Had it not been for the COVID-19 outbreak, Ricardo Ramirez would have spent the next fortnight pitting his wits against coaches from Canada, England and France.
USA Rugby had expected to host a Four Nations women’s U20s tournament, which was scheduled to kick off on 25 June, until the pandemic ensured it was cancelled.
Following on from last July’s Tri-Nations Cup, which took place at Loughborough University and featured teams from Canada and USA as well as hosts England, the competition would have been an important staging post in the development of international women’s age-grade rugby.
“We just need more competitions like that,” USA women’s U20 head coach Ramirez told World Rugby.
“Going to [Loughborough], it was nice because I think a lot of players got that feel of what it really was like to be on a tour, a real big tour and play against another national-level team.
“And so you get that excitement and those nerves and, you know, it's a good introduction to what they can and can't do. And, we saw players step up above and beyond. We saw some people kind of get really nervous.
“But the overall thing is, I think everybody realised they could play at that level, even if it was after the fact.”
‘It’s a huge springboard’
The Tri-Nations Cup was as much a learning curve for Ramirez as it was for his players, being his first international tournament as a head coach.
Ramirez, who spent most of his playing days in the front row, has worked his way up through the ranks in the women’s game since he first got the opportunity to coach a girls’ high school team.
The Indiana native has headed up the University of Notre Dame’s women’s programme for the past decade, and held roles with the Girls High School All-Americans and USA women’s U18s before becoming the U20s head coach 14 months ago.
“For me, everything is a learning process,” Ramirez added. “It gave me an idea how to do better... on tour.
“How I could adjust for stuff I was doing with regular trainings back in the States. How I could move that up a notch just to be better with them and interacting with the players, and even with my own staff.”
Two players who weren’t available to Ramirez in England were centres Emily Henrich and Eti Haungatau, both of whom were required by USA women’s head coach Rob Cain for the Women’s Rugby Super Series in San Diego.
A third, Tiana A’au, did travel to Loughborough but has been capped at test level, and Ramirez believes that is evidence that players can now make the jump to senior international rugby sooner.
“It's a huge springboard up into the seniors. There's a possibility you’ll see a lot more U20s names jump up earlier into senior sides because of the U20s, because they have that experience,” he said.
“It’s nice because people do get that, ‘oh, I played with her and if she can do it, I can do it’. You know, that's really great.
“That's always good to have, seeing somebody accomplish something that you're on the track to possibly do, too.”
Ramirez was able to hold one U20s camp prior to the pandemic, at Life University in February, where he began to assimilate a number of players who had graduated from the U18s squad.
Once the USA was placed into lockdown, however, he was forced to develop more virtual methods, which he believes could prove beneficial even when he is able to coach in person again.
“I always try to look at the bright side, try to stay positive,” Ramirez explained.
“There was always a challenge of how much time we get to see our players. How many camps we can have. How many regional sessions where maybe we can only see them for a weekend here or there.
“But because of the pandemic and finding ourselves with time, going online has really helped that out. But the biggest struggle was just not seeing them enough, not having enough interaction with the players.
“But I've come to find out that that is something that I could have avoided a while ago if I would have just thought about online. Coming up with a good plan to do online was a real game changer.
“And it's something that we started because of the pandemic, but it's something that I think we have to continue to do moving forward.”
Ramirez enjoys a good working relationship with USA Rugby Women’s High Performance Director, Emilie Bydwell — who he first met on a coaching course five years ago — and Cain.
Having played men’s rugby for two decades, he has no desire to step back into it as a coach. Instead, he is committed to helping USA’s women reach their potential.
“I'm in a unique situation where I was a high school coach for a year, a college coach for 10 years, and on the U18 staff and now the U20s,” Ramirez explained.
“So I've actually been on the pathway so I can relate to those players. So, my goal is just to keep working and keep working up this pathway as far as I can.”