Domestic players reap benefits of Taranaki Rugby partnership

As part of the recent partnership between USA Rugby and Taranaki Rugby, four American athletes spent eight weeks immersed in the New Zealand Union's ITM Cup - or National Provincial Championship - program.

Cameron Falcon, Hanco Germishuys, David Tameilau, and Mike Te'o represented Taranaki's development squad, essentially the Port Taranaki Bulls' reserves, in the Northern Regions Development Competition after arriving in New Zealand at the end of August.

"Taranaki Rugby was pleased with the progress made by the four athletes from USA Rugby," Taranaki Rugby Chief Executive Officer Michael Collins said. "The players all got a taste of the Provincial Union North Island competition. The speed and the structure of the game in New Zealand was a challenge for the players initially, but all players adapted well to the New Zealand conditions."

USA Rugby's partnership with Taranaki Rugby provides emerging-elite athletes with the opportunity to understand the rigors of the full-time rugby player with national team or Olympic aspirations, while honing the skills necessary to succeed in such a high-profile environment.

"The Taranaki immersion, like others we have been developing with partners around the globe, allows us to quickly and affordably up-skill our up-and-coming athletes and collectively bring back intellectual property to our shores," USA Rugby Director of Performance Alex Magleby said. "The return on investment has the potential to be quite significant on the field in the coming years."

"It was nice to get a taste of the full-time rugby environment I've been longing for," Falcon said. "I think the most important asset it provided me with was an increase in focus and time on individual skill."

Falcon, along with Te'o, was a member of the USA Rugby AIG Men's Junior All-American squad that won the 2012 World Rugby U20 Trophy at home in Salt Lake City. Both players have already gone on to represent USA Rugby senior sides in one form or another - Te'o with the Men's Eagles Sevens on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series and Falcon with the USA Rugby Selects in the Americas Rugby Championship - but gained valuable, non-stop experience against athletes raised to be rugby players.

"[New Zealand's] home for me, personally, so I know the rugby community well and their programs are achieving a lot of success," Men's Eagles Sevens Assistant Coach Chris Brown, who played for Taranaki's Academy and Development teams himself, said. "The athletes would have been exposed to a no-compromise, hard-nose environment based around working for each other, focusing on the team ahead of the individual.

"Outside looking in, winning the 2014 New Zealand National Championship shows Taranaki get the holistic picture and know-how to put the components together to achieve the ultimate result. With two months in this environment, the players should come away fully understanding what these components are and be able to apply a number of them to enhance their own progress in the sport."

Te'o returns to the Eagles Sevens Residency program at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., while New Orleans Rugby Football Club will welcome Falcon back Stateside ahead of its Red River Division I season.

Tameilau, a former MJAA before focusing on American football, joined Falcon at the first Men's Junior and Collegiate Stars and Stripes Camp presented by WellDog, where he earned his selection to the immersion experience.

Germishuys, a four-year Boys High School All-American in 15s and sevens, represented the U.S. at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games and helped the MJAAs finish third at that year's U20 Trophy in Hong Kong. Prior to the Taranaki stay, the current Glendale Raptor also spent time with Gloucester Academy and Sharks Academy in the United Kingdom and South Africa, respectively.

Te'o saw the most match time with the Development side in the NRDC, where Taranaki finished fifth in the 10-team competition. Colin Cooper, head coach of the ITM Cup team, said he was impressed with the Americans' attitude and skill set during the training sessions, and believes several are capable of performing in the premier domestic competition in New Zealand.

"The experience I had with Taranaki was life changing and a huge eye opener to what rugby has to offer in the world," Te'o said. "Being able to day in and day out compete and play alongside athletes who are born and bred into the game that I've come to love raised my knowledge of the game, and increased my love for rugby.

"I've gained so much from Taranaki and it made the two-month experience worthwhile. Being treated as one of their own and being able to train alongside All Blacks was a journey not everyone embarks on and I'm truly blessed to be a part of it."

With the end of another World Cup cycle and an Olympic year beginning for the first time in rugby sevens history, partnerships like this with Taranaki will be instrumental in helping raise the level of players and coaches in the United States.