The U.S. Olympic Training Site in Chula Vista, Calif., was once again abuzz with USA age grade pathway players, who spent a week (Dec. 27-Jan. 1) training together during the annual 15s winter camp. New USA U20 head coach Joel Bonnaud and staff worked with 40 players, more than half of which were new to the program, and established a nice foundation for the competition portion of the cycle.
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“Across the board, it was great,” Bonnaud said of overall takeaways. “Everyone blended really well, and there were good spirits across the camp. We had the usual little challenges, like the weather. We had some rain. But no one complained whatsoever.”
Covid disrupted the continuity of the age grade programs, and Bonnaud knew players would arrive in different states of readiness. He accounted for those variables when structuring the camp.
“I wanted to make sure that the players were under proper intensity – so they were being challenged but in a positive way. So it was not too overwhelming,” Bonnaud said. “One thing I did, I reduced the practice time to one hour max per session, which meant there were a lot less stoppages between the games and exercises, and a lot more action going on. The focus was: We’ll talk about it before and we’ll debrief afterward, but everything else – the problem solving – has to happen as we go. We wanted them to get ready for that environmental pressure, so when they get to competition they know they have to find a solution under pressure.”
That was the first element: maintaining high intensity, mentally and physically, during shortened sessions.
“Because we are still far away from competition, about six months for the summer, I purposely avoided talking about any tactics or setup or anything else,” Bonnaud said of the second strategy. “I focused on a few core habits so they could more easily work on them during the spring regardless of what their clubs and coaches are doing. They can work on them in all situations.”
Bonnaud described four habits around which the camp focused, and how mastering those fundamentals would lead to the understanding at the tactical and strategic levels.
Katelyn Walker for Eagle HS in Idaho / Photo: Kalina Hurst
“The first one is playing BIG, which is an acronym for being ‘back in the game,’” Bonnaud explained. “So it’s making that effort to be available on the field as quick as possible, after you make a pass, after you go in a ruck to make sure you get back onside as quickly as possible and be available.
“Clockwork, which is another term for scanning the field, field vision,” the coach said of the second principle. “Making sure you’re looking all around you, not just in front of you. You definitely want to look in front of you to find opportunities, but also connect with your teammates left and right, because the players have a tendency to focus on the ball a lot and not necessarily focus on the next step.”
The third habit focused on accurately executing 2-v-1 scenarios.
“There’s the basic one, when the second attacker is wide open,” Bonnaud said. “It’s all the forms of it – so 3-v-2, 4-v-3, 5-v-3 – any spot where we see space. The second one is the 2-v-1 when we don’t have space. … It’s two attackers attacking the same defender at the same time. Really work together in small units to attack the defense and create some space.”
In connection with the 2-v-1 focus, the fourth habit centered on offloads, grubber kicks and chip kicks.
“We’re not trying to kick long and find deep cover, but we’re trying to play right behind the defense line,” the coach explained.
That was the outline, but the staff continually adapted to the group’s progress.
“The way I structured practice, we’d have the same core exercises at the beginning to gauge their passing, executing the 2-v-1s and the variations, all that,” Bonnaud said. “After the first session, we started to look at what they were comfortable with and what they were still struggling with, and then we started to emphasis and talk and address more of the second part without necessarily stopping the first one. So for example, the passing itself got much better very quickly, so we kept that as a core and then we started to talk more about the 3-v-2s and 4-v-3s, where we need to have more work.”
Leila Opeti for Life West during the 2021 Club 7s National Championship / Photo: Alex Ho (hoiho.net)
The same process was employed for the tactical side of the game. The staff would impose certain rules for the game environment to see how players would react and adapt. As understanding developed and lessons were applied, the group graduated to something more challenging.
“But the adaptation was the key,” Bonnaud said of progress. “We had to understand everybody, not just the new players, because it has been quite a long time not seeing them in a 15s environment. It was interesting to see how they would react and learn from it.”
Naturally, the returners were a bit quicker to be vocal leaders, as they were familiar with the camp environment, the staff and expectations. But Bonnaud asserted that there was little lag time in newer players matching the returners’ confidence, both vocally and in their on-pitch actions.
“There was space for everybody,” the coach said. “Obviously you have different natures, so some people are more interactive than others, and that’s completely fine. But it was interesting to see that some of the players, newer ones, blended in in terms of the leaders and were more active on the field. So they were not necessarily speaking up but being more active and showing that they were understanding. So it was interesting to see that dynamic. It was a mix of ways of approaching it and opening up.”
Katelyn Walker from Eagle High School in Idaho fit into that latter scenario. The senior, who was named Rugby Idaho’s 7s MVP in the fall, featured in her first USA pathway camp.
“We could see that she was not necessarily physically speaking up a lot but it was a perfect example of growing through actions,” Bonnaud said. “You would see her at the beginning of the camp standing a little bit on the outside and watching and gauging, and through the week you could actually see her getting closer to the middle of the action. She was more involved than she was in the beginning, and that’s one of the signs we’re looking for – not just speaking up but being active.”
