Players, coaches benefit from Americas Pacific Challenge

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay - The Americas Pacific Challenge competition, which culminated in Argentina XV pulling out a 27-26 victory over Fiji Warriors to claim the inaugural tournament title Sunday, proved more than useful for the USA Rugby High Performance pathway, giving coaches and players experience against three unique international opponents in a three-week assembly with the USA Rugby Selects.

Off of the back of the first PRO Rugby season, Rugby Sevens' inclusion at the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games, and John Mitchell's first summer leading the Men's Eagles, there were needs for future national teams that would have been difficult to fill had there not been an Americas Pacific Challenge. For players like Ahmad Harajly (Ohio Aviators), Martin Iosefo (Men's Eagles Sevens, Team USA), and Matthew Jensen (Brigham Young University), the month of October would have been spent training or playing domestic competition at the club and collegiate levels.

Instead, 16 players never capped on the senior stage in XVs played their first matches against senior international competition, with 10 having toured with one or both of the AIG Men's Collegiate All-Americans and AIG Men's Junior All-Americans this year. The learning curve from under-20s or under-23s to senior developmental is steep enough, but the jump from the Selects to the Eagles for these young players has been made easier thanks to the Americas Pacific Challenge.

"All of our players now have a great learning experience against good international teams, which is invaluable," Selects Coach Ray Egan said. "They have a good foundation with our senior systems, which will help them at the next level to perform.

"We are very proud of where they have come in such a short time. And let's not forget that this team's average age is 23 years old. The future is good!"

Credit: Luciano Rosano (LRPRO)

For Egan, head coach of the inaugural San Diego Breakers franchise following successful coaching stints abroad and with Belmont Shore Rugby Football Club domestically, leading the next group of potential core national team players offers its own benefits. For one, he was able to get first-hand experience at leading USA Rugby's developmental national team, understanding the ins and outs of assembling a group of nearly 30 athletes from various backgrounds for a short tournament.

Secondly, Egan, having coached with Munster Rugby and Ireland's national union before club and professional rugby in the United States, worked with other domestic-based coaches in addition to the players to continue his own growth as a coach. Former Eagle Shawn Pittman was on staff down in Montevideo furthering his own career in coaching, while USA Rugby Strength and Conditioning Coach Alex Ross worked his second national team assembly of the second half of 2016.

The highlight of the Americas Pacific Challenge for the USA Rugby Selects will be the emphatic come-from-behind victory against an experienced Canada 'A' in the second round of play, wedged between defeats to Fiji Warriors and Uruguay 'A.' Despite scoring a tournament-low 74 points in three matches, there were signs of Mitchell's attacking game plan bearing fruit and resonating with the younger squad that had not had an extended period of time to familiarize itself with the style.

"We are very pleased with how our group and management worked for the last three weeks," Egan concluded. "Yes, we have technical areas that we need to work on going forward, but we showed what we can do with ball in hand when we play up-tempo rugby."

Players will now return to their colleges and clubs for the remainder of the fall season, with some in line for invites to the Eagles' November Tour assembly. Mitchell's Eagles kick off the Tour in Chicago at "The Rugby Weekend Presented by AIG," an historic weekend of rugby featuring New Zealand's All Blacks and Maori All Blacks as well as sixth-ranked Ireland, before heading over to Europe for matches against Romania and Tonga. More information on the Eagles' November Tour roster will be made available in due course.