Photos: Jackie Finlan / The Rugby Breakdown
The Hawk Eye 7s program held its first assembly earlier this month, bringing 10 young, promising athletes to the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center (CVEATC) to train alongside the Rugby World Cup Sevens camp. It was a surreal experience for 19-year-old Lauren Thunen, who has been playing the sport for two years and is new to the women’s pathway.
Originally from Newport Beach, Calif., Thunen reported to UC Santa Barbara in fall 2016 and was looking for the club soccer table when a gregarious rugby recruiter stepped in. Thunen quickly expressed disinterest in the sport, but the recruiter continued on undeterred.
“I finally relented and took her flyer, and after going to the first practice I was hooked,” Thunen reflected on those first days. “I still don’t know who that woman was that convinced me to take her flyer but thank you for that because you introduced me to the greatest sport with the most amazing community.”
Thunen on defense for Santa Barbara Rugby Academy
Now a rising junior, who is pursuing a double major in history and Black Studies, there’s no shaking rugby. The 15s center and flanker put up impressive stats for the Gauchos this past season as both a kicker and try-scorer, and in February joined the Santa Barbara Rugby Academy, which is run by Kevin Battle and Olympian Kelly Griffin.
Thunen entered the USA Women’s pathway in June with an invite to the Women’s Junior All-American (WJAA) 15s camp, which was also James English’s first assembly as head coach. During the first pre-practice meeting, players were asked to goal-set for the upcoming session, and staff previewed the training schedule that was calculated down to the minute.
“I was definitely a little intimidated by the ease in which the other girls set their goals and chatted with their friends from previous camps and who went to the same [DI Elite] college,” Thunen recalled first impressions. “It hadn’t really occurred to me that this was not everyone’s first experience with USA Rugby. I had never been surrounded by a group of so many experienced rugby players.
“Once we got on to the pitch, I was impressed by the speed of play and physicality of every athlete on the field with me,” Thunen continued. “Every single person was a great athlete and an even better rugby player. Everyone had an incredible grasp on the rugby fundamentals and principles of play. Every training session was so exciting and dynamic because we were able to keep the speed of play high throughout the entire session.”
Thunen for UCSB during DI Spring 15s playoffs
Thunen relished the intense, focused training sessions led by English, Kate Daley and Kitt Ruiz, all of whom offered different insights into the game. The learning continued as the 7s prop/center was then selected to the Hawk Eye Training Program, which aims to cultivate the next generation of athletes who could project to events like the Rugby World Cup Sevens and Olympics. Those five days at the CVEATC were spent alongside the San Francisco-bound athletes.
“The most exciting part of the camp was that we had the opportunity to scrimmage the women at the EATC for the World Cup camp,” Thunen buzzed. “It was crazy to see the women that I watch on YouTube and on The Rugby Channel across the field from me waiting to receive our kickoff. It was an amazing experience to be able to see how we matched up against the best rugby players in the U.S. and it definitely encouraged me to train harder so I can reach the level that they are playing at.”
Emilie Bydwell led the Hawk Eye camp and, per Thunen, provided the technical and tactical insight that allowed the team to form plays together and focus on running lines and different attack patterns.
“I think I learned more about rugby in the nine days at the WJAA and Hawk Eye camps than I ever had previously,” Thunen confessed. “In both camps a lot of emphasis was placed on ball transfer and physicality and skill in the contact area. However, I think my biggest take-away from both camps was the mental strength and fortitude required to compete and learn in a high-performance environment.”
Thunen holds a tremendous respect for 15s but does prefer watching and playing 7s.
“I love the pace and stakes of 7s. When you train for 15 or 20 hours a week and then are asked to compile all that training into a 14-minute period, it’s an exciting challenge,” Thunen explained. “Additionally, with the tournament structure you have to adapt to the playing styles of multiple opponents in a single day. However, I have a huge appreciation for 15s and believe that playing both 7s and 15s helps develop you into a well-rounded rugby player.”
After solid performances this summer, Thunen was selected to the WJAA 15s team that is touring Canada in August and is grateful for the opportunity.
“Every day that I get to wake up and play rugby is truly a blessing so getting to share the field with some of the best young players in the world is an incredible opportunity,” Thunen looked ahead. “I am so excited to see how much I grow not only as a rugby player but also as a person while on tour. It is one step closer to my goal of getting a national cap with the 7s team.”
This density of activity and variety of opportunity have quickly educated Thunen to the demands of pursuing an elite rugby life.
“This whole process has made me so much more grateful for everyone in my life that has supported me in my athletic and academic endeavors,” Thunen closed. “I truly would not be able to play rugby without them and I am forever indebted to them.”
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