Rhinos Rugby Academy kicked off the 2020 competitive season with its 15s World Youth Rugby Festival (WYRF), held Dec. 28 – Jan. 3 in Irvine, Calif.
The annual tournament also introduced the new Irvine Director of Rugby, Justin Benn, to the breadth of the organization, and supplied good momentum for the mid-January Dennis Storer Classic at UCLA.
Benn arrived in California the day before the WYRF kicked off and coached the USA Schools Boys’ U18 team. The academy supplied five girls’ and boys’ squads, ranging from U14 to U18, to the competition, which also welcomed teams from South Africa and Canada.
““The tournament sets up the Rhinos kids for the rest of the season but it also gives them exposure to international teams,” Benn said of WYRF takeaways. “Playing against South African teams gives them a taste of the elite level you get across the world, and what’s expected of an elite rugby player. … They got a good five days of rugby and learned a lot, and that will set them up for the season or for their schools or clubs back home.”
Benn is from South Africa and noted that there was a gap between the visitors and American teams at the older levels, but more parity at the younger age grades.
“South Africa plays a much faster pace of rugby, and the reason for that is the boys are playing from when they are young,” Benn reflected on the WYRF matches. “The American rugby players or our kids, they play more American football and cross over to rugby, meaning not all of them have same rugby experience that the South Africa boys would have. Game knowledge and tactical play, size and pace – South Africa outmatches them. But at the younger level, the U14s matched up well with the South Africa boys and did well.”
The tournament generated a lot of buzz, and Benn indicated that interest in the academy and training sessions increased after the event. “Experiencing or just seeing the way rugby is played at a high level, it inspires them to learn more,” Benn said.
After Benn had time to digest the WYRF, he collaborated with academy coach Billy Nicholas in creating a clear divide between developmental teams and high-performance teams, e.g., the USA Schools by Rhino. The high school division of the Dennis Storer Classic at UCLA took place a few weeks later and involved teams from SoCal, NorCal and Utah.
“We identified a few players from the festival for the tournament to see what we’ve got and who plays well,” Benn said of the 15s event. “The focus was to create that divide between developmental and elite players, making it easier to choose the USA Schools team that will tour to Portugal and South Africa.”
In UCLA, the Rhinos Rugby Academy faced opponents that regularly train together and have team chemistry. It’s a barrier for select sides, but the coaches focused on selecting the right players and finding the right combinations.
“The first day, we started slow and won narrowly by two points,” the coach said of the opening 17-15 win over Olympus. “In the second game [33-0 win against Mother Lode] they played together really well. And then the last game [28-3 win against Lamorinda], they showed me and Billy that we chose the right combination of players. It’s just letting them play more and hopefully they’ll keep building that dynamic at the LAI 7s.”
Benn praised all of the players and called out standouts like loose forward Flynn Martin, lock Max Silao (who has been earmarked for international tournaments), flyhalf and center Jared Amasio, scrumhalf Kahanu Koi, back three Mikey Mathews, and the consistently good Eli Palmer, who did work in the tight five.
The calendar doesn’t slow down for Benn, but the new Director of Rugby at Irvine is spending energy on learning the inner workings of rugby in the U.S., and connecting with the parents and players for their needs and expectations of an academy experience.
“I don’t think we’re setting unrealistic goals,” Benn said of year-one potential. “Because it’s my first year, it’s about making sure we’re competitive. We also want to showcase a different brand of rugby that people here are not familiar with. Bring a new flavor from myself as a coach or on tour with Billy, and maybe show a different type of Rhinos team or USA Schools team from previous years.”
Benn wants to build the numbers in the academy and highlight the many playing and improvement opportunities that exist within the program.
“And the last thing,” Benn wrapped up year-one goals, “and this is something Billy and I feel strongly about, is that we can showcase to people here and around the world that Rhinos supports both women’s rugby and men’s rugby, and we don’t prioritize men before women. It’s equal.”