The 2022 Premier Rugby Sevens Championship will be bigger in nearly every sense. More games. More tournaments. More cities. And that’s all going to require more players, the finding of whom falls on the shoulders of general manager Mike Tolkin.
He’s also enlisted some talented help in the form of newly minted head of scouting Richie Walker. Like Tolkin, who led the USA men’s 15s national team to the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Walker boasts a wealth of high performance experience, having led the USA women’s 7s national team to the Olympics in 2016 and assisted the Japanese women at Tokyo 2020.
Unlike last year, Tolkin isn’t starting from scratch. More than 120 players pitched up in the inaugural championship in Memphis last October, constituting the first-ever pro 7s competition of its kind anywhere in the world. Tolkin said most are chomping at the bit to return, the outliers generally hinging on availability.
That so much of the player pool wants to return doesn’t mean there isn’t opportunity for new blood. Quite the opposite, actually, as the PR7s front office is starting sooner and searching further and wider than ever before for fresh talent.
“The longer runway helps us logistically, but with an extended championship series, we’re going to definitely need more players in our reserve pool, so being able to identify a greater number of players is definitely going to be helpful to us,” Tolkin said.
For the inaugural championship, the league concentrated its talent identification efforts in the southeast, plucking six players from the open trials for roster spots. Tolkin and Walker will return to the region this week to embark on a month-long fishing expedition across North America in the hopes of reeling in the next Logan Tago or Delaney Aikens.
It starts Sunday, when more than 100 athletes will attempt to turn heads at the first open trial of the season at the Charlotte Rugby Club in North Carolina. Two weeks later, PR7s will hold its first-ever trial west of the Mississippi River in San Clemente, California. And a couple of weeks after that, the first-ever Canadian open trial will take place at the Al Charron Rugby Canada National Training Center in Langford, BC.
Canada was well represented at the inaugural championship, the north-of-the-border-themed Loonies winning the women’s title behind a pair of tries from Aikens, pride of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Overcoming an ankle injury to hobble her way to MVP honors, Aikens was but one of many Canadians who starred in Memphis.
Assisting Loonies head coach Kelly Griffin during the title run was Vancouver-based Robin MacDowell, who is spearheading the Canadian open trial. He helped lure several Canadians to the competition last year, like Noah Bain, who springboarded to a full-time contract with the Canadian national team on the back of playing a key role in the Experts’ run to the men’s title.
“He has been really a liaison point for Canadian players,” said Tolkin of MacDowell. “He’s been pushing us having an open trial up there. He kind of instigated it and we were happy to do it, because we obviously want to populate our league with Canadian players because they’re good and accessible.”
Walker, who’s spent much of his career both developing future women’s Eagles in the grassroots and coaching them on the national team, thinks the women’s game stands to gain the most from the open trial opportunity.
“There’s a lot of talent out there, just no competition really to showcase themselves, so we’re getting all those club players back in here and giving them a shot, and even former national teams players who want to get back in, too,” Walker said.
“A lot of younger girls are reaching out and looking for a pathway and even mothers are reaching out and saying, ‘Can my 16-year-old daughter come to this camp?’”
The open trials consist of a series of tests meant to gauge athleticism, like the 40-meter dash and vertical, in addition to drills and games devised to showcase skill. Those, Tolkin says, are important, but no substitute for live game play.
“I think the important things are the hallmarks of 7s; be fit, show your athleticism and have the basic skills of rugby. Be able to pass, be evasive in your running, and we’re going to be able to play, so it ultimately comes down to showing your ability in games. The biggest thing is show your athleticism and show you’re a hard worker.”
PR7s Open Trials are open to all athletes 18 years and older. While registration for Sunday in Charlotte is closed, it’s not too late to sign up for the California or Canadian trials.
By Pat Clifton