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USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville was of the opinion in late 2008 that there were no USA-based coaches who could just step into the Eagle head coaching job. Several had the capability to be the Eagles coach eventually, Melville reasoned, but not in the spring of 2009.
So the USA needed an experienced guy, ideally one who had experience in America, and whose high profile might attract sponsor attention. That was Eddie O’Sullivan.
Immediately, it seemed, O’Sullivan made an impact. He didn’t bristle (much) at being handed his group of assistant coaches, and in fact kept almost all of them throughout his tenure. He made several personnel changes on the field, but didn’t engage in the blind shots in the dark that other coaches had tried. He opened up the door for the players’ own passion and patriotism to show through, and the performances reflected that.
This is what happened in 2009:
Ireland 27 USA 10 in San Jose
The Eagles’ first outing under O’Sullivan and it was a solid one. The Eagles weren’t out of the game at all and deserved the try they scored.
Wales 48 USA 15 in Chicago
This was a little tougher game, but played against a team that had more of its top players than Ireland had. The USA scored two tries in this match.
Argentina Jaguars 35 USA 14 in Glendale
England 56 USA 17 in Glendale
USA 31 Georgia 13 in Chicago
The Churchill Cup was the first time O’Sullivan played a less-than-best team, as he did against the Jaguars, to rest his players. The team actually looked good against the Saxons, and deserved the score to be closer. They looked impressive moving the ball against Georgia.
USA 12 Canada 6 in Charleston
The importance of this game is easy to overlook. It was the first USA victory over Canada since 2005. During that time, the Eagles had lost 33-18, 56-7, 52-10 and 26-10. In that last match, Scott Johnson had publicly said his team wasn’t fit enough to play test rugby – a comment that rankled some.
Playing on July 4th, the Eagles were clearly the better team, and while they failed to score a try (a foreshadowing of things to come) they played with enormous heart.
Canada 41 USA 18 in Edmonton
This was the return leg of the World Cup Qualifier series. The recording for the USA National Anthem failed, and threw the team into a bit of a funk early. A disastrous first half, pockmarked with missed tackles, dropped balls, and Paul Emerick’s red card, put the Eagles 24-0 in the hole.
Despite being a man down during the entire second half, the Eagles outscored Canada 18-17 and lost the series.
USA 27 Uruguay 22 in Montevideo
This was not the best USA performance. They led the game by a comfortable margin, but let their foot off the gas late, allowing Los Teros to make a game of it.
USA 27 Uruguay 6 in Fort Lauderdale
The Eagles confirmed qualification to the 2011 World Cup with a fairly strong performance on Eddie O’Sullivan’s birthday.
This marked the heyday of the O’Sullivan time. He had turned the program around at this point – logging two competitive losses to Tier 1 nations, and beating Canada for the first time in four years. He had given a shot to some young players Johnson didn’t care for – Kevin Swiryn, Scott LaValla, Chris Biller, Colin Hawley – and for the most part his player decisions had panned out.
The USA was 4-5 in 2009 and had qualified for the World Cup. How could you not feel think the Eagles were finally on their way?
Having qualified for the World Cup, O’Sullivan knew he had to have a look at some other players and build the core of the 2011 RWC. In making this decision – instead of concentrating on a core of players who were clearly New Zealand-bound – he put himself in a dangerous spiral.
The success of 2009 was built around the Eagles refusing to lose no matter what the odds. The 2010 Eagles didn’t get the same message from the coach, mostly because he coached like a student who had months to write a term paper, and ends up putting it off until the week before.
O’Sullivan coached as if he had lots of time to experiment with combinations, ideas, and approaches, and in the end was late in settling on a finished product.
He dropped all-time leading scorer Mike Hercus. Now, while Hercus was certainly past his prime, he had his good points, and if you’re going to drop someone who has been the #1 guy in a key position for eight seasons, you better know what your next move. O’Sullivan didn’t have a replacement in mind, and in fact never really settled one. His decision put one in mind of a classic quote from the Mary Tyler Moore Show: Don’t fire the old sportscaster before you hire the new sportscaster.
The Eagles had no new sportscaster, and auditions dragged on.
The 2010 season started well enough. The Eagles beat Russia 39-22 in a game where their big stars in the backline, Chris Wyles, Taku Ngwenya, Mike Petri and Paul Emerick, shone. In addition, young players such as Scott LaValla, Shawn Pittman and Pat Danahy all played well.
The Eagles picked down for the England Saxons – yet another harbinger of his 2011 approach – but hung on for a creditable 32-9 loss. Then they lost 24-10 to France A in a game where 17-10 would have been a fairer score, and where they could have won.
This Churchill Cup exposed an issue that was to become a gaping wound as time went on. The USA had the ball for long periods, but against decent defenses, couldn’t score tries. Their one try against France A, while spectacular, was a counter from a kick. The Eagles couldn’t construct tries.
That Churchill Cup also featured players who O’Sullivan felt he needed to see, but, in truth, was never going to pick for the World Cup. This process continued through 2011, when players had a few moments on the field, but were really just kept in the caravan in case the lead camel pulled up lame.
