The Cayman Islands is sending a record 53 athletes to the U.S. Touch Rugby Nationals in San Diego, California this week.
The three-day tournament will feature 34 teams from various American cities, in addition to visiting teams from Australia. Cayman players will be competing in the Men’s, Women’s, Mixed and Juniors Divisions.
Scott McCarty, president of the Cayman Touch Association, has been instrumental in the coaching and selection of this year’s squad. He was very pleased with the number of players that came to the initial training sessions which started in late February, where the focus was on fundamental skills.
Week by week, coaches monitored the progress of players and added more technical skills and strike plays to the game plan.
Coaches also scouted out and watched players perform at the Mourant Cayman International Tournament in March, the Mourant Cup of Nations Tournament in May, and the Highbury Consulting Men’s and Women’s Leagues in the summer, before making the final team selections in early September.
When asked about the caliber of the Cayman teams, Mr. McCarty said, “This is the best squad of players we have taken to U.S. Nationals over the past five years. All of our teams have a realistic chance of competing well in their division.
“Some of the selections were very tough, but we believe these teams give us the best chance of performing well across our divisions.”
The Cayman Men’s team, led by captain Morgan Shelver, sees 10 returning players from the squad that won the silver medal at last year’s U.S. nationals. They will be looking for redemption against Los Angeles Royals, the team that beat them in the finals last year.
They have a tough draw this year, with four games on the first day, against some of the highest ranked teams: Walkabout Wanderers (from Australia), San Francisco, Portland and last but not least, Los Angeles.
It’s a grueling schedule, but the team has been training hard and is well prepared.
Player Craig Saunders said, “The training has been intense leading up to the tournament with two-hour sessions twice weekly, plus optional early morning trainings. Although I’ve played lots of rugby previously, I find the level of fitness needed for touch to be greater, because there aren’t many stoppages in play and it’s such a fast and fluid sport.”
Like any other sporting tournament, where there are multiple games played each day, there is an increased risk of injury. So just in case, physiotherapist Jen LaVelle from Step Ahead Physio also will be traveling to San Diego, to help all the Cayman players.
Katy Bayles, captain of the Women’s team, is looking forward to the tournament. “We’re bringing a strong team this year with experienced players, rookies who will go to the U.S. nationals for the first time, and Mya Heiss, who played in the Youth Touch World Cup in Malaysia this summer.”
Bayles is also a fan of the new format of the Women’s division. “With it switching to a round robin this year, we’re looking forward to playing against all the teams rather than just the same few teams over and over again. Playing every team should help us to see where we are at compared to everyone else, and gives an indication of our progress over the last year.”
Another change from last year is the new coaching duo of Marcus Cubillo and Marcus Rowe, who have brought in some fresh new ideas. They’ve been developing the technical skills of the women’s squad, as well as encouraging some creativity in attack.
The Mixed Team has only four returning players from the team that won the silver medal at the U.S. nationals in 2017. They have reached into the archives to pull in some veteran players from years past and recruited some Rugby Sevens national players, including teen sensation Ewan Wilson. To round out the roster, they also added a couple of players from last year’s Women’s squad.
Captain Monette Windsor likes their chances, especially with some new plays in their arsenal. “With the addition of some specialized strike plays, we’re hoping to capitalize on the mismatch between the speed and agility of our guy left link that will be against a women link on the opposing team. Similarly, on defense, we’ve implemented a new ‘mad-dog’ defensive system to help counter that same mismatch and help protect our women links on the line.”
Rookie Gareth van den Bergh, who was scouted from deep within the summer corporate touch league, will be one to watch in the tournament, with his stealth-like right to left pass.
When asked about making the switch from rugby 15s to touch, van den Bergh said, “It’s been a real eye-opener. I’ve played rugby my whole life and it’s been great to learn new aspects of the game that touch brings. I really thank coach Scott McCarty for his incredible dedication in not only training the teams, but all the organizational work he’s done behind the scenes to get us to the U.S. Nationals.”
And for the first time, Cayman is sending a Juniors team to the U.S. Nationals. The squad includes many young teens that have already started to make names for themselves in the local rugby scene, including Liam Sinclair, Freddie Robson and Clancy Hannon.
The three day tournament kicks off on Thursday, Oct. 11, at the Elite Athlete Training Centre outside San Diego, California.