Dr. John Greally began coaching the Lions 7s program nine years ago — somewhat casually at first, as 7s had often been a bit of offseason fun. But about two years ago, something clicked for John and he kicked the program into high gear. If we’re blessed enough to have him running the program for another nine years (and more), this will be the moment that you remember when he put the Village Lions on the map as a national contender in 7s.
We sat down with John at the conclusion of this 7s qualifier season to talk at length about the program and our prospects. What follows is a clear-eyed view of where we are and where we might go.
What is your assessment of the 2015 Lions 7s program? What improved over 2014?
The 2015 Lions 7s program saw us build on two things over 2014, when we focused on getting our defense organized and on getting experience at the qualifier level.
Our recruitment of new players added to the core of players with experience at qualifier level and created a squad that was unafraid of whatever opposition we faced, always believing that we should be able to pull off a win.
We developed a style of rugby that was fast-paced, favored offloading and was exciting to watch. By later in the season we complemented this style with aggressive ball carrying and controlled recycling that sucked in defenders, allowing our attackers to breach less-organized defenses.
The fitness and strength of the squad was improved over 2014, but not universally. Some players showed excellent advances, but not all players were fit enough to meet the demands of the high intensity of qualifier-level 7s, playing limited minutes and putting strain on their fitter colleagues who remained on the pitch throughout games and tournaments.
Our recruitment of new, talented players was a major reason for our success. Kyle Ward, Kevin Morgan, Giorgi Maisuradze, Emmanuel Matadi, Rich Parsley and Dave Rebels joined the 7s program and together accounted for 56 percent of all the tries scored this summer, despite representing only one-third of the players representing the club in 2015.
We added the use of video analysis this summer. The potential of the resource was obvious, with the ability to scrutinize games in detail and identify individual and collective problems that needed to be addressed. For example, the preseason warmup game against Guyana showed our players following the ball in defense instead of maintaining width, causing us to cover significantly more ground than our experienced opposition, who could therefore conserve energy in their attacks. This prompted our development of a drill in training in which we kept pods of players segregated to opposite sides of the field in attack to maintain width, forcing our defense to maintain equivalent width, probably the best adjustment we made all summer.
We did not achieve the full potential of the video, mostly because we did not have in place a robust system involving people recording games, and the analytical tools that we wanted to implement were not delivered on time. [Editor’s note: this is an opportunity for more volunteers to help!] This was the biggest operational failure of the summer season; hopefully the new 15s coaches for the men and women will drive the further development of the video system so that it will be mature for the 2016 7s season.
Finally, we started to incorporate sports psychology professionals into our training, with a single session at LIU in Brooklyn that hinted at the possibilities of this component of our preparation. We will need to think out how to make this a strong and sustainable part of our program, as a single minute switched off at qualifier level in 7s is inevitably exploited by experienced teams.
What did we achieve this summer? How do we measure that?
The 2015 season saw us move firmly into the slipstream behind the big four teams in the Northeast — Mystic River, Old Blue, NYAC and the Connecticut Bulldogs. In 2014 we only pulled off an occasional win, but in 2015 we did not lose a bowl semifinal all season and showed major strength of character to pull ahead of Old Blue II on the final weekend, securing fifth position in the Northeast. The Northeast is a highly competitive region, in contrast to the rest of the U.S., where there is usually one dominant team. Bret Costain’s assessment that we are now probably one of the top-20 7s teams in the USA is probably accurate.
The achievements of a rugby season can be measured in terms of where we ended up in a league, but it’s probably more valuable to talk about less quantifiable outcomes — the development of a squad of players who worked hard in training and on tournament day, but who had a strong social bond off the field; the set of priorities that traditionally characterizes the Lions as a club. Athletes first and foremost, but genuinely nice people who know how to have fun. Qualifier-level 7s has to focus on athleticism, but we are keeping a balance that does not appear to exist in our big four rivals, a component in being able to attract and retain good players.
What worked for the program? What needs to be improved?
Everything worked, but everything needs to improve if we are to push our way into contention for nationals. We recruited well; we need to recruit more effectively. Our strength and conditioning, video technology and sports psychology all show promise, but they all need to be taken to the next level.
One problem that seems to be insurmountable at present: an amateur club is lucky to be able to get two 90-minute sessions per week for preparation for a squad. There is so much to learn that this offers only limited opportunity for coaching and training. Our use of video will help to allow players to work on their game analytically on their own time, which will then allow training sessions to start with a foundation of our players understanding what the problem is from the video review, making the session more efficient and productive.
What role did the Empire side play in helping to keep the qualifier side competitive?
Our Empire side had mixed results this year. The individuals who turned out and created the nucleus of the squad were dedicated, we owe them a huge debt, but the problem was that we don’t have the depth yet to make this a reliable part of our program. Hell Gate 7s allowed us to field a stronger Empire side, including several players experienced at the qualifier level, but we also had the experience of an Empire squad going to a tournament short-handed (because of players not turning up at the last minute), with Alex Sheidler sustaining a fracture that weekend that ended his season. When the numbers for the last Empire tournament of the season were likewise short, we pulled our team from the competition — we can’t risk our players getting injured or demoralized by sending incomplete squads.
We need to reassess our Empire program for 2016, including asking the question whether it would be better to try to develop a second qualifier-level squad instead. It’s probably significant that Mystic River and Old Blue, who went to nationals, are the two clubs with second qualifier-level squads, allowing them to develop significant strength in depth for their programs.
Who impressed the most? Who grew the most? Who was the surprise of the season?
Most impressive — the try-scoring machine Kevin Morgan, who turned 20 during the season, immense potential for this young guy.
Most growth — Hubert Chan, who played some of the best rugby we have seen from him in the 2015 7s season.
Surprise — the new Georgian recruit Giorgi Maisuradze turned out to training with very little English, we had no idea how he ended up with us, but he quickly ascended to the qualifier team and wreaked havoc with even the strongest defenses.
But even senior players were notable for improving their game this summer, a great example being Joe Karlin working hard on his passing technique and becoming even more effective a player than we had seen previously.
What are your observations about the competition in the Northeast and on the national stage?
The Northeast has strength across the board. Even last-place Long Island pulled off shock wins against the Bulldogs and Old Blue II on the last weekend, proving that you can’t discount any team in the Northeast on their day. Mystic went on to come third in the U.S., representing the Northeast strongly.
Is there any 7s activity between now and next summer?
We traditionally play the NY 7s tournament after Thanksgiving, in freezing cold weather, a chance for our 7s guys to bond in the offseason. I’d like to see what interest there might be in a tour to somewhere warm during the winter, with Vegas and Tobago two excellent options.
When does preparation for the 2016 season begin and what are the goals?
September it all starts again. On a club-wide level, we need to review what happened this year, get player feedback, and develop an updated offseason program. Better coordination between the 7s and 15s coaches needs to start this year, in particular developing the video and other resources to support our players, and a co-ordinated strength and conditioning strategy with metrics for progress.
Once we have the plans and resources in place, we start our 7s strength and conditioning in December for a six-month preseason period. Recruitment for 2016 is already happening, we’d like to develop our connections with the Guyanese national team to see if any of their players would be able to stay in NYC for the summer, and start to explore other recruitment possibilities. Putting video highlights of our season on the web and social media will be essential for outreach. Coordinating the men’s and women’s programs better will also be essential. Adding more coaching staff is needed, resourcing our programs is a clear need, and exploring whether we can offer employment to our recruits for the summer will be valuable — Olly Smith was the major employer for our 7s program this year!
We are making good progress. We need to crack the top four in 2016. That will not be easy, but we are the club with momentum.