My Aviva Premiership Rugby Weekend & a question to Eddie Jones 17

I had a very unique rugby experience this past New Year’s weekend in the UK.   Former USA Eagle Captain (famously selected as an American to Captain the esteemed Bath Rugby Club), Dan Lyle introduced me to several people at both Bath and Leicester prior to their home matches against Exeter and Saracens respectively on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.  I had little idea what to expect,  and simply hoped to get a seat under cover each day.  That said, I had no idea I’d be sitting/socializing with the top brass/Directors from each of the four clubs I would see play.  I quickly recognized it was time to take on the role of an ‘Ambassador’ for American Rugby.

After arriving at Bath on the Saturday afternoon and spending time with their Directors and several players, out we went to watch the match.  Watching the Aviva Premiership competition on NBCSN this year has been fantastic, and one of the things I look on w/ amazement is the commitment of England’s Head Coach, Eddie Jones – he attends at least two matches per weekend thru the entire competition, allowing him to witness his players (both current and future) in person to get that unique in-person perspective.   Sure enough, just as I sat down – who but Eddie Jones walks up the corridor approaching my aisle.  Shamelessly, I asked him for a picture and thought that would be the end of seeing him, and make for an entertaining picture for friends on social media.

My family spent a wonderful New Year’s Eve in Bath, and were up early the next day to travel back to London, and head up to Leicester for their match v. Saracens.  Arriving at Welford Road, we were greeted by the most hospitable staff I have ever met, and were directed up to the Director’s Lounge for a pre-game meal and some socializing.  Thanks once again to Mr. Lyle for setting up the entire arrangement.   I chuckled to myself as I saw none other than Eddie Jones nametag at Table 1 next to mine.

nametag

He would think I’m stalking him.  When he walked in, we caught eyes, and he came over and immediately introduced himself and inquired what an American was actually doing in both Bath and Leicester on back to back days.  We had a nice conversation, and I was very impressed with his humility and engaging personality – having thought slightly different of him watching only the seemingly controversial media interviews he’s done this year surrounding England’s new found dominance.

At the halftime break in the lounge, I caught up with him again and knowing I would never have another chance, and running out of time asked him the following question:

“Coach, in 30 seconds or less, could I get any thoughts on rugby in America”

After he left for the 2nd half, I whipped out my notebook and furiously wrote notes of our conversation.  Here they are:

notes

 

Jones Comments:

  1. Put your coaching emphasis on U/20’s. Anything after this is too late to develop World Class players.  Make the U/20 World Championship a huge priority. Get your top 20 colleges funded
  2. Throw away RWC 2019 and focus fiercely on 2023 breeding those players you forecast for 2023 very early.
  3. Utilize ALL American resources. So many athletes of world class caliber in America.  Even your 2nd team top level collegiate athletes could play international level rugby.  You must identify these guys early.  You have 3x what Japan has, yet they pushed you around in the scrum in the World Cup (I was fascinated he remembered an Eagle game 15 months ago like it was yesterday).
  4. Very impressed with that young, long red haired bloke, the HP director. Bright guy.   (I confirmed he was speaking of Alex Magelby
  5. USA Coach MUST live in USA for obvious reasons. An absolute necessity. 
  6. Must overcome geography issues and get your top players competing against each other
  7. Create a big picture overarching plan, and EXECUTE.

As he walked off, I literally couldn’t believe he uttered those words literally in less than two minutes.

My Assessment of Eddie Jones Comments

U/20’s

He makes a convincing point that our top coaches should not necessarily be focused on the ‘adult’ game, but move a notch younger to that of U/20’s.   He was clear – Make the U/20 World Championship a huge priority, go win the trophy.  He was clear you could take players of American athlete caliber and create international success in several years – only if developed as early as possible.  His comment about ‘get your top 20 colleges funded’ interests me, but I thought it profound coming from this man.

Salty Thompson

I’ll acknowledge some huge successes in the U/20 space in the USA this week.  First, all reports are that Salty Thompson and his crew did a phenomenal job wrapping up last week’s High School All-American Assembly (160 kids), on the same week his best varsity players were facing Canada’s U/19’s – a match won by the USA!!   Salty’s work over the years has been nothing short of tireless for two decades, and the older generation should smile at the photo below – indicating how far the game has actually come in the country in terms of numbers and parochial organization.

We’ve seen the traditional University program’s do their thing and continue to grow, but it’s exciting to see some top flight collegiate programs that are emerging (i.e., Grand Canyon University and Kevin Battle’s Santa Barbara Rugby Academy, associated with the City College.  Nemani Delaibatiki is also doing great stuff w/ Life West College.  I didn’t know that place existed!

Dan Payne

I’d like to note that the High School camp was attended by USAR CEO Dan Payne.  What a great commitment he is showing to the job.  As a father who spends too much time away from his family, we should all recognize the travel Dan does is a true sacrifice. Great stuff from a committed leader. He deserves to work with “A Players” at every level of his dealings.

