Dan Payne’s departure from the USA National Team was going to happen whether the USA beat Canada or lost to them.
His job at Life University is really and truly expanding, and overseeing the development of a women’s program is big news in women’s college rugby; remember that Life didn’t have a men’s undergraduate team until the fall of 2010, and they were very quickly one of the best in the nation.
But the benignness of Payne’s departure from the Eagles, however, didn’t hide the fact that there were issues within the team’s performance, and that those issues fall at the feet of the coaches. Hence the departure of scrum coach Derek Dowling, and attack coach Tony Smeeth.
Head Coach Mike Tolkin ultimately bears the brunt of the responsibility for a team that is 0-7 this year and could end 2013 0-10 if they’re not careful. Tolkin is the one who has assembled the team, overseen the game plan, and managed the adjustments.
But others have to shoulder the blame there, too. And while Tolkin, as defense coach, performed well enough (average 23 points against, with more than half of those points coming in two games), the offense was really bad. Eighty points in seven games, 11 points a game, is unacceptable.
We could go into detail on the tactics, but there’s little point. Tolkin brought in former Leicester and England flyhalf Les Cusworth as a consultant for three weeks in August, trying to develop a better offensive game plan. They didn’t get it right, but there are flashes of a theory there – use the USA’s power and strength, kick for a reason and with a defined objective.
So Smeeth, as good a guy as he is, and as much of a friend of American rugby as he is, had to go. Dowling was a slightly different matter. The scrum struggled at times – it was a key element of the loss against Japan – but overall we saw improvements. However, devoting resources to just a scrum coach is asking a lot of a still cash-strapped program.
I had been in the middle of writing an evaluation of the USA coaches when the news about Smeeth and Dowling became public, so this column has somehow changed focus.
Remember, also, that Payne is gone, and Dave Williams will devote most of his time to the USA 7s team going forward.
That leaves the Eagles with Mike Tolkin as Head Coach and defensive coordinator, and Chris O’Brien as kicking coach.
O’Brien will stay, and hopefully he will be given the go-ahead to run some kicking clinics. We can’t just rely on a guy showing up and saying he can kick. They need regular practice – from the tee, the hand, for space, for touch, drop goals … all of it.
Tactically, the team has to get itself straightened out. The group of players available is solid, but a bad offensive game plan, and a plan that doesn’t have buy-in, is hurting them.
There also needs to be more competition for places. Consider that the USA team in the 2012 ARC went 0-3, and still a group of those players made the Eagles. What kind of message does it send that you can lose all your games and get a promotion? What kind of message does it send that you can lose all your games and keep your place?
Tolkin has held on to some players who are not performing well, and has not done enough to engender depth in the squad. But, in Tolkin’s defense, he (as we’ve said before) has virtually no High Performance or scouting support. He has to spend way, way too much time chasing down players to find out if they’re available, and the schedule he was given this year was very difficult.
Nigel Melville told RUGBYMag in June that Tolkin speaks to Melville, and has “an open door to talk to” former England Head Coach Brian Ashton, as well as other pro UK coaches.
So flipping what? That is nice on an occasional basis. He needs someone else, and I may not know who it is, but there’s a former USA hooker coaching rugby in Berkeley, Calif. who might be useful.
What he has to do now, is open up the doors of competition for places. There are some players who domestic coaches tout repeatedly, but Tolkin hasn’t invited to camp (this is a common occurrence on every US national team, by the way), but if money can be found in the budget, he needs to have this kind of assembly, perhaps where he runs trial matches between groups of 15 players throughout a week. Metrics are all well and good, but let’s see the guys play.
With the November matches looming and Uruguay looming even more come April 2014, there are some things to do.
I’ve talked a lot about long-term, but here’s the short-term:
1. Hire a new coaching staff, including: a forwards coach who knows how to handle cynical play in the breakdown, can cover the set pieces, and one who can give the forwards a real plan of attack when they are close to the tryline; an attack coach who has a modern, professional approach and experience.
2. Find a team liaison – a young person with a headset and a tablet (not a clipboard anymore) who will organize the players’ time off the training field, and will set up a series of community outreach appearances by Eagles wherever they are to engender good feelings and more fan support.
3. Create better competition for places, and not just by fielding a squad of not-quites in the ARC and, even when they go 0-3, capping a bunch of them. Get a group together to play in trials and get 80 or 100 players fighting for those spots.
4. Since Nigel Melville has officially washed his hands of anything to do with how this team performs, find someone who serves as a true HP mentor for Mike Tolkin – someone who is more available than “he knows my door is open.”
The USA Men’s National Team situation is not unlike that of 2002. In that year, the Eagles were coming off a strong game in the fall, and seemed to have their flyhalf situation settled. But some injury shakeups and a strange downward trend in their flyhalf’s confidence, along with frustrating turnovers and a predictable attack plan made for a lousy 2002. The Eagles failed to qualify for the World Cup, and were faced with a repechage in early 2003.
I wrote at the time, that the Eagles needed a better backs coach (the precursor to the now-dubbed Attack Coach). Then-Head Coach Tom Billups found Englishman Brett Taylor, who proved to be something of a visionary, as he understood that back play began at the breakdown.
The result? USA was 7-6 in 2003, setting a series of program bests, and over the next three years were 10-11, with eight of those losses to Tier I nations (the other three to Canada, who they beat three times as well), and scored 74 tries (3.5 a game).
I think that can be done again. I think we can make some key player changes, refocus the staff, and work on a better attack plan using the right guy.
It is completely possible to do this, and turn what has been a rough 0-7 season, into a golden period for the USA Men’s 15s National Team.
But we also know, in the end, Mike Tolkin is all alone in finding the solutions.