Three successive Eagle losses this August (Japan 20, US 14 - Canada 27, US 7 - Canada 28, US 22) brings Coach Eddie O’Sullivan’s 2011 won-lost record to 1-5 and his three year tally to 7 wins and 15 losses. It also sounds an alarm that the Eagles are not moving forward.
Eagle Coach Eddie O’Sullivan
O’Sullivan’s 7 career Eagle wins, it should be noted, came at the hands of the following less-than-top- rank teams:
Eddie O’Sullivan, as well as the handsomely-compensated and less than successful imported coaches (Scott Johnson 1-5, and Peter Thorburn 3-11) who preceded him, was hired by USA Rugby’s imported management to provide the coaching expertise that they’ve concluded US-born coaches are unable to deliver. It was felt that the expertise of these imported coaches would vault the US National Team ahead in the world rankings.
What may not be abundantly clear to our imported administrators and coaches is that at this point in its evolution, rugby in the US does not yet attract the country’s top athletes. Top American athletes - who play traditional US sports such as football, baseball, basketball and hockey - can earn college scholarships worth $160,000 over four years and the prospect of millions per year if they make it in the pros.
These are tremendous incentives for the best American athletes, and it is US rugby’s current inability to attract more of them - not the deficiencies of our US born coaches - that has slowed the progress of American rugby on the world scene.
Despite a won-lost record (7-15) that is far from what was expected, there’s been little or no criticism – here or elsewhere - of the job that $250,000 a year Eagle Coach, Eddie O’Sullivan, is doing. And if anyone feels that the poor results are due to a lack of team support, it should be mentioned that the 22 Eagle players who travelled to Japan were accompanied by a support staff of 14.
Cancellation of the National All Star Championship
One of the most disturbing occurrences during this new era of leadership has been the cancellation of the National All Star Championship (NASC). The NASC had been both a major National Championship and key element in the selection of the US National Team for 31 years (1977 through 2007).
Coach Eddie O’Sullivan’s home country of Ireland has an area of 27,133 square miles, while the United States, with 3,722,029 square miles, is 137 times larger. In a country the size of the US, it’s virtually impossible for coaches/selectors on limited budgets to see all of the country’s top Eagle prospects. The Eagle selection problem was successfully addressed back in 1977 when USA Rugby’s Board wisely created the National All Star Championship.
The NASC brought together, at player or TU expense, the top players from all Territorial Unions (4 TUs then, 7 TUs now) to a central location for a long-weekend that served as a combined National Championship and Eagle selection vehicle.
In order to prepare Territorial Union teams for the NASC, championships were conducted among the Local Area Unions comprising each TU. Once the best players in each of the seven TUs were identified as a result of on-field LAU competitions, the selected TU players were ensured the opportunity to play in the NASC before the National Selectors for the chance to play for the US
At the end of every long NASC weekend, every player from each TU had his day in the sun before the National Selectors.
The National All Star Championship served as our most important Eagle selection vehicle for 31 years. It was both a distinction and honor to play in the NASC, where the best players from every section of the country competed for Eagle status in a democratic, American manner.
With the cancellation of the NASC, this multi-faceted selection process stopped, a great championship was eliminated, and nothing has replaced it.
Concentration on the Super League
The Eagle selection process that Coach O’Sullivan now appears to follow, places a somewhat unwarranted value on players in the US Super League.
A laudatory creation developed independent of USA Rugby, the US Super League consists of ambitious clubs (my own included) from across the country that seek, at their own expense, to play at a higher level. Its noble intentions and efforts, however, do not ensure that the Super League has a corner on the best US players. Far from it.
In addition to the Eagles’ latest losses to Canada (2) and Japan, one event that triggered this discourse was seeing National Coach O’Sullivan in New York City (at dues payer expense) on April 30th to scout for Eagle talent as the Super League’s New York AC (season record 3-3) obliterated 0-6 Old Blue 51-15.
I couldn’t help thinking that if USA Rugby’s current leaders hadn’t cancelled the National All Star Championship, the best players from each of our seven Territorial Unions would have flown into Colorado Springs (or another venue), at their own or TU expense, to perform for O’Sullivan and selectors from each of the seven TUs.
In so doing, O’Sullivan could have:
* Evaluated all of the best players from our seven Territorial Unions, with the help of selectors from the 7 TUs.
* Saved the airfare and hotel costs involved in travelling to New York (as well as other SL cities) to watch two club teams perform and
* Silenced the many critics who find what passes for the current Eagle ‘selection system’ woefully inadequate.
Bringing back the NASC would certainly not guarantee international victories. It would however, ensure the players and the dues paying rugby public that all worthy candidates from all areas of the US were provided with the opportunity to perform.
American rugby is full of smart, capable, dedicated people. They created a national league and an all-star system that wasn’t perfect, but worked despite the obstacles. America has capable people who can coach, too – coaches who understand the value of giving all the players the opportunity to compete for a national team place. These coaches understand our rugby culture and would do it for a lot less money than our current Eagle coach is being paid.
Ed Hagerty is the former editor of Rugby Magazine.