When the USA Under 20s take to Murray Rugby Park Stadium in Salt Lake City in June for the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy 2012, Mike Tolkin will be states away, but will have a sly grin on his face.
This is because Tolkin, the new USA Eagles head coach, helped form the first USA boy’s age grade programme in the early 1990s with the help of his current assistant coach Tony Smeeth.
In 1991, Tolkin was coaching Xavier High School in New York City and Smeeth a high school team in Seattle, Washington, and the pair decided that seeing the best high school players in the country meet up in the national championships once a year on opposite sides of the field was a missed opportunity.
There was a chance, they thought, to get the kids together and really start developing a team consisting of the top high school players in the country. The result was the first ever USA Under 19s team formed the following year.
Tolkin, who was only 23 years old at the time, was in charge of recruiting players in the eastern USA and Smeeth responsible for the western half. Without the luxury of instantaneous digital publishing and video sharing, the pair depended on word of mouth, nominations and articles in Rugby Magazine to invite players to the burgeoning side.
“There was a lot of shooting in the dark in those days,” Tolkin said of the early years of the programme.
Learning the culture of rugby
The first year the USA went to New Zealand to take on top provinces like Canterbury, Wellington, Auckland and Otago. The early tours allowed the coaches and players to get immersed in rugby and experience the rich rugby culture New Zealand has to offer. The trip still ranks among Tolkin’s fondest rugby memories.
“We were on the bus for 10 hours at a time, going from the top of the North Island all the way down to the bottom. There was a lot of rugby talk,” recalled Tolkin.
“We really cut our teeth on that tour because we had to figure out how we were going to take a motley group of American kids of varying talent levels to try and compete against some of the best counties in New Zealand … it was always a big challenge and there was a huge learning curve there.”
After the first year, the coaches began to develop their selection process.
“There was definitely an evolution there, where we made things better each year. Those early years were crazy, but they were a lot of fun too.”
In the third year, a camp took place and the talent uncovered led to two teams being selected in the fourth year. And so it went until Tolkin stepped down from age grade and went on to build a powerhouse at Xavier.
All-American pathway for players and coaches
The opportunity for youngsters to tour the world, play rugby and represent their country was enough to get the age grade programme – now known as the All-American programme – going and it continues to evolve thanks to the help of a slew of coaches along the way.
Fast forward 20 years and USA Rugby now has five All-American men’s sides and two women’s. The All-American pathway has proven to be not only a pipeline for promising young athletes – USA Eagles stars Todd Clever, Takudzwa Ngwenya and Mike Petri are all graduates – but the pathway has developed coaches as well. Not least Tolkin and Smeeth.
Now at the top, Tolkin understands the value of interfacing with the current All-American coaches, whether it be Salty Thompson with the High School All-Americans, Scott Lawrence with the Junior All-Americans (Under 20s) or Collegiate All-Americans head coach Matt Sherman.
Having the coaches communicating, speaking the same rugby language and sharing thoughts on players streamlines development and helps them to understand what is expected of them, while also providing a framework for growth.
“We are getting together a singular tracking programme. Starting with terminology and fitness expectations, how we play the game and really among the coaches and myself, we want to have a curriculum that speaks the same language, without having each team play exactly the same way,” explained Tolkin.
“We want to expose young players to different coaching styles, but we need to look at fitness levels and technique in the same way and be looking for the same type of person in terms of character.”
At the younger ages, High School and Under 20s, there is a focus on preparing the player for the sizeable challenge of balancing rugby, education and life. Equipping young players to succeed on and off the field, and also creating a support network along the pathway to international rugby is tantamount to success.
Key characteristics of an All-American
Comparing the rugby landscape and high performance programme in the early 1990s to the present is almost like night and day. The number of players available for selection today makes it difficult to choose a team, but there are key characteristics Tolkin is looking for in a Junior All-American.
“At the U20 level we’re looking for, obviously, good athletes and good rugby players. But we’re also looking for players who still have room to grow. On the current team there are a couple guys we’re looking at,” Tolkin said.
A few of the players in the early days went on to be Eagles, but today the likelihood is considerably higher.
“I think when we got it started, there was really no chance that some of the guys were going to play for the national team. We had the occasional guy that could project to that level. (Former USA captain) Kort Schubert was one of those guys. He was on the New Zealand tour and you could just tell, he was a man among boys. He was a perfect example of finding a kid with room to grow.”
Though he’ll be with the USA Eagles during the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy, Tolkin will be keen to watch the games and see which players stand out against international competition. The U20s is an exciting programme for Tolkin.
“You have very physically mature players that have an outstanding skill level, it’s highly competitive. It’s exciting because they’re still playing an enterprising style. I think it’s a very exciting level to watch and I’ve always enjoyed it.”
His favourite to win? “I think that Tonga will be quite strong and that Japan will surprise a lot of people. Those will be my top two choices after the USA.”