A Few Thoughts on USA Rugby (and some recommendations) 10

I wrote this post prior to the USA v. Japan match tonight at RWC2015.  The USA lost another very winnable game. I believe our issues are systemic in a big way. Here is the way the Pool table ended…

Pool B results -20151011-075556

11/11/2015. I have committed to not eating today – so when USA Rugby wins tonight I can eat my words from last night. And I will, with delight. However; win or lose this evening – it doesn’t change the premise of the discussion.

Ok, so clearly I stirred up a bit of a wasp’s nest with my post last night. I want to make something very clear – I am not posing complaints at any one individual. I am raising some issues that we (yes, the collective “we” who have a true passion for rugby in the USA) must resolve for fear that the ‘definition of insanity’ will rule, and we will just continue with the same old story, same old results. I am also not criticizing any one individual, nor the commitment of any one individual.

We have some marvelous personal stories on this team (the Mike Petri story is a great one; family man, school teacher, professional rugby player – and author of one of the best children’s books I have been able to share w/ my 6 year old Harrison). We also have some undisputed world class players. Manu Samoa for sure, Blaine Scully has great potential in the back 3, and for my money Danny Barrett has the potential to be one of the top players in the world. That boy plays with some fire in his belly. But even Danny would tell you (or should) he has work to do on his individual skills (i.e. shifting the ball w/ both hands in both directions at pace) until the distinction of ‘world class’ gets bestowed on him. I also am a huge fan of AJ MacGinty who has improved in every international he has played and gives the US a world class goal kicker and some confidence at the vital #10 position.

So, some people have requested some ‘answers’ or ‘solutions’. According to one response I received from a person inside the USA camp – my blog was “BS” and he was embarrassed for me. I hope he is not as embarrassed as I was last Wednesday night being peppered by every person I met with a non-American accent asking ‘what has happened to USA Rugby?’ I don’t think anything what I said was BS – it’s a fact, our hookers at this level have displayed an inability to put the ball consistently in the lineout and numerous of our players have difficulty moving the ball when running at pace. These are rugby skills at the most basic level that can be attained through work and practice. We have not displayed them. It’s not really up for discussion in my opinion.

Rugby 7’s: Some people responded about our 7’s program. I am as delighted as anyone about our 7’s success, and spent the better part of Thursday watching the replay of the Twickenham 7’s. That was a truly incredible performance. It’s one thing to beat a top level team. It’s another thing to do it 6 or 7 times in one weekend. As many people, I have high expectations for our team to medal in Rio next year – but let’s be realistic, discussions about 7’s and the Rugby World Cup (15’s) are two completely separate and mutually exclusive discussions. We have a few crossover players (see Barrett, Zach Test, Andrew Duratolo) but these are literally two different sports that just happen to have the same laws/rules. Winning the gold in Rio will not gain the USA any modicum of respect on the World Rugby 15’s stage. I will be there however, wearing Red, White and Blue as I do for every test I attend of the Eagles in the 15 man code.

So, some suggestions for answers…There is too much to discuss in any one post – but a few thoughts.

First, my club mate (and a top rugby man Kevin Flynn) suggested we must create a ‘club culture’ in this country. This is absolutely true, but how to do it?

The USA Rugby Union is undoubtedly the most ‘geographically challenged’ Union in the world. Our top teams are 3,000 miles apart. The development of a club rugby culture in the USA is possible (and only with the hard work of some very hard working individuals at the club level. Thank-you guys like Flynny, and Chris Prentice for doing some great stuff in Seattle), but with this geography we can never develop the LEVEL OF COMPETITION at the club level (purely from a financial, time, and resources perspective) that will help us at the national level.

It’s one thing to make a mistake (like not throwing a ball in straight, missing touch with a kick, etc…) at the high school or club level – you do not get “punished’ by the other team. At the international level it is another thing all together. You miss a kick to touch, infringe on a ruck within your half, or give a scrum unnecessarily from a wayward lineout against the likes of OZ, NZ, RSA and you are down 3 points minimum, and more likely 5 or 7 from a try and a conversion. We must create competition where mistakes are literally punished. Every. Single. Time! I would start by doing it on the training ground at every level for every dropped ball. Even at the top club level in the USA, and thankfully I can list Seattle Saracens in this group – I don’t get the feeling we punish our mistakes. I am a huge advocate of this. A rugby match is a collective effort of thousands of individual decisions by players that support the collective team good. Our players are just not put in position at any level short of international matches to be forced to make the proper decision, every time. It’s all about “the level”. So how do we create this ‘high level’?

