It’s not a little thing that the High School All Americans are spending their Spring Break in England.
Playing in the Rosslyn Park 7s is not just playing in any old tournament. The Rosslyn Park 7s is a national institution, having existed for 73 years, and features many of the best schools (judging by rugby and academics) in the UK.
Winning games at that tournament will be difficult. The USA team might have the edge on most in athleticism, but not in rugby experience and certainly not in those teams’ experience with each other.
Their pool is startlingly tough, with King Edward VI Grammar School, Lycee Francais, Nottingham HS, and Ysgol Dyffryn Taf of Wales.
Playing the rest of the weekend’s game will be equally difficult, especially as the slate of games could be as much as nine. But for the HSAA program, this is a good thing.
From personal observation of the players at the Las Vegas Invitational during the USA 7s in Las Vegas, I saw a team … no, a program … mature and grow. The HSAA B team started poorly but ended up shocking the Ontario select side after falling behind 17-5. In the Plate Final, they defeated the Dog River Howlers – a select touring program from Saskatchewan – 5-0. Finishing the game stuck in their own 22 defending with a man down due to a yellow card.
The emergence of that group from a disparate gathering of athletes into a team,that played smart 7s was remarkable.
The one try those Bs scored against the Howlers hinged on a single player (his name escaped me at the moment but he was wearing #9) simply catching the ball, pinning his defender, and passing it. This seems like a simple thing, but how many 7s (or 15s, for that matter) players do we see fail to do just that? Good 7s tries usually depend on one player doing a simple catch and pass, and not trying to engage the defender with anything more than a look. Quick hands, quick ball … we all say it. These guys are learning it.
“It’s all on the coaches,” said Mike Reid, who captained that B team. “The coaches were on us the whole time about our teamwork and playing a good team game. At the end we had to go all out; everybody had to give 100%. We have learned to adapt and see what our challenges are and face them.”
Now Reid didn’t make this team going to Rosslyn Park, and that’s fine. He’s still only 16 and has some time. It’s also an indication of the talent out there. Led by the phenomenal Nu’u Aiava, who has as good a sidestep as almost anyone in the American game, and played from seven different states, the team have speed, size, and brains.
Head Coach Salty Thompson returns only six players who participated in Vegas, but there are still good lessons there.
“I do agree that the 2nd team made the most growth over the course of the tournament, and we did get a player play his way into this squad for Rosslyn Park,” Thompson told RUGBYMag.com. “Right now we know we’re not really refining ourselves as a 7s program, but rather giving them a 7s experience. We don’t want to take them out of school any longer than we need to, so in Vegas we had four practices over two days, and this time we will have three days of practice. But we have made some good upgrades in the team.”
Thompson has agreed with the Canadian teams in Vegas not to bring players born before 1994, but at Rosslyn the 1993s are OK, so Gavin Brown and Sean Mahon step in. Brown is from North Central High in Indianapolis. A small-of-stature center/fullback in 15s, he has excellent speed and uses space well, so he will bring a lot to the 7s attack.
Mahon played with the HSAA team that struggled but learned a lot in British Columbia in the summer.
“They had a difficult trip, but some of the guys came out of it the better for it,” said Thompson.
Leading the team is probably Aiava, who plays with the Hilo Reign in Hawaii. He is speedy, elusive, and, above all, a leader.
Also returning from the Las Vegas trip is Dylan Audsley of the Tempe Rugby Club. He was the quickest player in the HSAA weinter camp, and also runs track. Jake Feury was the guy who played his way up from the 2nds. He has an excellent engine and a high, intense work rate. As a hooker he gets out into the open very well, “and he understands the game,” said his coach.
Sam Peri of Lamorinda and Anthony Salaber of Dixon are two Northern California kids who are tall, rangy, and effective in the air. One of the plusses this team will take to Rosslyn Park is height.
Vili Toluta’u is another Hawaiian – he plays for Mana O Maui. He is a 400-meter runner in track and also does the triple jump, so he’s fast, has endurance, and explosiveness and balance. He also plays lineback. That’s an excellent combination.
Bradley Shaw of Columbus RFC in Indiana was slated to play in Las Vegas but got food poisoning and couldn’t play. He is multi-skilled and one of the fastest players in the HSAA program.
To this group, Thompson has added LA Cougar Christian Hess, who is in the Peri/Salaber mold of being tall (6-4) and just over 200 pounds. A fast prop who plays fullback in 15s, he has some adjusting to do.
Jeremy Lutali helped Wilson HS win the SoCal championship, and is also a linebacker in football. When Thompson scouted the 5-11, 215-pound solid block, he had no timer, so he lined Lutali up against the fastest players he had available. Lutali beat them all.
And Zach Webber is the inside center, and sometimes flyhalf for United in Utah. A back, he loves the contact and serves as an extra loose forward on defense, poaching ball and counter-rucking. His cross-denominational skills will stand him in good stead for 7s.
This will be a very athletic team, but coming together quickly will be key.
“In teamwork they are going to struggle a little bit,” said Thompson. “Half of them have played together, but the other half has to get on the same page. They have to learn about each other – what foot a guy steps off of, how strong is he in contact. We’ve got good team speed, and we’re athletic, but teamwork is a huge element of the game.”
Tasked with learning game by game, the High School All Americans have already shown they can do that in Las Vegas. This squad, despite being in the middle of 15s season and not fully 7s fit, will be quick studies. They will have to be.