When Matt Hawkins reached out to me to see if I would be interested in helping him coach the Boys High School Socal Griffins All Stars, I just couldn’t say no, despite my already overflowing plate of responsibilities.
As I learn more about the youth rugby landscape in America, I am seeing just how many kids are playing, and how rapidly the sport is growing, especially the women's version. There are some similarities to what I experienced as a developing rugby player in Australia, yet there are also many differences as American rugby still tries to find its feet, particularly when it comes to creating pathways for kids to progress through to National representative honors.
The Southern California Griffins concept for me holds a special connection with my rugby formative years. Being selected to represent my region was a huge honor and was my first introduction to the representative team process. It was the gateway drug to playing high level, high pressure International rugby, but was more importantly my first experience of learning to work together with new team mates who were normally my opposition.
It was important for myself, Matt Hawkins and the other management team members Reuben Spilkin, Jason Harper, Ed Petersen and Patrick Lundqvist to help keep the regional All Star torch lit, particularly with the threat of the Griffins program dissipating as a result of other emerging rugby programs providing high performance alternatives.
We had big shoes to fill in maintaining the strength of the Socal region on the West Coast, after Jeff Bonnett from Back Bay and his coaching team had done such a fine job with the program for the last 4 years. The Great Northwest Challenge in Portland, OR would be the stage this year to attempt the continuation of Socal’s dominance, and we had 3 months to prepare our athletes for the huge battle at hand.
We had big shoes to fill after the Victorious Griffins of 2015
I have a new appreciation of the challenging process involved with identifying and bringing together Socal’s top rugby players, beginning with a mini regional All Star tournament involving teams from Los Angeles, Orange County, Tri Counties and San Diego.
Once selected for a Junior Varsity or Varsity training squad from this tournament, players then met for a series of training sessions after which the final 25 for each age group would be chosen to wear the Socal colors in Portland.
For the week leading up to the tournament, players went through final preparations at a training camp in San Diego, as a last effort to find cohesion and learn the game plan before the weekend’s competition.
Mini Camp in Encinitas
Once in Portland, there was barely time to breathe. Moving 50 teenagers between venues to play 4 games in 2 days is no easy task. Oregon State University accommodated every team of the tournament, and did it superbly. It was a great way for players to not only bond with each other, but also interact with other teams and soak up the excitement generated by the occasion.
Day 1 of competition was a success for us on the pitch, with both Varsity and JV ending the day 2 – 0 winning their respective pools. This meant that on the final day, the two teams would play the winners of the other 2 pools in what is essentially the Finals.
One great tradition of the tournament which I was particularly impressed with, was after each game, the two teams would mix together and link arms to form a circle, while the two captains would present the MVP of the opposing team with a medal. This is the kind of sportsmanship for which rugby is renowned.
Sportsmanship at it's finest
It was a tough day in the office for the Varsity team, being outmuscled in both games by powerful and well drilled Northern Californian sides, ending the tournament in a respectable 3rd place.
The JV side faired better winning the first final of the day, setting up a show down for top spot against NorCal Sacramento Valley. In a close, hard fought match, our JV Griffins were edged out 7 -12 and finished 2nd overall in the tournament.
The JV Griffins enjoyed a hard fought win over the Rhino Rugby Academy
Our girls Varsity and JV girls also represented SoCal valiantly, with varsity losing out to Norcal in a thrilling final to finish second overall, and JV get off to a slow start but ending strong to take 3rd place overall.
Michel Navarro on the charge for the Girls Varsity Griffins
So all in all, despite not getting the results we ultimately desired, it was still a positive experience and a great opportunity for me to play a part in these young athletes’ development, not just as rugby players, but as humans also. I look forward to the next installment of youth representative rugby, but before then, I will have another chance to work with these sensational young ruggers at both our L.A. camp and San Diego Camp this month.
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