LAFAYETTE, Colo. – USA’s second-place finish in the inaugural Americas Rugby Championship included the debuts of 24 players. Matches against a developmental Argentina side, our northern rivals Canada, and three smaller rugby-playing nations to the south gave ample opportunities for new players to be bled, including several from D1A Rugby programs.
2015 All-Americans and recent D1A grads JP Eloff, Niku Kruger, and Kingsley McGowan all made the cut on the initial ARC training roster, and each were awarded caps by the Eagles’ second match – a 30-22 win over Canada. In a surprise mid-tour call-up, a pair of college freshmen and two of D1A’s brightest young stars also broke into the Eagles setup.
A greater number of universities investing in their rugby teams, as well as club-level college programs devoting more time and resources towards their competitive seasons, have made student-athletes better players by the time they graduate, and closer to receiving a call from newly appointed head coach John Mitchell.
“The scholastic model traditional to many American sports – high school to college to pro or international – is improving in rugby, and with the recent addition of professional opportunities domestically, perhaps that accelerates in the near term,” suggested USA Rugby Director of Performance Alex Magleby.
Additional 2015 All-Americans that figured into the Eagles’ ARC campaign were Cal’s Jake Anderson and Alec Gletzer, as well as current Central Washington loose forward Aladdin Schirmer. Of the six 2015 All-Americans, only Kruger was previously capped, having broken in against Canada over the summer, and starting against his native South Africa in the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Coming off a Cup Final appearance with Davenport at the 2015 USA Rugby College 7s National Championships, Eloff’s accurate passing and fancy footwork earned him time at both fly half and full back during the ARC.
After receiving several looks from the Men’s Eagles Sevens staff over the last year, McGowan earned his first international appearance in his hometown of Houston on the wing. The two-time National Champion at Saint Mary’s went on to make two more starts on tour against Canada and Brazil.
A couple of injuries to the back line and, more importantly, stellar performances in the Men’s Junior All-Americans’ Feb. 13 win over Canada earned U-20 standouts and Lindenwood freshmen Deion Mikesell and Lorenzo Thomas call-ups to the Eagles. Thomas, a hulking center at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, started at No. 13 against Chile and Uruguay, while Mikesell, a winger with an impressive combination of size and speed, made the first XV in the finale against Uruguay. Remarkably, both scored tries in their debut matches.
“For how little rugby match volume Lorenzo and Deion have had, I thought they acquitted themselves well to test rugby,” Magleby complimented. “For two 19-year-olds – not a bad start!”
Needless to say, Thomas was pretty thrilled with the opportunity to put on the red, white, and blue.
“I was overwhelmed with excitement when I found out I was starting with the Eagles,” Thomas said. “All I could do was thank God and smile.”
As far as his individual play over two games, which included running into gaps and making nice offloads in attack, the former football player from Tulsa, Okla., prefers to turn the spotlight towards his teammates.
“It may have looked like I played great, but the guys to my left and right are what made it look like that,” Thomas digressed. “They were the ones giving me good balls, and supporting me.”
Admittedly, the nervous excitement followed Thomas into his second match against Uruguay, when he shared the pitch with his Lindenwood teammate.
“I felt a bit better about my skills going into the second cap, but the nerves were still there,” said Thomas. “If I’m not nervous before a game, then I have lost the passion for it.”
The two-dozen freshly capped Eagles over the five-game competition have given the Eagles coaching staff an understanding of the talent available to them, but caps might not be spread out as readily over the next four years. The first rendition of the ARC also happened to take place at the beginning of a World Cup cycle, and a new coaching staff was installed just before the competition, making for a circumstance in which a deeply rooted evaluation process was not only needed, but convenient.
“My guess is with each passing test series towards Rugby World Cup 2019, we will see less younger players brought directly into play at test level,” said Magleby.
“But who knows – we will always be looking [at college-grade players]. With PRO, the overseas immersion programs we’ve seen with Queensland, Taranaki, and others, and hopefully some improvements to the amateur club game, we will have more opportunities to develop and transition younger athletes to international play than previously.”f