The only other major rugby playing nation the size of the USA is Australia, and possibly Argentina. Rugby wise – the difference is that in OZ there used to be 2 rugby hotbeds; Sydney and Brisbane. If you wanted to play for the Wallabies – you played in either of these two cities. Now, with the growth of Super XV rugby – there are 5 teams from each country, so now Aussie has Perth, Canberra, and Melbourne in the mix. I am not 100% sure on this, but I have to think that the majority of the top players learn their rugby either in New South Wales (Sydney) or Queensland (Brisbane), and are moved to the other cities to play professionally. The other major rugby playing nations (NZ, England, eg…) could call a national team practice in the morning and every player could make it from anywhere in the country for an afternoon session. That is a bit exaggerated, but I hope the point is well made. This is no ‘excuse’, but a disadvantage we must work to overcome by making major changes in our structure.

I have always enjoyed the famous saying, “those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it”. In the USA, we used to have a competition called the “ITTs” – the Interterritorials. There were 4 unions; East, Midwest, West, Pacific. 3 games in 3 days (again, no ‘complaints’ – and remember there were no substitutes in those days and 21 players dressed, not 23 like today). I recall my own pride and I know that of my Pacific Coast teammates share it that winning the ITT’s was a source of huge joy. I don’t think it has ever been written, and rarely discussed – but I know for a fact that many people felt that players played harder for their territories than they did for the national team. We felt closer to each other because we played against each other week in and week out. Then when we came together as a territorial team, we would play so hard for each other to earn each other’s respect. It was extremely difficult when the USA team was selected to create this passion – not for representing this country, but within the team – all teammates (and I mean every person) earning the mutual respect of their teammates. No one knew how hard each other worked ‘off the field’ to gain that credibility off the field that made you want to die for each other on it. Ask players from my generation, a huge majority – particularly from the East and Pacific Coast; would tell you they felt their territorial teams would beat the USA National team. And, as I recall that happened on numerous occasions when those games were staged. Rugby can be won and lost by the commitment and passion shown by 15 men on the field between themselves. This passion can only be earned by mutual respect between players. Create the culture.

In the late 1980’s, Canada created a policy that all players aspiring to play for the Maple Leafs must play in the Vancouver Rugby Union. I can tell you from personal experience that was the highest club level rugby North American has ever seen. And guess what happened – Canada made the quarterfinals in 1991! Coincidence? I think not.

It’s too expensive and too resource/logistic intensive to ask clubs to fly across the country to play each other, plus the level of competition is not high enough. We either MUST ask any players with national team aspirations to come and live in geographical centers that are the hubs for territories (i.e. New York for the East, Chicago for the Midwest, etc..) and then create a level of competition amongst these hubs. I would highly recommend that we engage Canada (they could have British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario for example) and then have a 7 team competition home and away (that gets us 12 high level games) where teammates all know and ‘love’ each other and commit to one another.

People might ask, well what about a player in Florida who doesn’t want to move to New York. I say tough beans… the fact is that there is not enough of a difference in our players between those who don’t want to commit to move to a geographical hub and those who do. This is not about the ‘individual player’, this is about the collective betterment of quality rugby throughout the hubs. It is about increasing the level of competition at the highest level.

Each hub city (i.e., territory) should create and find the money to create a ‘home’ for their territorial union. Perhaps we try and engage the MSL clubs and their new smaller stadium model. The international events put on in Houston (thank-you John Connelly) have been nothing short of fantastic and we could try and recreate this for our local competitions. And, we should market the hell out of it. It is just sick to me for all the rugby lovers in this country we get 4,000-5,000 to our national team games. Again no one individuals fault, we just don’t have a functional system in place to create a culture in communities if we keep moving it every match. This is where some money should be spent. This way we can create say 4 rugby hubs in the USA – and guys who don’t get the cities they want (i.e., if you don’t live in NY or Chicago as I have suggested) tough sh*t. Again, this is about the betterment of rugby at the national/international level, not appeasing to the whims or desires of any one individual. It is pointless to re-invent the wheel with each international; i.e. one in Sacramento, one in Charlotte, one in San Jose, etc.… We should build a base of fan support at each hub. Keep the same places to play. Then, when there is an international we can host at one of the four hubs… and the events will be so much better; both for the players and the spectators. This is a ‘culture’ we can create, and we must create – or we are bound to repeat our failures. Then, and only then will we start to attract those great athletes we have in this country that we all talk about (i.e. football players that will not make it to the NFL). At this time I also want to say thanks and congratulations to all those people who spend their own free time to develop rugby at the school level. Like in Soccer from the 1980’s and ‘90’s, this feeder system into our colleges/clubs can only help to raise the level in this country. Thanks to all of you!