In addition, the USA was being overrun in scrums. While they continued to polish their lineouts, the scrum, especially with Will Johnson out due to injury and Mike MacDonald dropped for form, was under a lot of pressure.
Nese Malifa and Volney Rouse were competing for the flyhalf job, and Mike Petri and Tim Usasz for the scrumhalf job. Malifa was a nifty runner, great passer, a good teammate, and good defender. His kicking wasn’t the best, and at this juncture O’Sullivan needed to pick someone else (Chris Wyles or Andrew Suniula being the obvious choices) to kick goals. Missing kicks nagged at Malifa, and ate at his confidence in other areas. Meanwhile, Rouse was kicking exceptionally well, and could run and tackle, but O’Sullivan didn’t like his overall play and decision-making.
So at flyhalf he had created a situation where he’d chosen two players for specific skills, and spent the rest of the time worrying the scab that was their failings.
At scrumhalf, Petri was suddenly on the outs. Despite playing extremely well against the England Saxons in 2009 and captaining the side as well, Petri was now the backup to the feisty Tim Usasz. O’Sullivan clearly saw part of himself in the passionate, aggressive scrumhalf, and the more quiet Petri was on the bench. After starting and scoring a brilliant try against the Saxons in 2009, Petri was on the bench for six of the next eight games.
More insidiously, the 2010 Churchill Cup spelled out a game plan that appears, now, to have grown roots in O’Sullivan’s thought process. The Eagles could defend, fight and claw, and if they did that, they wouldn’t get embarrassed by anyone. Play to keep it close, like the Canadians did in the late 1990s, and you could hang on.
The USA toured Europe in November of 2010 and won one game – a match against Portugal where they had the vast majority of the ball but couldn’t punch the ball in. They won 22-17. They lost in what amounted to a scrimmage to Saracens and were shut out against Scotland A. Finally, against Georgia, they lost 19-17 when they gave up a try in the final seconds after botching a scrum on their own line.
The botched scrum was the final nod to a problem in the scrum that was brewing for years. Scrum coach Bill LeClerc was let go during that tour, and made to stay until the end anyway. Some backs privately said they couldn’t understand a game plan that didn’t use some of the most exciting threequarters the Eagles have ever had.
And Malifa was hitting his ebb. He played hurt, quite badly hurt, in fact, against Georgia, and came back too quickly in the following year.
That all set the stage for 2011. The enthusiasm wasn’t there in the same way in 2011. The players had a lot of determination, but even in the final warmup game before the World Cup, O’Sullivan was still tinkering with the lineup. He changed scrum coaches again, which didn’t matter because he didn’t see the scrum as a priority, and therefore didn’t practice it.
He wanted Tai Enosa to be the backup flyhalf, and gave up on that. Eventually the confidence of Nese Malifa was so undercut that Roland Suniula was brought in to play #10 at the last minute.
Mike Petri became the starting scrumhalf because the assistant coaches argued that he’d never been given a chance behind a go-forward pack.
For the World Cup, he left home the powerful tightheads who might have anchored the scrum – Will Johnson and Anthony Purpura.
O’Sullivan, who was through 2010 a very good interview, stopped talking to the press unless he absolutely had to. Even when he had to, he tried to avoid it – Universal Sports expected a post-match interview after the USA played Canada in Glendale, but O’Sullivan backed out.
Pre-RWC 2011 became a long dress rehearsal for O’Sullivan’s next job interview. He wanted to showcase the Eagles not as the team they could be – exciting, risky, fun to watch – and rode instead the players’ passion and patriotism to play games as close as possible in order not to get blown away.
The players delivered: losing to Ireland 22-10 and Italy 27-10 in games where the victors knew they’d been in a game. They beat Russia 13-6, in a game that should never have been that close. Certainly the windy, rainy weather helped the USA cause (and hurt them against Russia). And yes, they got crushed by Australia. But overall, this entire approach was by design to keep games and scores under control.
Last at the RWC in points scored, the Eagles were capable of scoring more points, but their game plan was not constructed to do that. O’Sullivan expressed great pride in how hard the USA players played, and that was appropriate. But the players weren’t in a position to say anything. Every World Cup, Eagles keep quiet because they don’t want to be the guy who rocks the boat, who ruins his chance to play on the big stage, and undercuts the team. Even afterward, the players didn’t want to say publicly what was clear – they were a proud group, who could have been better had they been given the chance.
In the end, Eddie O’Sullivan was a different man in 2011 than he was in 2009. He behaved differently, coached differently, and changed his approach with his team. That happens – elite coaches are a strange breed at the best of times and often their jobs can expose strange aspects of their character.
But what it produced for the USA’s elite rugby program was confusion. Few players knew where they stood. Few coaches understood what the true end game was. And the promise of a program on the upswing, thanks in large part to the coach, was ended not by a failure of the athletes, but by a drastic change in how the team trained and played. And that, also, was thanks to the coach.
O'Sullivan did his job, though. The USA team is better now than it was at the end of 2008, and several coaches worked for him through his entire tenure and sit poised to be future Eagle coaches - ideally very soon.