Maddie Hughes for Queens University of Charlotte / Photo: Amy Nicholson
Bonnaud also pointed to Akilah Cathey, the Brown University freshman who came out of Freedom Prep Academy in Memphis, Tenn. Cathey is a Girls High School All-American and also preferred to speak with actions.
“Whatever we threw at them, she was the one to answer right away on the field,” the coach praised.
And then there were players who were the perfect combination of vocal and on-field leadership.
“Leila Opeti was great in terms of both – the voices, and the positive, go-forward attitude,” Bonnaud said of Life West player who played high school ball with Lamorinda. “Always ready to play. That was a really good vibe to have.
“Maddie Hughes as well was in that kind of vibe,” the coach said of the Queens University of Charlotte freshman. “Not necessarily speaking up with her voice, but being very active on the field. She got her answers that way, being involved all over the place. So that was good to see.
“Those are great examples, but we have more,” Bonnaud assured.
The returners did a good job, and they, too, showed improvement and adjusted well to the environment.
“You can see PK Vincze is getting more balanced with the way she plays as a flyhalf. So she’s starting to add some variety to her execution,” Bonnaud said. “Sadie Schier, who was a wing, is also transitioning to a scrumhalf, so she’s starting to work on that. It was interesting to see her approach to the clockwork – so, the vision – not just the passing skill. You have to be a good passer as a scrumhalf, but you’re also looking around and scanning before you get to the ball.”
Dartmouth’s Sadie Schier in the NIRA DI National Championship / Photo: Mark Washburn (@mwashburnphoto)
Bonnaud and staff were also impressed with Sophia Linder’s pivot to a new position. The Army West Point freshman was playing inside center for the Black Knights, but the U20s have a different vision for her.
“I think she has an awesome profile for a flanker. She has a future there, so we started to make that transition,” Bonnaud said. “But that’s really going to blossom when we get together during the competition for the summer, because this camp focused on habits that were pretty generic, so not too position specific, but she embraced that. She was going at it and curious about the position and open minded about it and she started to do some good things as a flanker. I could see that around the breakdown and in open play that she was starting to take advantage of it.”
Camp wrapped up with an inner-squad scrimmage, and the sun came through for a great ending to the assembly. Bonnaud set expectations for the players and asserted that final run-out was not a selection or showcase game. The focus was applying the week’s worth of lessons during 80 minutes.
“I was not expecting them to execute everything 100% by the end of the camp because it was a lot, and it takes time to digest and retain all of that information,” Bonnaud said. “But the players were keen. They went really hard at it and the intensity was high throughout. The technical accuracy dropped a little bit in the second half due to fatigue, which was expected, but the intensity did not. … One team was able to get over the line a couple more times because they were able to capitalize on more opportunities, but it was balanced, which was really good. The last thing I wanted was a blowout, because then you lose the content of the game as one team starts thinking they have it easy and the other team is slowing down. Mentally both teams went at it hard the whole time.”
Bonnaud was very happy with the effort, but also all the work that happened near-field.
“We talked about having a notebook all the time for reflection – not just for taking notes when we’re in team meetings, but near the field, too,” Bonnaud said. “They did it. They asked questions and were curious. That was great. I told them at the end of camp, ‘We checked all the boxes; now it’s about increasing the ratio of success for each of those boxes.’ Each time there is opportunity, it’s making sure we see it more and more often. So that’s the ‘Playing BIG’ and the clockwork [habits]. Then the accuracy of the execution is increasing all the time, same with the 2-v-1s.”
Bonnaud and staff are in debrief mode now, examining the successes and work-ons for future assemblies. That said, the head coach was deeply grateful to the work of assistant coaches Farrah Douglas and Josie Ziluca, and staffers like trainer Anna Unnasch and manager Dee Nash, who made the many moving parts operate as one – a tough task during the age of Covid.
“With the player group we’ll debrief and analyze the game, but more than just the individual approach. The most important part is the collective one, based on all the principles we talked about,” Bonnaud said. “Meaning that it’s not just for the players to watch themselves but also watch the group and talk about, ‘Did we play BIG? Did we do the clockwork? Do we see 2-v-1s?’ It’s answering all those questions because that’s the beginning of their spring work. They want to be intentional on working on those habits, and that’s what I stressed to them: Doing the work during camp isn’t enough. We just laid down the foundations. We wanted to make sure that they would understand all the habits and started executing them, but if they stop doing that, they’re going to lose everything. By the time we get back together in the summer, we’re going to have to start from scratch. So that’s the challenge: Keeping habits in mind and working on them. We’ll help them remotely and stay connected and provide support so they can do that.”
Meanwhile, there is on-going work on the scouting front. A new slate of Talent ID camps should be circulating soon, and Bonnaud knows of four events that he’ll be attending in his region – the East. Details for summer 15s camps and competitions are also in the works, so stay tuned.