After creating some territorial culture and price, perhaps we create a ‘home’ for USA Rugby… or four homes as the case may be (NY, Chi, SFO/SD, and Houston?) where the local populace can come to expect a great event with safe, fun, friendly atmosphere’s that are world class events; not games attended by two cats, a dog, and WAG’s (wives and girlfriends – I just learned this phrase and had to use it!). Canada could do the same thing with their three territorial unions. It would be amazing. Imagine 5,000 people or more at a territorial event… it can happen. We need some business people involved to market this concept. Then, when corporations with sponsorship money see several thousand people in the stands and more importantly the selfless commitment it will take to put this program in place – we will start to see some real sponsorship dollars. See Microsoft, Dow Chemical, etc…

We tried the NA4 competition years ago (two teams each from Canada and USA). The problem here is these teams are thrown together at the last minute, a couple of practices and the players barely know each other as they take the field. A few simple plays to call and off they go to play. This is good for the individual (playing against bigger, faster, fitter players), but does nothing for the collective needs of the team and does even less to assist at the international level. It probably even hurts.

I love that we have many players overseas, learning the game and bettering themselves individually. This should continue to be encouraged (not only because it’s a great personal life experience for the man), but lets figure out a way to incorporate these guys into the ‘hub’ concept I mentioned above so they can share their talent and continually raise the levels of other in our new found competition. Maybe we work our calendar to allow this to happen and bring back players from Europe for months at a time.

A few other thoughts… There are only a few top level American coaches. Real coaches who know the game, study the game – but also know how to push, motivate and LEAD their teams. Get these guys back involved. We know who they are (Jack Clark, Tom Billuips, Tim OB to name a few on the West coast). If we want to invest some money, let’s invest in international coaches to ‘train the trainer’ i.e. assist in training our coaches at this territorial level. Then we create competition amongst coaches to get better and constantly be challenged and improved. If we get some money from IRB/NBC, let’s spend a portion of it here on coaching coaches. At the same time create the territorial infrastructure hub for these coaches to succeed with players and events that are top class. No more ‘two cats and a dog’ attendance. I do think the Eagles coach should be American. But I have no issue with foreign ‘technical directors’. Look what Eddy Jones did this year for Japan. I understand he spent the better part of a year traveling to learn leadership, motivation, training, etc… techniques from leaders all over the world. Not just rugby guys, but world class teams in whatever their field (Soccer, business, etc.…). How about we have some partnership like the ATAVUS (fka SEREVI) group has made with the likes of the Seattle Seahawks, “The” (lol) Ohio State University, and the University of Washington football programs. Our ‘amateur’ view of rugby performance could take some teaching from those world class best practices in their fields… These are the resources we have in the USA. Let’s use them. What American would turn down a reasonable request from a national USA union who is trying to compete on the world stage to get some help with their ‘best practices’ whether it be basketball, football or whatever.

Some people commented on the coach, Mike Tolkin. Look, it doesn’t really matter who the coach is at this point. We have an ‘infrastructure’ that by its very composition creates an extremely difficult scenario for success. However, I am not quite sure how a person with 15 years as HS coach, and 3 seasons at a senior men’s club can possibly compete on the world stage. This is not his fault, there is no doubt that Mike is doing all he can with what he’s been given. I wonder where the person is in this country that can create the mayhem that a guy like Herb Brooks did w/ USA Hockey in 1980 (see “Miracle on Ice”). He was not a popular man, but clearly did what it took to get his team performing on the highest stage.

One of the things I noticed at the international level, and a point rarely discussed is quality refereeing. It is a massive problem. Maybe the same referee program should be put in place as I suggest for the coaching. If referees/coaches don’t want to move to the hubs… then we can find someone else… there is no person in the USA right now that is ‘indispensable’, so let’s make it about the collective, not the individual.

