contribution to the success of the team. Our recommendations for long-term player development are focused on identifying players that contribute to team success from a broad array of teams and communities, who are chosen from a larger pool than those that are typically offered by pay-to-play programs. They must be given specific feedback and opportunities to demonstrate improvement and play against higher level competition. 

Here are some specific next steps for this recommendation:

  • Replace the current USA Rugby recruiting structure with one that focuses on player performance, not a pay-to-play model. During the November through May season (as mentioned above) there should be showcase tournaments and championship games across the country at the collegiate, MLR academy, U18 club, and high school levels to evaluate the best players across the country. USA rugby scouts should attend these tournaments and choose players who should be in the USA pipeline from this pool of players. This is different from the pay-to-play performance academies where you must pay to join clubs that typically travel far distances and incur considerable costs to the players and their families. Also, coaches and advisors who work for or run pay-to-play programs should not be deciding or advising on who makes USA Rugby national, junior national, or USA Rugby-funded pipeline teams. This newer model emphasizes players identified by neutral, objective coaches and scouts (not influenced by pay-to-play teams or training) and allows for the best potential players from all socio-economic backgrounds. 
  • Once you have chosen players for the player pool, there must be performance metrics and specialized coaches who stay in touch with these players and build out programs and identify opportunities to guide them to be the best player they can be. Come each June or July when the players arrive back at the USA Camps, these players must be both individually and group tested to determine their level of improvement. Coaches need to be in contact with players to better understand the environment in which they are playing and whether their individual player development goals are feasible given that environment. 
  • Give our promising younger players (17 to 23 years old) more opportunities to play top level rugby in Tier 1 countries. One of the critical ingredients in the development of players from Tier 1 rugby countries is the ability to continually play the toughest competition from other Tier 1 rugby countries. Six Nations and The Rugby Championship provide opportunities for national teams like Italy and Argentina to continually improve their rugby programs and players. Not only do we need our developing US players to play in Tier 1 countries, we need our national teams-- especially our junior national teams— to play at least one or two games a year against Tier 1 competition. Yes, they will likely get beaten by a considerable margin the first few years, but we need to increase the level of competition that we play against, and we cannot depend on Canada to provide the only competition we need to assess ourselves. This dual recommendation of getting our young promising players to play abroad, as well as organizing a few matches a year for the junior national team, will require planning and funding. 
  • Develop fundraising programs to support international competitions with Tier 1 rugby countries and provide scholarships and player development opportunities for young promising players and rugby communities that currently cannot afford to participate in higher level rugby competitions. We continue to see a disconnect between the best players at regional youth competitions and those who are able to play rugby internationally. We need to emphasize player development opportunities for all high-performing players irrespective of their ability to pay for the opportunity. 

Again, I do not expect this to be the final word on how to rebuild and improve USA Rugby, but I hope it serves as a starting point for this critical conversation. Please disagree, build upon, and improve what we have started, but let’s move together to a better outcome for USA Rugby in 2027 and beyond. 

Contributor Bio: Josh Williams founded Thunder Rugby in 2011 with a few other coaches, including Jacob Campbell. He has coached at every age group in the youth level from u8s to u18s. He has been the Head Coach for Thunder Rugby’s u18s and Carlsbad HS since 2020. Thunder Rugby won the National Boys HS National Championship in the HS Club Division in 2021, and the Tier 2 Championship in 2022. He also serves as president of Thunder rugby, even though everyone knows Veronica, his wife, really runs the club.