In 2012, the USA Rugby AIG Men's Junior All-Americans won the IRB World Junior Rugby Trophy in a competition designed as a development tool for the world's tier 2 rugby nations.
As a reward for their first-ever tournament victory—and the first by any North American nation—the Americans were promoted to the IRB's Junior World Championships, where, in a few weeks' time, they will compete against the very best under-20 teams on the planet.
The victory on home soil, in Salt Lake City, Utah, represented what USA Rugby's high performance player development manager Luke Gross called "one of the finest performances by a USA Rugby national team, at any level."
That accomplishment has now earned America the right to send 30 of its brightest rugby prospects to compete against the best on an annual basis. If this year's version of the Junior All-Americans can avoid relegation and continue the positive trend, this type of world-class exposure could have a huge impact on the future of the American men's national team.
But how was this all accomplished? Other developing rugby nations with big dreams of their own would do well to study the American experience.
The IRB World Junior Trophy has been around since 2008, and—other than Uruguay's victory at the inaugural tournament—no team from the Americas has managed to win promotion.
Gross believes that the answer lies in their system of talent identification and team preparation, which is now beginning to harness America's wealth of athletic talent in ever-increasing numbers.
"Our Coach last year was Scott Lawrence from Life University, who did an outstanding job. We started with two talent identification camps; one in the East of the country and one in the West. Those camps allowed us to take a really good look at over 100 players, all of whom had been previously scouted by our talent identification teams. It's never perfect, but we felt we had a really good grip on where the talent was on both the East and West coasts."
The talent identification process has traditionally been one of the biggest hurdles for developing rugby players in North America, due to huge geographical distances and limited travel budgets. By developing a network of scouts across the country, Gross and his team were able to assemble a strong team for the next stage of their program.
"From there, we brought 45 players down to a six-day filtering camp at an Olympic training centre in Southern California, where we developed our main player pool. These players were quickly sorted into a first and a development tier. The group was supplemented by a small group of American players living abroad, and subsequently went to British Columbia for a two-game series against the Canadian U20's."
The 2012 version of the exhibition series described by Gross was the first big success for a group of players that would go on to accomplish big things together. Their back-to-back victories over Canada opened the eyes of the USA coaches, who subsequently pulled out all the stops to ensure they had as much contact time with their players as possible.
"Both our forwards and our backs coaches are located in Colorado, albeit in different cities. We extended an invitation to all of the players to move themselves to that area for the months leading up to the tournament; those that chose to do so were boarded with local men's teams. Those players were afforded big opportunities to train rugby full time, as well as enhance their strength and conditioning."
Unlike England, Wales and the rest of Europe's rugby hotbeds, rugby for North Americans is still an amateur pursuit, especially at the under-20 level. Only a handful of players are ever given the opportunity to make rugby their sole occupation, but now the Junior All-Americans would arrive at the 2012 tournament with a core of players who had been doing exactly that.
But that was not the end of the team's preparations, as Gross went on to explain.
"The final group of selected players lived for one week in a large house in Steamboat Spring Colorado, the week prior to the tournament. The players were involved in intense training and final team preparations but also cooked and cleaned together and partook in dozens of team-building activities that helped solidify that group."
Is there any doubt then that the 2012 version of the USA Junior All-Americans arrived at the IRB World Junior Trophy with big dreams and vastly improved skills?
The same assembly-line system has been used in 2013 in order to prepare and select the team that will compete in France at the IRB World Junior Championships against the world's best young ruggers. That tournament opens on June 5. If the USA Rugby factory can repeat its performance from last year, America should be well placed to remain the world's elite group for years to come.
But what of the other teams aspiring to one day follow the USA into the World Junior Championships?
This year's Junior World Trophy takes place in Chile, beginning on May 28.
The tournament will feature, as its front-runner, a recently demoted Italian team that fought Ireland to a draw in the 2013 RBS U20 Six Nations. Defeating such an experienced team will be an enormous challenge; however, if Italy's opposition can replicate the success enjoyed by an increasingly competitive USA Rugby program, an upset might just be there for the taking.
If the USA's 2012 World Trophy win proves anything, it's that preparation is the key to success at a world junior tournament.
Those who dream of holding the trophy high in 2013 have two weeks left before they see where their own hard work will rank them.
Jeff Hull is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
Unless otherwise stated, all quoted material in this story was obtained first-hand.
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