A lot of people replied to my post last night about ‘changes at the USAR level’. I don’t know enough to comment about the success/failure of Nigel Melville, Robert Latham and their group. Again, like the players on the field and the coaches, these administrators must be pushed and at some level be trained in ‘best practices’ of administering rugby. I just hope they are discussing some of the issues that must be discussed to get out of our ‘insanity’ rut.

I’ll be screaming for the USA tonight… hungry, and hoping I get to eat my words from last night’s post.

10 comments

  1. Pingback: #RWC2015 Bye Bye Miss American Pie – My Post Match/Tournament RWC 2015 Interview aka “I want what those guys are smoking”. Leadership, Rugby Style « Tony Ridnell

  2. The idea of territorial hubs is a good one, but if you start out with only 4 hubs or only 4 regions, you will not solve the logistical problems created by geography. I’d say start with 8 regions centered in cities within those regions that make travel to and from relatively easy. Once that 8-hub system gains some steam, you may later decide to further reduce it to a 4-hub system if, for some reason, that is necessary – – but starting out with only 4 will exclude too many clubs and players. It’s better to build support for the concept before you make it too difficult and expensive for the number of clubs and players who would be located far from any hub in a 4-hub system.

    • Tyler, thanks for taking the time to read my stuff and comment. My ideas are only mine, and I am wide open for change. Any change. Do we have the talent to support 8 regions? That’s why I thought to try and include Canada. I just don’t want to water down the level of competition – that is the key. Consistent, hard competition. 4, 6, 8 – it could grow there for sure… and I would be wiling to start there as long as the competition is high and razor sharp. I like your idea. Thanks for sharing. I will incorporate that into my future thinking.

      • I agree that some of the 8 regions may end up being weaker than others, but that stems from having less organization in some geographical areas, not because of any lack of available talent (if we could get the word out to those great athletes not going into the NFL or NBA). Having a regional hub relatively nearby helps generate interest, and will help recruiting efforts to get more of those athletes involved – – and inter-region tournaments will help elevate the play of the weaker regions. It was my experience when I played (decades ago), and has been my observation since then, that playing with and against players who are playing at a higher level, raises the level of a player. I think that is more true with rugby than with any other sport. One of my early coaches used to always tell us that rugby is a game of mistakes. The team that makes the fewest mistakes, usually wins (unless there is a gross mismatch of talent and skill). That goes to your point of the need to be punished for our mistakes – – playing against a superior side will definitely punish you for you mistakes, and if you have a superior player on your side who recognizes the cause (the mistake) and the effect (the punishment), then he can point it out to you, and help you understand how not to repeat it – – and he can do that while the match is still ongoing, while it’s still fresh in your mind (while you can still feel the pain). That is a great learning experience. It also helps you to learn not only to minimize your mistakes, but to maximize your opponent’s opportunities to make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, so let’s give our opponent every opportunity we can to make a mistake. I have coached numerous sports over the years, and have successfully applied that philosophy.

        Once some parity among the various regions comes about, you may be able to reduce the number of hubs if that would help in the selection process and team training..

  3. I have played, coached, referees and administrated rugby for 40’years. Played overseas, coached a national champion and was the founding father of 4 clubs.

    USA rugby is in a shambles. Our performance at RWC was embarrassing. A giant step backwards for the sport in country.

    IMHO the problem is player development. We have more registered players in this country than all but 10 countries in the world. Plenty of great athletes who would love to play at a high level but can’t because of the nature of “select” sides and the “good old boys” network of getting favorite sons in teams leaving the good players behind .

    I could go on for hours ( and have at times) if you need help spreading the word – let me know

    • Mr. Graham,, thanks for reading and taking the time to reply. IMHO player development is simply ‘playing at a high level on a consistent basis’. I mean high level, not local club garbage. We are on the same track… And, thank-you for being a pioneer in USA Rugby. We wouldn’t be here without guys like you.

  4. Some good ideas, the hub idea I like. Going forward with it, start with four. Players in four locations are easier to move around as needed than our present system. If we are eventually blessed to the point of having excess quality players, then expand. But let’s start somewhere.

    Tony, please keep posting on Linkedin, just be aware of their very strong non-promotion policy. It would be nice to have an American with first hand international experience. Plus, they’re great bunch.

    • Hi Rich, thanks for taking the time to read, and provide input. My hub system is pretty much what will be presented in the ProLeague announcement. This is a very good thing. However, I am skeptical that at the level we need to raise the standard of on the field (and off the field presentation) I hope they are addressing it, just not throwing money at it.

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