The U.S. Rugby Foundation is pleased to announce it has granted Nelson College Rugby Scholarships to Connor Bender of Cleveland, Ohio, and Joseph Walter “JW” Sarkees of Central, South Carolina. Connor and JW will spend four and one-half months over the spring and summer of 2024 attending Nelson College, a high school in Nelson City, New Zealand, which offers a unique, even by New Zealand standards, track of elective Rugby Curriculum courses as part of their already highly competitive program of academic courses.
The goal of the USRF’s Nelson College Rugby Scholarship program is to advance the personal, cultural, and academic development of the scholar athletes while providing them the opportunity to become better rugby players and use their experience in New Zealand to influence and elevate the play of their high school teammates upon their return.
Connor Bender is a 17-year-old honor student at Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland and is the #8 and upcoming captain of the St. Ignatius Rugby Team. Saint Ignatius recently won the Midwest Tournament in Elkhart, Indiana, where Bender was named MVP of the Tournament. A multi-sport athlete (football, lacrosse, baseball, swimming, and basketball), Bender narrowed his high school focus to football and rugby – as well as student government. Unable to make the trip due to a travel conflict, Bender was invited to play for the Eagle Impact Rugby Academy (EIRA) touring side on their Ireland tour this past summer.
JW Sarkees, who has been playing rugby since the 4th grade, is a 17-year-old honor student at D. W. Daniel High School in Central, South Carolina and the fly-half and captain of the Greer 76ers Rugby Club. Sarkees played on the USA Rugby South Panthers team in 2021; the EIRA u16s in 2021; the EIRA Ireland Tour Team in 2022 (Co-Captain and Best Teammate Award); and the EIRA Ireland Tour Team in 2023. Sarkees also plays varsity soccer at Daniel HS and his team won the State Championship in 2022 and 2023.
Nelson College and the Rugby Curriculum
Nelson College is an all-boys boarding school in Nelson City on the Northern shore of New Zealand’s South Island. Founded in 1856, Nelson College is the oldest state secondary school and the school where rugby in New Zealand was started. Located on the shores of Tasman Bay, Nelson City is a small city with a vibrant and diverse culture. Known as the sunshine “capital” of New Zealand, the area is blessed with stunning natural landscapes. Of the 960 students enrolled at Nelson College, 200 play rugby; and 110 of these “pathways players” participate in the formal Rugby Curriculum courses by attending daily rugby classes based around the following six key pillars of player development: Technical; Tactical; Strength and Conditioning; Nutrition; Mental Skills; and Personal Development.
Brian Vizard, USRF President, former Captain of the USA Eagles and a member of the Selection Committee said, “The ten-member Selection Committee had a very challenging task to narrow down the 35 applicants to an impressive group of the strongest semi-finalists; and an even more difficult task in concluding on these two recipients.”
Selection Committee Perspectives
Jonathan “Jono” Phillips (photo below) is the Nelson College Director of Coaching and 1st XV and 2nd XV Head Coach and architect of the Nelson College Rugby Curriculum. His first five years as Head of Rugby at Nelson College has been one of the most fruitful periods in the school’s proud 166-year history. Jono was a member of the Selection Committee for this scholarship: “It is a great privilege for Nelson College to partner with the U.S. Rugby Foundation. Having this opportunity to work with the Foundation and sharing the rugby pathway we have developed at Nelson College with aspiring American rugby players is something we very much look forward to. Many congratulations to Connor and JW on their selection for the scholarships.”
Bill Fraumann, USRF Vice-Chairman and former USA Eagle added: “We hope to build on the great success of last year’s scholarship winners, Max Doerfler of Overland Park, Kansas and Oliver Kirk of Chicago, who had an amazing experience at Nelson College earlier this year.”
Brendan Keane, Manager and Coach of USA Rugby’s High-Performance Pathways Program and a member of the Selection Committee commented “It was nice to have such a strong and varied group of applicants this year. It’s inspiring to see young American high schoolers eager to take the opportunity to travel halfway around the world and challenge themselves to learn and grow in New Zealand. Also, how wonderful to hear from the semi-finalists that one of their motivations in pursuing this opportunity is bringing back what they learn to their peers in the USA and how they intend to do so.”
“Friends of Nelson College”
The USRF Nelson College Rugby Scholarships are funded solely by the generous contributions of the "Friends of Nelson College" – a group of like-minded USRF donors who know that the experience of playing in New Zealand is unquantifiable and will do nothing but elevate the rugby IQ and rugby skills of these young American high school players.