15871816_10210101132462532_3280136689308464954_n

The Plan

I’ve always thought we need an 8-10 year plan.  However, it has to actually start sometime…we are only 15 months removed from RWC 2015 and from my seat, very little has been accomplished to attempt to create sustainable success at the world level.  We still have no overarching Strategic Plan, have created an embarrassment of biblical proportions for American rugby with the PRO Rugby debacle, and have completely underperformed at the international level, having set a World Rugby record for ‘ranking differential’ in our loss to Brazil (and subsequently Uruguay) early in 2016.   All the hard work our rugby community is putting in is diluted in the absence of an overriding aligned direction of the rugby community.

Alex Magelby

I was delighted Jones holds USAR’s High Performance Director in such high regard.

USA Rugby Head Coach MUST live in the USA

Part of this conversation consisted of my praise for him and his commitment to spending time with each and every one of his players, witnessing them in person as often as possible.  I mentioned the USA coach resides in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa and flies in for camps/competitions, etc…  He then made his comment about our coach MUST reside in the USA, a comment that I have echoed in several previous articles.

Coincidentally, Saracens and England hooker Jamie George was interviewed in Jan 2 edition of The Guardian.  Here is an excerpt:

Do (Coach Eddie) Jones and (England forwards coach) Borthwick keep in touch with him outside of international matches?

Here is Jamie’s reply:  “You get texts here and there but in camp they talk about games you played four weeks ago. So you know they’re always watching and you want to impress them every week.”

This is an England international, with good chances to visit New Zealand this summer with the British Lions, talking about how he (and other players) raise their level when the coaches are in the stands at their local games.  For me, this should be a mandatory function of the USA Head Coach…always helping to assist the growth and culture of the game in the USA.

Top Tier Competition:

Perhaps my largest point of contention regarding top level rugby in America is the fact we have no top tier competition for our players to compete week in/week out against each other.  In a previous article, I noted that all 23 players selected to play Romania this fall for the USA came from different teams/organizations (with minor exception for the USA 7’s players).  The matches I witnessed this weekend offered 10 capped players competing with/against each other on the field in each game.  It is no wonder that Tier 1 keeps getting better and the USA continues to fall behind.

His comments about geography are well noted, and this was echoed in a big way by the Bath M.D. Tarquin MacDonald who perhaps said it best… “In the USA, you are a continent, not a country!”.  This is certainly an issue, but must be one that our Board and CEO can work together to create the space for such a top tier competition.

team

Leicester v. Saracens.  Note the number of international players competing against each other (every week!)

 

Rugby Knowledge at the Board level

Jones’s final comment about ‘create a plan, and execute’ is one that is the essence of all my writing to date since RWC 2015.   To this end, we need ‘rugby minds’ on the Board level, to work closely with CEO Dan Payne and get USA Rugby at least starting with a unified, and aligned vision.   My conversation with former Leicester and British Lion, Rory Underwood (now a 9 year Director at Leicester) generated the same result.  At the embryonic stage of our Union’s structure, he completely complemented Jones thoughts on the unique requirements of ‘rugby knowledge’ and all the other qualities a Director must have on a Rugby Board.

Plan and Execute

This falls on Congress. Failure to exercise the Bylaws related to the removal of non-performing Directors is no longer acceptable. While the opportunity has been squandered by previous (and several current) Directors, the Congress must be active and more faithful in its role as representatives of the members

Ambassador

I used the word ‘ambassador’ above.  I really felt that way.  It was fantastic to experience the pinnacles of European Club Rugby and get a vision of what we could aspire to in this country.  I believe it can happen.  There are many who do not.  It will take huge leadership and courage on behalf of the CEO and Board at USAR.  It will take holding people to account on performance metrics… big time professional stuff.  Key word: Professional.  At every level.  I would recommend that each USA Rugby Board member embark on a trip like this to enhance the rugby knowledge we desperately need at that level.  Every Board member should act as an ambassador for USA Rugby.  My thoughts are well documented on the grade I would give our current members.

Thanks again Dan Lyle for creating the opportunity for this epic once in a lifetime experience.

ed

Meeting Eddie Jones 2nd day in a row.  This time at Leicester, and so delighted to experience this with my son, Harrison.

A final note on my Leicester experience:

While the experience at Bath was incredible for an entirely different reason, I want to acknowledge the incredible passion and pride present throughout everything that occurs at Leicester Rugby Club.  From the moment we walked in to the beautiful lobby with a trophy case that any team could be proud of, the level of service was nothing short of world class.  Every person made my family feel like we were the most important people at the match.  Other guests commented the same to each other.

I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.  Thomas Jefferson

Other Articles I’ve written on these topics:

  1. USAR Board of Directors: No Plan for 10 years, No Accountability.  Time to go! 
  2. PRO Rugby and the Melville/Latham Legacy. It’s not good. USAR Board of Directors needs the Swamp drained.
  3. Romania 23 – USA Eagles 10. The real reason Romania won; Top Tier Competition, Strategic Plan.

