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Why Boys HS Nationals Uses an Invitation Selection Process

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Why Boys HS Nationals Uses an Invitation Selection Process

Action from the 2024 HS National Championships. Alex Goff photo.

The 2024 Boys HS Rugby National Championships was possibly the most successful ever.

From the organization to the caliber of play top to bottom, to the refereeing; while nothing can be expected to be perfect, the event was well-played, well-attended, and well-run.

Now, most of you will know that this writer is part of the HS National Championships Committee. In that role I help pick the teams, seed the teams, find sponsors, and provide advice when asked on other matters.

So yes, I support the event and what it stands for. However, that doesn’t mean I think it’s beyond improvement. 

Over the next few weeks I am going to talk about some of the things that happen at HS Nationals and why they happen the way they happen. At some times I will talk about things that need to improve.

This time I am going to talk about the selection process.

We Can’t Have Qualifiers

Back in the olden days we did, in fact, have qualifiers for HS Nationals. The teams and state organizations rebelled against this, Why? Travel costs, planning, and the weather.

When teams played their regional championships in time to make nationals, they had to complete those championships two weeks before the national tournament in order to get halfway decent airfares. This was back when you could potentially get away with booking flights maybe 10 days in advance, and many teams used a service run by former USA player Michael de Jong in which you booked your tickets, but didn’t have to confirm names until 48 hours before.

That all fell apart in the post 9-11 world. You couldn’t do that anymore, and today you really need to book flights several more weeks in advance. So one reason there is an invitation process is because it would be a massive hardship on teams that have to fly if there wasn’t, and that hardship would hit financially-challenged teams the hardest.

The other part of that process which was difficult is, if you hold the tournament in mid-May (as it was for a long time), that meant you needed to wrap up your state or regional championship at the beginning of May. And that meant you needed to wrap up your league play in late April, maybe mid-April. Well, for much of the country April and May are some of the best times to play. So if you have your league finish, say, April 20, that means that all of the teams not going to Nationals are finished playing their league during the exact time of year when conditions are perfect for playing. Look now at how many states hold their championships in mid-May, late-May, and June and you’ll understand that those states are only taking advantage of the best conditions. 

It costs to travel to Nationals, and teams need to raise funds and plan for time off, and all of the little niggly things that need to be done. The HS National Championships help with that by operating a hotel booking system that is easy to use and ensured the teams don’t have to spend a lot of time finding a place to stay.

Teams finding out early that they are attending the tournament then have more time to fundraise.

All of this sounds pretty logical and in fact is something teams support. They have to find out early. If we waited until the last two weeks, the tournament would be worse off.

“Just” an Invitational

Many amateur championships are invitationals. To dismiss HS Nationals as not a true championship because teams don’t all qualify through a qualification process misses the fact that other championships do the same thing.

It’s also worth noting that current results still matter. A team doesn’t do well early? They might not get an invitation. This year, Penn was replaced by St. Joseph’s Prep chiefly because Penn’s results were not good enough. In addition, several teams get their HS Nationals invitation based on play-ins, or those results at the very least affect seedings.

But, to the invitational topic … the college football championship playoff is not a direct qualifier; it relies on what are, in the end, subjective rankings. The NCAA basketball tournaments have spots for teams to be invited. They say “they got a bid” but in the end they are invitations … based on this season’s results, sure, but invitations nonetheless. There are at-large bids to the major college rugby championships too.

So basing a championship on invitations … or at-large bids … isn’t out of the ordinary.

The Criteria

Oh yes, the criteria. So here’s where we get into a bit of a fiery topic. Why are some teams invited and others not? Well, there are several criteria the committee looks at:

1. Recent and historical success. Are you good, and have you been good for a while? What that means is do your coaches know what the standard is, and can then confidently tell you whether they will be competitive at a national level.?

1a. How are you doing this year? This is a partner criterion to #1. This includes play-ins and just the ongoing monitoring of how you’re doing. Often in the Committee’s process, half of the teams will be labeled as likely invitees early, while a few will be in play-ins and another group will be a “wait and see” candidate.

2. Financial considerations. Do you have the wherewithal to make the trip? This is usually shown by listing other trips a team has made, or it might just be an assurance that a school administration supports the bid. But you don’t have to be a rich club to afford the trip; you just have to be able to fundraise, and an understanding of that (often confirmed with a phone call) is important. What the Tournament doesn’t want is last-minute pullouts for financial, or any other, reasons.

3. Character, culture, and reputation. This is a huge one and is hammered into teams when they appear. The behavior of the coaches, their players, and their fans are all criteria for selection or non-selection. The Committee is watching and in fact this year there were at least two major set-tos among fans during major state championships. That speaks to discipline within the program. If a team is getting multiple red cards for foul play or off-the-ball incidents, that’s a problem.

If a team behaves badly at Nationals, there’s a good chance they won’t be invited back. There have been examples of teams getting a serious talking-to from Committee members, with the message being “if you come back, and your fans or your coaches behave the same way again, you don’t be invited back ever again.” The Boys HS National Championships should be an example of how we all approach this game.

There are teams who weren’t invited for 2024 based on this criterion. And they have been told that. 

And by the way, check with almost any major championship and you will find that teams have been banned or not allowed to participate because of off-field behavior. Holding all of us to a standard is good for the game.


Of course these days diversity is a fairly loaded word, but we’ll talk about it this way:

Teams from lower-income regions, as well as teams loaded with cash, have been invited, and have won at HS Nationals.

Teams from one ethnic background, or many, or from under-represented backgrounds, have been invited, and have won at HS Nationals.

If you look at it from a scheduling and seasonality standpoint for every team and league all over the nation, it’s pretty clear that you can’t have a qualification pathway without adversely affecting teams that won’t go to the National Tournament. And at the same time the teams that do go need time to plan and secure the best rates for travel. The criteria, which take into account more than just results but also character and sportsmanship, are logical and difficult to argue with.

And that’s why the Boys HS National Championships uses an invitation model for the teams.