Managing 15s, sevens a 'juggling act' for some clubs

LAFAYETTE, Colo. - The Club community's summer months are filled with sevens. Some take a more leisurely approach to the speed-driven code, one of the newest Olympic sports to be showcased in Rio next month, and others make their intentions to qualify for the USA Rugby Club 7s National Championships known. While the months of June, July, and August are distinctly designed for sevens for teams from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean, a deep postseason run in 15s can bleed into a sevens campaign and leave legs exhausted from a long season of the 15-a-side game.

Mystic River knows all too well about the trials of attempting to compete at the highest level in both codes. Last year, Mystic River's 15s season ran until the final day of May when the team fell to New York Athletic Club in the National Semifinals. Still, the team managed to qualify for Club 7s Nationals out of the extremely competitive Atlantic North, and eventually finished third at the Championship event in the club's first appearance since 2010.

This year the Malden, Mass.,-based club took its season a step further in 15s, winning the Division I National Championship over Austin Blacks June 4 - 14 days before the Atlantic North's first qualifying event for sevens.

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"Obviously, if you make it to the National Championship game your club is doing something right and you have a good base to build off of, but it's still not ideal," said Mystic River Head Coach Josh Smith. "I would have liked to have given players more time off to let their bodies and minds rest, and then come back and be hungry for sevens."

Nearly every player that defeated the Blacks were made unavailable for June 18's Monmouth 7s in order to recuperate, giving Mystic's developmental players and college recruits an opportunity to represent the club's premier sevens side at the first qualifier. With only four Atlantic North qualifying stops in the series, one bad tournament result could have doomed any hopes of returning to Club 7s Nationals. Instead, the youngsters shined under the spotlight and produced a second-place finish in Lincroft, N.J. - the team's second best finish of its four qualifying events.

"We unearthed three or four players from that tournament that will be traveling to Colorado with us for Nationals that might have been overlooked had they not been given that opportunity," Smith said.

Not only did Mystic River's National Championship run allow some of its developmental players to inadvertently rise to its top sevens side, but there were admittedly a few other benefits from its successful-yet-taxing 15s season. For instance, Mystic's coaching staff was impressed with the team's work at the breakdown from the opening whistle of its sevens season, which was a direct correlation with the end of its 15s season bumping into the start of its sevens schedule.

Enhanced fitness levels were also a positive of playing 15s into June. With no down time between the two codes, several key players entered sevens training in peak condition.

"The guys are fit for the most part," added Smith. "They've been training straight through since February. The challenge is getting our DII guys and college recruits up to speed with the DI guys in terms of fitness."

The women of Oregon Sports Union have won a recent DI National Championship in the final days of spring, but currently battle the very best teams during the fall's Women's Premier League season. Regardless of seasonality, there appears to be challenges switching between codes regardless of when a 15s season starts or ends.

In 2014, ORSU won the DI National Championship on the final day of May, yet still rallied to qualify for that summer's Club 7s National Championships and managed to place sixth out of 16. That Cup Quarterfinal showing in Seattle, however, ran up against the team's preparation for its newly assigned WPL season. Even though ORSU's top 15s side completed its season in early November, there was not enough gas in the tank for the team to push for a Club 7s Nationals berth during the summer of 2015.

"It was non-stop for 18 months," former Eagle and ORSU loose forward Beckett Royce explained.

"The WPL side took the following spring off to recover, and many of the players didn't even come out for the 2015 sevens season they were so burnt out."

The labor required to compete at the highest level in both codes has been especially hard on Royce, who is not only one of the most physical No. 8s in the country, but also coaches ORSU's 15s team.

"I'm thinking about game plan changes and practice plans for 15s while I'm still training and playing sevens," Royce noted. "I think, for me, the strain is less on my aging body and more on the amount of mental and emotional energy required to be engaged in one league while simultaneously preparing for another."

For Mystic River's Smith, who only has to worry himself with the coaching side of club rugby, the concern is over balancing his attempt to get the players into peak performance levels, while making sure everyone's body is ready to go on Saturdays.

"Week-to-week we're trying to keep guys healthy while getting them into form," said Smith. "It's a juggling act that has been a challenge."

Mystic River has already qualified for the Aug. 13-14 Club 7s National Championships, while ORSU appears to be part of a four-team contest for two places at Nationals along with Berkeley All Blues, Life West Gladiatrix, and Seattle Saracens. Those teams will know their fate for Nationals when the four clubs converge in San Francisco July 30 for the Pacific North 7s Championship.

For news on qualification events toward Nationals, as well as all things Club 7s National Championships, please visit USAClub7s.com.