Watching the USA Women at the Rugby World Cup last fall, Pete Steinberg witnessed the fatal flaw plaguing American national teams - inconsistency. The Eagles' performance against England reiterated his longheld notion that the Americans' technical skills under pressure needed reinforcement, and now he's in a position to engender change at the highest level.
"The challenge [for the USA] isn't so much about what we do well versus poorly; it's consistency," the new USA Women's head coach said. "We can play with England in pieces, for 10 or 15 minutes, then they score a couple of tries. The difference between England, New Zealand and the rest of the world is that they execute their skills under pressure. Look at the scrumhalf pass to the flyhalf, for example. That connection is always a good one [for England and New Zealand], but for the rest of the world, the execution isn't as good. They tend not to miss their tackles or passes; the rest of the world does. That's our biggest challenge."
Steinberg acknowledged that the bane of consistency is no different for him as it was for his predecessors, but he's excited to assume the Eagles head coaching position with a bank of ideas on how to leap the roadblocks of little time, money and resources. A "proud American citizen" for the last 16 years, the England-bred coach is very familiar with the American rugby landscape and has acknowledged success at every level of the game, from college to national teams, both men and women.
"How do you develop players out of assembly," Steinberg posed. "Typically, we have to teach players basic technical stuff at camps, but we need to get away from that and teach virtually so assemblies are more effective. I'm very much a skills-based coach and am looking forward to developing some skills programs alongside the strength and conditioning programs. It's a big push I'll have."
Steinberg's skill modules are a work in progress and will become more definitive after a high performance meeting on March 15, but the onus for success is put on the players. "The players will manage their own development, and we'll give them the tools to assess their skills," he said. "There's already the expectation that they're in the weight room and running several times per week, but now there will be the expectation that they're working on their skills several times per week. The players will have skills activities that they can do in groups of three or four, and in some cases, that means three or four Eagles working together; while others will have to incorporate it into practice or get a group of friends. But this is not a development process; we're not looking to give 18 year olds these skills. It's for current players."
Time is short as June camps and the Nations Cup loom ahead, but Steinberg is committed to laying the base of technical skills, so that assembly time can be spent on game strategy and tactics, and team unity. That focus will breed more confidence, and the consistency will follow. It's a balancing act trying to identify players during the development cycle, while also preparing for international test matches where the expectation to perform is paramount.
"I've coached internationally before and it's a stressful environment, but it's exciting," Steinberg said of the pressure to win. "Performance counts at test matches. You have to respect the records that come with it; the games are meaningful. It's an honor for a player to step onto the field and represent the USA, and to not field the best team out there isn't right. We have to go out there to win."
The balancing act of development and performance is stressful on the athlete as well, and it's why Steinberg's committed to clear channels of communication with the players. The selection process must be transparent to the athletes, especially considering the collaborative effort to align the senior and age grade 15s and 7s programs.
Elevating the American game at its highest level is a weighty undertaking, one that tempers excitement and possibility, but Steinberg is working diligently on solutions, and the USA is eager to gauge the outcomes.