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Silverbacks Off The Mark

CHICAGO, IL – In April, a small but dedicated group of Midwest rugby coaches and administrators launched a project to audit high-performance rugby opportunities in the Midwest. Over the next several months, they interviewed and surveyed over 250 community stakeholders – from union/SGB executives to grassroots coaches, players & parents. The process revealed a strong perception that the Midwest is severely underserved in terms of quality high-performance development opportunities. This frustration seems to be validated by the Junior National Team Camp invitations. Of the 80 men and 27 women invited, the Midwest was only represented by four men and four women; despite the Midwest being the largest GU by participation, Rugby Illinois being the fourth largest SGB by pre-COVID participation, and being home to a number of the nation’s top high school programs (Penn-IN, Royal Irish-IN, St. Edwards-OH, St. Ignatius-OH, DSHA-WI, Catholic Memorial-WI).

The audit process revealed four key shortcomings of existing high-performance opportunities in the region: (1) The Tyranny of Distance. The Midwest GU stretches from Western Pennsylvania to Iowa. For many, travel to HP opportunities was too large a time commitment. This was particularly impactful for athletes who were not from affluent households. This prevents true meritocracy in HP opportunities. (2) The Showcase & Dump Model. Most HP programming in the Midwest was built around tours or one-off tournaments. While these events had short-term development payoffs, the Midwest rugby community craved a long-term focused HP program that would help athletes develop the other 51 weeks out of the year. (3) A Lack of Individualized Feedback. Tied to the Showcase & Dump model, several athletes and parents expressed a frustration with a lack of support for long-term individualized development planning. (4) Lack of Coach Development Opportunities. Across the board, stakeholders craved more coach development opportunities so grassroots coaches could be better able to reinforce what athletes learn in supplemental training environments.

Silverbacks Elite Rugby was built to fill the specific gaps identified in the audit: a fifty-two week a year program intended to supplement club training environments and affect the wholistic development of the athletes it serves.

Silverbacks Director of Rugby, Joey Rasmus, remarked, “Between club or scholastic programs and supplementary opportunities like Silverbacks, we need to offer our most motivated athletes a training environment comparable not just with what Californians have but with what English, South African, and Australian athletes have access to as well. We studied a number of models from around the world and from other sports. Benchmarking with AAU basketball programs and new soccer academies had a big impact on how we plan to operate.”

The culmination of this stakeholder engagement and research is a new model for high-performance rugby in the US. Silverbacks will not be brick and mortar but rather a network of high-quality coaches able to provide year-round remote support and in-person instruction at local training hubs around the region. The entry point to this Pathways Program was a series of camps held in early August: one in Cedar Rapids, IA and a second in Hanover Park, IL.

“We didn’t want these to be your prototypical ID Camps,” stated Rasmus. “Our goal was to deliver a rigorous and intensive development-focused environment. Our selection KPIs did not revolve around identifying the best player that day – but rather identifying the most resilient, best communicating, most self-motivated athletes. We wanted to find the athletes most able to grow and develop if given the proper resources.”

For its first camp cycle, Silverbacks chose to focus on only two camp sites: Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and the Hanover Park Park District in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. In total, 39 athletes – male & female, U13-U23 – attended the two camps.

Rasmus raved about the caliber of athlete who attended the camps. “We got incredibly lucky with the athletes we served. The athleticism and skill were not the most impressive attributes on display. Everyone was emotionally intelligent, reflective, and hard-working. Those are the qualities that excite me as a coach because they add up to potential. I couldn’t be happier with the two groups and I think they have taken tremendous strides to establishing a strong, healthy, professional culture for our organization.”

The Silverbacks ‘Wholistic Development’ ethos with a heavy focus on mental skills and culture seemed to pay off in the on-field product. Eagle-Eye Scout, Ryan McBride, who attended the showcase day at the Hanover Park Camp commented, “I was pleasantly surprised by the groups cohesion in game. In these kinds of short assemblies with athletes coming from all sorts of diverse backgrounds, it’s uncommon to see a group gel this well in just three days.”

The coaching staff was a healthy mix of native talent and outside expertise. Charli Jacoby, the stalwart Eagles Tighthead Prop, headlined the staff. She was joined by Meghan Flannigan (Head Coach of the University of Northern Iowa Women), Joe Lippert (Assistant Coach of Iowa Central Men), and Joey Rasmus (Silverbacks Director of Rugby and Head Coach of University of Illinois Men).

Rasmus concluded, “We are delighted by the programs we put on in Iowa and Illinois and are excited to build on this momentum into the fall. But for us, there is not time to rest on our laurels. To be a respected name in high-performance you have to deliver by supporting athletes 365 days a year. Now the real work begins for us and we are excited to take it on.”

Next on the agenda for Silverbacks is to establish a hybrid of virtual and local in-person programming. They will be working to serve the athletes they’ve identified throughout the Fall and run another round of identification and immersion camps this winter.


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