By Stephen Sheehan
To be the best, you have to beat the best. And while they weren’t able to notch a win, the Florida High Performance Sevens squad enjoyed an unforgettable and humbling experience at IMG Academy on Saturday, October 28.
Some of the best rugby sevens players from across the Sunshine State gathered in Bradenton to take on Canada’s national sevens side in a quartet of incredibly fast-paced touch matches.
Facing international stars like John Moonlight, Nathan Hirayama and Harry Jones, the 23 Floridians got a first-hand glimpse at the level of professionalism, focus and talent it takes to compete for a spot on an Olympic-quality side.
Though the Florida HPP team failed to dot down a try on the afternoon, players and coaches gained invaluable insight from the nearly two hours of rugby played on one of IMG Academy’s pristine practice pitches.
While the Canadian side obviously boasted better chemistry, fitness and overall skill, they were incredibly down to earth throughout the weekend. Despite being guests themselves at the IMG Academy campus, the Canadians showed great hospitality and sportsmanship in allowing the Florida players to utilize IMG’s state-of-the-art ice baths and training room. In addition, Moonlight and Jones delivered words of wisdom to the aspiring Florida ruggers and even threw in some free Canada team shirts as a token of appreciation for everyone who made the trip.
“We had a squad that got thrown together at the last minute,” said Florida Director of 7’s Steve Braunstein. “A lot of our players are just normal guys who volunteer their own time. However, we’re trying to get our program to compete with the best people in the world.”
The combination of Braunstein and Ronnie Suarez—who also coaches at Florida International University—has catapulted the state’s sevens program to new heights.
“In only two years we’ve been able to put together a program that’s been able to play at a high level,” explained Braunstein. “We have fared very well against Olympic Development Academies across the country out in Vegas, including beating Arizona, Utah and Ohio.”
One player who has been instrumental in transforming the program into a legitimate contender is Jeff Herron. The mechanical designer engineer first picked up a rugby ball in 2005 while attending the University of South Florida, and he’s continued his playing career with Tampa Bay Krewe since 2009.
Herron has been a staple within the Florida HPP 7’s program since 2014 and has been able to play against top-level competition such as Mexico’s national sevens team. Even for an experienced player like Herron, the showdown against Canada was truly eye opening.
“Canada’s pace of play was incredible,” Herron said. “I felt that we matched up with them fairly well in speed. They definitely had us on man-for-man size, but their pace of play was really the difference. Their breakdowns were secured and over with in the blink of an eye.”
While the scoreboard didn’t fall in Florida’s favor, the chance to play a world-class side at a world-class facility was a welcomed treat for players who often have to pay their own way while working typical day jobs.
“Any opportunity to play against a high level opponent is a chance to test ourselves and also to improve,” Herron said. “There is so much to learn from these matches and the more we are exposed to that level, the sooner we as a group will be able to compete and play at that level. Players with this kind of experience will learn, improve, and then have the chance to take that knowledge back to their club and share that with their local teammates.”