MLR Grassroots Ã¢ÂÂ New England Free Jacks
Last fall, Major League Rugby announced Grassroots Development Incentives that encouraged teams to develop and promote rugby participation within their regions. The long-term aim to solidify local player pathways and engage further with their communities.
After the careful evaluation of programs, MLR has decided to highlight three teams who have excelled in the past nine months. Shining a light in the Youth category, the New England Free Jacks' Tom Kindley spoke to majorleague.rugby about the work that has been happening on the east coast.
"We are lucky that in New England, there is a robust pre-existing infrastructure," Kindley said. "American Football actually stems from rugby at Harvard where a solution to the narrow field width became the forward pass in 1906, which goes to show there is a strong rugby history in our region, and we are lucky to be able to draw from that.
"In our exhibition season, where we hosted the Cara Cup, we had a strong playing base to select from initially and the clubs have all been really supportive. They can see what we are trying to do, that we are not there as a replacement, because there are a lot of proud clubs, schools, colleges and youth organizations.
"We want to make sure that everything we do is going to supplement what already exists. It is sort of like a jigsaw puzzle right now and we have got the edges of It now, but there is a lot of stuff to go in the middle and that is the challenge of what we are trying to do over the next 10 years."
It was when the 2020 season was called off as a result of the global pandemic that the foundations began to be laid for the development of young rugby players in New England. Having over 1000 participants learning the game across four virtual sessions, the Free Jacks also combined forces with the Boys & Girls Club of Marshfield.
Offering Individualized Development Programs, eight weeks worth of learning led by academy coaches, before the lifting of Covid restrictions meant that face to face interaction was no longer just a thing of the past.
"Once we got into summer, Covid didn't really slow us down that much because we were able to do things in small groups," Kindley explained. "We had a massive summer, with camps and clinics largely based in Boston. They were very successful and that was when we asked ourselves how do we get around all the different regions within the six states of New England? What is the best way of doing so?
"That's when we started the tracking days and how we would structure those and started to play with kids at U14 and below essentially, as well as going into a tracking period with U16, U18, U20 and with the men and the women.
"We just evaluated core skills and interlinked that with games, so for a period every weekend we would be travelling around, loading a van up with jump mats, timing gates and then coordinating volunteers and academy coaches and going to these events. It was awesome because we got buy-in and got to expose so many new people to the game."
It was in late September that the Free Jacks launched their New England-wide Academy, creating 13 Regional Training Groups (RTGs) throughout their region. Each of the RTGs came with its own name, logo and an identity to engage the local audiences and attract players who could be playing rugby for the very first time or those wanting to further enhance their potential.
Officially recognized as a USA Rugby National Development Program, New England has a rich rugby heritage with clubs like Mystic River Rugby Club playing Division I club rugby, whilst at Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth playing in the Ivy Rugby Conference. But, even with all that history, Kindley is relishing the opportunity to grow the came in all 13 RTCs.
"At each of the 13 Regional Training Centers, you get a completely different demographic," Kindley said. "For example, in Rhode Island we had like 40 kids come out and get involved in our learn to play program and 11 kids at U18 level.
"You then compare that to Worcester in Western Massachusetts, we had 65 U18s and five learn to play kids. It was quite eye opening that in different areas, probably due to the infrastructure that is there, there are hugely different demographics.
"It was good for us, because it has never been done like that before in New England, so for us to be able to do that, without us pretending to do something, it is a good starting point to work out where we can go from here."
Players regularly help out with coaching and the hopes of visiting their RTCs three times a year, Kindley believes that aligning the Free Jacks calendar with the pre-existing rugby infrastructure in New England, plenty more players will be introduced to the game of rugby.
"We are trying to get to our 13 Regional Training Centers two to three times a year," Kindley said. "Obviously, just going three times a year isn't going to be too much, but with quality youth structure already here and connecting with other youth organizations.
"In each region we want to eventually hold coaching courses for coaches and them and eventually get some infrastructure in place in those different areas. That is the work that needs to be done for us over time.
"This work needs to be done over time, but for now we are just hoping to expose as many kids as possible to the game and hopefully they play at high school and then at college."
Written by Joe Harvey
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