Whistle stop tour

I am a man with two coaching jobs – Dartmouth and USA U20s – so I don’t have a typical week. But, even for me, this last few weeks has been an exceptionally hectic time.

Gavin Hickie in Union Stadium, Philadelphia for the university rugby 7s

I started the other week in Philadelphia at the USA Sevens College Rugby Championships (CRCs) with my Dartmouth 7s squad.  The tournament drew large crowds to the City of Brotherly Love, showing just how much the appetite for watching the game is growing in America.

I hadn’t been to the event before but it’s run by the same company as the Las Vegas Sevens event on the official IRB Tour and the scale and professionalism was evident from the start.

Sevens rugby and its inclusion in the Olympics has done much to introduce rugby to the American audience. Combine this with the fanatical support that college sports have in the US and it’s a big event that is growing every year.

Sevens rugby and its inclusion in the Olympics has done much to introduce rugby to the American audience

Dartmouth has a good record in the tournament, winning the last two championships so our supporters were keen to see a ‘three-peat’.

This year’s team carried a favourites tag based on the previous victories but this would be a tough test for what is a young team.

Day One was Pool day, where you play for position.

We went undefeated and faced the other undefeated team in the pool (and last year’s defeated finalists) Arizona, in the last game. Only Pool winners and the top two second place teams would progress for the top prize.

We traded blows and scores in what was a tight game. Dartmouth were behind by the odd score as the hooter went meannig that, if the whistle blew, our chance would be gone.

Happily for us, the Big Green fought on and got the score we needed to progress.
It was an amazing game to watch, never mind be the winning team.

James Sharpe '14 winning a lineout in UCLA territory. Photo: Bing Guan '14.

Day Two was ‘prize day’ and our last-minute victory had put us into the group playing for the title.

We faced UCLA and started strongly to lead at the half. UCLA came back at us in the second half but we held them off. Again the hooter sounded but this time we were ahead.

We just had to get the ball out but, in a second, the ball was intercepted and UCLA ran in for a try to tie the game. The conversion was good and we were going home.

As good as our day one win was, day two’s early exit by a late score was painful to take for me and the team.

There was no time for me to dwell on it though as I said an immediate ‘goodbye’ to the players, went straight from the stadium in Philly to the airport and 4597 miles, and 16 hours later I was in France for the Junior World Championships.

Teams come out, lead by national flags, at the IRB Junior World Championship in France

It was quite a mind shift – and not just the language and time zone.

I went from the ‘wham-bam’ 7s format to the attritional chess game that is XVs, and from favourites to underdogs.

Last year the USA claimed an unexpected victory in the Junior World Trophy which promoted us to the 2013 Junior World Championship, where many expected us to be relegated.

The squad knew they were up against a stiff challenge to be at the top tier of competition but to be in Pool A against the holders South Africa, hosts France and Under-20s Six Nations Champions, England was the toughest of the lot.

I’d played in the JWC and knew exactly how tough it would be for these players.

The speed and skill levels would be greater than anything they had ever experienced and 80 minutes in front of a worldwide audience was a tough stage to learn that lesson.

There are some great players in the tournament too, most of which are already attached to professional teams and some have played for their countries.

These are names for the future and the Under-20s is an important step in any international player’s career.

South Africa's try-scoring machine Seabelo Senatla in action against England in La Roche-sur-Yon. Photo: Christelle Glemet

No player runs onto a pitch to lose and, as a player, you want to play against the best to develop your skills.

The largely local French crowd were supportive of our team’s spirit as the score lines went against them. I know the squad and coaching team appreciated the efforts made by friends and family who came to the games and watched online.

We just wished they could have given them more to cheer about.

USA fans show their support for thei Pool A match against host nation France in La Roche-sur-Yon. Photo: Christelle Glemet

We still have a chance of remaining in the JWC for another year

There is still work to do and we are doing everything we can to survive at this level.

Be assured we will fight on until the final whistle to stay at the top tier of Junior Rugby.

The USA U20 team practice their lineouts as they work to maintain their position in the top tier of World rugby.

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