This column originally posted on July 28, 2013. Three weeks later, and in light of this past weekend's game against Canada, we invite you to read it again.
When the new USA Men’s 7s Coach is named, that will be only one answer to one question.
We will know a name, a background, a coach’s capabilities, but we won’t know so much more. We won’t know how the team will be assembled, how the coach will evaluate, treat, and develop his talent. Will he scour the globe looking for USA-qualified overseas players? Will he accept blindly the recommendations of Olympic Development Program? Will he just rubber-stamp the guys on the squad now? Are there players on his list that previous coaches crossed off?
Let’s say, though, that we get an answer to those questions, the problem facing USA Rugby at the high performance level remains.
Like … results are, for the most part, not that much better. The Men’s 15s team has taken some steps forward, but were exposed this June for their lack of depth and fragility of confidence. The Men’s 7s team ended the World Series season with an unprecedented run of top-eight finishes, but their ranking, 11th, and their World Cup finish, 13th, aren’t appreciably different from that of previous seasons.
The Collegiate All Americans produce some good tours and some middling tours. The U20s are stuck in that Tier I/Tier II limbo with Italy and Canada. The High School All Americans are making a certain amount of progress on the field. But in the end, the results are unchanged from 2008, 2003, 1998.
When that new 7s coach comes in, he will be expected to drive improvement. What is the overall plan for how the 7s team, or the 15s team for that matter, is put together? When a coach joins a national team, is there a pipeline he can feed from and use seamlessly? Is there assistance for the coach, including, for example, a coaching mentor who oversees how the teams prepare and play?
When a young player has a shot at the national team, is he given a program to follow to help him get there, and who gives it to him? As a player in the elite levels spends his off-season, or the down time between test matches in June and test matches in August (for example), is there a plan in place to help him work on his skills and deficiencies between games?
There are elements of a plan drifting through USA Rugby like so many icebergs in a turbid sea. We have an Olympic Development network of programs for 7s – their mission isn’t exceptionally clear, but they are a group of elite teams offering international exposure to young USA hopefuls. But is USA Rugby doing all it can to direct young people to those programs, and is there a protocol for players performing well in the ODPs to get a shot at the Eagles?
There is significant cooperation between age-grade coaches, but that cooperation, for the most part, is personal – Salty Thompson has a good personal relationship with Mike Tolkin, for example. There is no over-arching approach to the game, 7s or 15s, overseen by a High Performance Director and documented so that if there’s a coaching change, the process remains.
USA Rugby has a High Performance Manager in Luke Gross, but his role has been mostly in coaching assistance on the younger teams, and tracking players as they age and develop (where are they playing? How are they doing?). His job is not to direct their development, more to track it and keep people talking; it’s an important job, but we need more.
USA 15s Head Coach Mike Tolkin has a job to do with his team. If he needs to work with players on their training plans and development, he needs help.
Loathe as we are to constantly make comparisons with Canada, it’s worth noting how Rugby Canada staffs their High Performance efforts. They have a GM of Rugby Operations and Performance, two managers of High Performance (one for the West Coast, one for the East Coast), a Manager of Coach Development, a Manager of Men’s National Teams, and 15s and 7s Head Coaches who are also listed as program directors.
Their 15s Head Coach, Kieran Crowley, can often be seen at 7s events helping with the team and working closely with 7s Head Coach Geraint John. Overseeing all that is National Teams Manager Gareth Rees.
I don’t see the same synergy in the USA. I see national teams often working on their own – trying to communicate, but not having the same all-encompassing partnership run by experienced, capable people.
Nigel Melville is head of High Performance, but he is also CEO. What happens when he has to be in two places at once? Surely USA Rugby needs a High Performance Director (or something like it) – someone who has deep knowledge of rugby coaching, but also understands how players are developed not only on the training ground the Tuesday before a game, but at home during February when he’s got a job and a test match to play in four months.
We need a plan to bring all those little icebergs of hope together, and we need someone to develop and then implement that plan.
There are candidates out there, but rumors are out now that Billy Millard, the former Australia National 7s Team coach, has been in talks with USA Rugby. Millard has recently moved to the USA to be with his better half, and has served in a variety of elite coaching roles (most recently High Performance Coach for Connacht in Ireland). Perhaps more tellingly, he has mentored international stars - James O'Connor, Adam Ashley Cooper and Drew Mitchell in Australia, and Jamie Roberts, Leigh Halfpenny and Sam Warburton in Wales. If you partner someone with that experience along with someone who can guide him through the maze that is the American rugby landscape, you might have something.
I am not pushing for Millard, but merely using his presence as an example. Here’s a guy in the USA already, who has international experience far past almost anyone in this nation, and who could fill a role where we don’t need a local.
At present, USA Rugby does not have a plan to develop young players, scout talent, help talent get better, and give meaningful game experience to those players. We have bits and pieces of that list in operation, but they operate in isolation, and we depend only on the diligence of individuals to link it all together.
Is that link a person, or a plan? I think it has to be both – a person who has the faith and support of those diligent, diligent members of the Board and the confidence of the CEO, and who then uses that support to drive a plan forward.
The plan and the person have to come together, because a plan without implementation is … well let’s just say we’ve seen it before. And we’ve seen the results before. And we’ve seen the isolation of coaches and players before.
One more question: How about we change all that?