Tours for age-grade teams are mostly about education, and that certainly is what the High School All Americans tour of Argentina was about.
Head Coach Salty Thompson went into the trip thinking his relatively young squad (more than half were underclassmen and most were under 18) would struggled against experience Argentinean opponents, but would come out of it all knowing a little bit more about what was expected of them.
Well he was half right. They didn’t struggle – well in one game they did, but in the other three they averaged 20 points scored and 24 given up. They were surprisingly solid in the scrums, and put together some effective offense at times.
At the end of the 2nd match against the Argentina U18s, a game won by the hosts 33-18, you could see the bruised bodies and creaky legs of Los Pumitas as they hobbled to the social.
They knew they had been in a game.
“What I think our guys felt coming out of these games was that we could do some things well, and at other times struggled,” said Thompson. “Tactically we weren’t great and we gifted so many points. Even in the last game we gifted them 12 points from scrums, where we were quite strong most of the time. The guys also came out of those games feeling that they had never been hit so hard. Argentina were really physical.”
There’s a hunger in the play of the Argentine players, possibly because, in the national academy system, they are playing for their careers in a sense. They did a superb job taking players out in the ruck, and ensured that their opposition defense had gaps to worry about.
“We might have been a little naïve in some instances, but we learned as we went,” said Thompson. “In the second game, we had a difficulty in the scrum, but the guys made the adjustment on their own. We make these tours to nurture and develop players, and I think we did that. We played everyone.”
Perhaps one of the biggest aspects of this year’s tour and HSAA experience was the changes Thompson and his staff made in preparation.
They were strict in their fitness enforcement, having players test themselves every week in the months leading up to the tour. Four players who failed to provide test scores or failed to do the workouts were dropped, a move the other players really liked.
They got serious talks from other coaches about how being Big Man on Campus isn’t enough to get you on any USA team. You have to be special in your behavior and your preparation, too.
On tour, there was time for fun, and there was time for serious. One of the things the coaches did was take away cell phones when it was bed time.
“The players needed their rest,” he said. “We played two games at 7pm so it was important that they have time when you don’t have those distractions. Obviously the guys didn’t love the idea, but they bought into it, and understood the reasons behind it.”
The preparation, fitness, and rest might have also had an influence on a very happy statistic for this team – no one was taken to the hospital. That might have been luck - on a rugby tour consisting of four matches you expect some injuries - but it helps to have players listening to their coaches.
“The character of this team was at a very high level,” said Thompson. “I do think there are players who project to the Eagles, and there are players who really grew up on this tour. As a unit, I think this is the best group of young men I have ever had.”
We won’t know who becomes an Eagle thanks to this tour for some years, but it did serve an excellent purpose in preparing players for future challenges.
Argentina did not soften up their selections for these games – they actually fielded two separate squads of 25 players to look at their top 50, but the two squads were even.
So the HSAA team wasn’t facing the very, very best Argentina U18 squad in either game, but rather a sort of A- group. Still, against a Tier I nation where every athlete who wants to hit something plays rugby, this was an encouraging tour, and one that showcased the kind of character America’s top players can have.