First, well played Romania! They came to play, looked significantly more focused after the whistle, and beat the Eagles handily. Romania should be delighted. There’s a chance the USA Eagles could have won yesterday. We could have dropped fewer balls, not kicked off directly to touch, won a crucial scrum or two. Yesterday’s Test was a perfect chance to measure our place among the minnows with the USA world ranking at #16, and Romania at #17. Certainly a cause for interest in the match.
Romania clearly was ready for the match; the $300 razor haircut on the great #12, Florin Vlaicu and several other Romanian players was evidence. And, they played well. The score was 15-0 in as many minutes to the Europeans before any discussion could be had any technical aspect of play. A disappointing 23-10 loss ensued. Realistically, the USA had to play ‘catch up’ the entire time and were never in it. I didn’t like the demeanor with which we carried ourselves around the referee, and clearly there is some sort of breakdown between Coach Mitchell’s tactics/strategy and the players execution/attitude. No one should be happy with this performance.
Coach Mitchell is paid a ferocious sum considering USAR’s budget. This compensation is well deserved based on his resume (it had me at ‘All Blacks Head Coach’). I believe he is paid for approximately 16 weeks of work and has little/no obligation to travel throughout the country as we see the likes of Eddie Jones doing in England on every weekend on their national media. The team has certainly never ‘over delivered’ in any the matches in the Mitchell era, in any of the wins or losses. I like Mitchell’s interviews; very strategic, long term, and great sound bites – but looking deeper, this team is not coming out prepared to play. The results show it. For me, the only problem with Mitchell’s interviews is that they are often shown from his home in Pietermaritzburg, RSA when I’d like to see him on the sidelines at our local USA Championships.
Hope, with no Expectations
I am optimistic for this team, I will be this Saturday when we take on Tonga. I am optimistic for the John Mitchell era, this is a perfect landing place for him to show what he can do with out a could of dust over his head. It should be a great fit. And, It’s time to start holding our results to account. A Seattle Saracens Women’s player described watching the Eagles perfectly. She said, “I have hope, but no expectations”.
However, the reason Romania beat the USA yesterday had little to do with coaching, skills, or tactics. It has to do with the systems and structure that the Romanian Rugby administration has put in place.
Take a look at the team sheets for the match…
In the 23 for Romania, no less than 12 play for the same club! The Timisoara Saracens. The USA 23 consisted of no two players coming from the same side. Three came from ‘USA 7’s’, but this is a completely different track. Note the similar logo to the Saracens of London. Timisoara is clearly the Saracens Romanian link to the London club, just as the Seattle Saracens are the link from the USA.
So, the individuals coming together as ‘The Eagles’ played a battle hardened group, the core of whom (including the Captain) come from one top semi-professional club that plays in the domestic Romanian competition. This club is also able to participate in various cup and challenge competitions, and as the Romanian champion is able to participate in the European Rugby Challenge Cup. Their pool partners this year are the likes of Harlequins (London), Edinburgh, and Stade Francais Paris.
The Romanian’s have a comprehensive domestic top-tier competition, and with only 8,000 registered rugby players in the entire country! Their top club is loaded with a significant percentage of their national players and this core group gets to play 25-30 times/year together.
Contrast to the Eagles, 23 players literally coming from 23 different clubs. The USA has over 150,000 registered players and our national team was beaten by a country with 15x fewer players.
The Timisoara Saracens results are commensurate with what we could expect in the Challenge Cup. Two resounding losses, but my thought is that ‘they are in the arena’. They are in the competition. They are playing Harlequins and Stade as a unit that will ultimately provide the nucleus of their Romanian national team. And, this is the underlying reason the Eagles would lose to Romania 7 or 8 out of 10 times, they are hardened as a team. We are thrown together.
The Bottom Line: USA vs. Romania
As a rugby playing nation, the USA is bigger. Romania is better. Their structure is admirable… look what they do with so few players. There is nothing fancy to this…USA Rugby – get a strategic plan addressing our top-tier, professional/semi professional competition. Keep it clean, and easy to explain. Utilize the Canadians! What a resource for competition. We can monetize this! Demand excellence from everyone, on the field, off the field, and in the Boardroom. Find Board members that can think about rugby globally and locally, and actually love the sport.
By the way, I had the opportunity to play in the USA Eagles first test ever against Romania. The match took place in Moscow, USSR in 1988. If World Rankings existed back then, our resounding victory would have been considered an upset. I recall beating up on them pretty good, but the score was not representative of our dominance. Some great players on the field that day; Brian Vizard, Kevin Swords, Shawn Lipman, Mike Saunders, Chris O’Brien, Kevin Higgins, Gary Hein, Pat Billy Fetch Johnson, Barry Williams Tofeanu, Mark Williams, to name a few…
There has not been progress. Lets call it for what it is. Now, let’s do something about it. Strategic Plan, Top Tier Competition. Monetize it.