 

17 comments

  1. Tony,
    Eddie knew about the USA vs Japan match 15 months ago because he was part of the Japan coaching staff at the time.

  2. I think a solid model to be investigated in regards to top tier competition in the US is the National Rugby Championship in Australia. A competition that has very similar obstacles to that of the US in terms of limited funds and the need to cover long distances in order to compete.

  3. Just on the NRC. The operating costs including all travel, accommodation (when necessary), medical, insurance etc are $1.8m a season.

    On top of that, each franchise has an operating budget of $300,000 a season in which to pay talent and coaching etc. In total that comes to $4.2m for each season.

    The regular season runs for 8 weeks followed by two weeks of finals.

    Again, a pretty solid template to start.

    The biggest question is finding the funding for the structure. As you suggest you could leverage Canada in terms of more teams and reduce the commitment from say 8 teams to six. Play in conferences to reduce overall travel and keep it compact as possible. Ideally it Canada would use their CRC squads.

  4. Totally agree on the U20 and below focus. The college level I think is a keystone. The vast majority of kids will never make the national team, but if there was a carrot of a scholarship to go to university to play rugby, that would appeal to lot of high schoolers or middle schoolers that ride the bench in their football program (or baseball, basketball, soccer, wrestling or any other NCAA sport) to switch and give rugby a try.
    Also agree with Australia analogy – they don’t have an amateur level of club Rugby trying to crisscross the country for a national championship, they leave it regional, and fund the (semi) pro level to pay the travel costs.

  5. Tony,

    Our 33rd annual Kick Off Tournament is coming up Jan 21-22 in Rancho Cordova ,Calif.

    We will have 100 plus teams playing rugby ages 8-18, boys and girls.

    We put out a 40 page glossy souvenir program with team pictures and stories which we give out FREE to all attendees.

    Would you like to write up a game plan for US rugby or something to encourage parents and players to stick with the sport and improve their education and skills, etc.

    If so, I would need it by Monday, Jan 9. I will send a copy of last years program to give you some insight.

    Past articles are also welcome.

    Appreciate all your doing for rugby.

    Cheers,

    Jerry Ahlin

    cell 916-804-4332

    ASI 170251

    President Sacramento Valley Rugby Foundation http://WWW.SVRF.Org

    _____

  6. What a once in a lifetime opportunitty you had!! Happy for you and thanks for the great summary and comments you made. Hope someone up in the rugby US community will take the time to red them, proccess and as you suggested, EXECUTE all or at least some of them. I’m jealous…

  7. Sounds like a fantastic trip on both rugby fact-finding and enjoyment fronts.

    As to the specifics of Mr Jones feedback, the embarrassment of point 3 cannot be overstated. The Eagles are routinely beaten, pushed back and humiliated in the scrum. We have lost multiple games in this fashion over the past two years.

    I’ve played on teams where the scrum was poor. The good coaches recognized the issue and changed their coaching to try and fix the problem. The great coaches found the best scrummager they could find and gave him free rein. If your own crappy ways aren’t working, try something else.

    At the High Performance level, we’ve tried bringing in different coaches to address this issue with varying levels of success. Justin Fitzpatrick had some success. But this can’t be fixed by a single coach. The country as a whole has to raise its standards when it comes to the set-piece.

    Despite this being a perpetual issue for the Eagles, we’ve had very little investment or even strategy in developing this highly technical and dangerous aspect of the game.

    Ideally USA Rugby would recognize the deficiency and come up with a programmatic solution that can scale to high school, college and club players. Geographic Area Union clinics with technical staff to teach our young tight fives would be fantastic.

    Unfortunately, per usual, the above will be likely be left to clubs and grassroots admins. The efforts will be uneven and not particularly effective.

    In six months, we play Georgia–one of the best in the word in this department. Very little can be done right now to change the fundamentals of this match-up. But I’d hope someone in Boulder would publically acknowledge the issue and come up with… anything! as a response to it.

  8. Nice write-up, Tony. Sounds like a special weekend!

    I’m curious – as someone who was very critical of the Eagles results from RWC 2015, what’s your take on Coach Jones suggesting USAR should ‘throw away’ the 2019 tournament?

    • Alex, thanks for taking the time to read/comment. Much appreciated. It’s a good question, right? I didn’t go over to UK expecting to have this conversation, but it showed me the commitment level and literal ‘bravery’ (as mentioned in my post today) to get ‘from here to there’. If we decide that taking our foot off the gas for 2019 – and we actually do something that will be hugely beneficial in the long term, then I am all for it. However, with no plan.. we are just day to day. It is clear, there is no way to success thru organic (let’s try it the way we’ve been doing it, only harder) methods. It’s going to take vision and leadership.

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