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After months of silence, embattled former Team USA captain Todd Clever has spoken on his release from the Eagles this summer, adding fuel to a dying fire.
Clever was dropped July 19, the day following the USA’s Pacific Nations Cup test against Samoa. The reason cited for his release from the PNC team was multiple squad violations, which were later revealed as missing two team sessions – on Thursday July 16 and the morning of the Samoa match.
The session Clever missed the morning of the Samoa match is uncontested. He went from being on the bench to off the 23-man squad for a game in his hometown to be attended by a large contingency of friends and family. The guys who don’t make the squad have to get up and work out the morning of the match, and Clever chose not to participate.
“I take responsibility for sleeping in and coming down late for that,” Clever told RugbyToday.
“It was game day in my hometown. I had been cut from the team for questionable reasons. Then the people who did it require me to go out drinking with them and want me to go for a jog the next morning,” Clever said in another report. “I slept in. I went for a jog at the hotel and did my own warm-up. Then there was the game, and we supported the guys against Samoa.
“The next day they called me in. They said, ‘You missed another session.’ I said, ‘What? The morning jog?’ They said, ‘Yeah. You are going to be sent home.’”
USA head coach Mike Tolkin takes issue with Clever’s depiction of the game day workout, among other things. It should be noted that the night before the match the coaching staff and the unselected players go for a customary drink and chat. No one is required to drink.
“There are several sides to each story, and Todd Clever has provided his version of events. The facts are at best distorted. When the indisputable facts are incorrect after months of devising them, such as whom our opponents were and where the team was playing on certain dates or ‘morning jog’ vs mandatory vigorous work-out, one must question the accuracy of the entire tale.”
While words can be minced about what the July 18 session really entailed, there is no denying Clever knew he was expected to be there and made a conscious decision not to be. And Clever knew he was already in hot water for missing a session earlier in the week, one which is more contestable.
Having appeared in ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue, Clever was invited to the Network’s yearly awards – the ESPYs. Clever says he originally didn’t think he’d be able to attend because the team would be in assembly, but when the schedule came out, Wednesday July 16, the day of the ESPYs, was an off day for the Eagles.
They were in camp in Northern California, and the ESPYs were in Los Angeles. Clever decided he could get there and back in time for Thursday morning’s session, so he and Scott LaValla hopped on a plane to L.A. Tuesday night.
The next part is the most damning piece of Clever’s new testimony. He says Tolkin sent out an email Wednesday, after Clever and LaValla had traveled to L.A. and made arrangements for their return, adding an early fitness session to Thursday’s schedule, one which Clever and LaValla would not land back in Northern California in time for.
“I did the whole session on Tuesday, Scott and I flew out Tuesday night to L.A., and the ESPYs was Wednesday,” said Clever. “We went to the after party at the same place, and when we got back we both saw the email that night around midnight. The email was sent out, I think it was like 4p.m. on Wednesday.”
If Tolkin, knowing Clever’s itinerary, changed the practice schedule last-minute and held Clever accountable for missing a Thursday session that didn’t exist until Wednesday afternoon, it’s bad form, and it supports a potential narrative that the coach was out to get the former captain.
“He was fine from my side. He just said, ‘You have the schedule,’ and I knew about the 9:30 meeting, and I said there were two flights before that, so I’ll be back early that morning. I didn’t get any warning signs or anything that I shouldn’t do that,” said Clever.
“I’d done hundreds of things through the last decade of USA Rugby, dinners or showing my face or whatever it might be to represent USA Rugby, so I just found this as another thing and wanted to double check it and triple and make sure everything was good with him and told him my timeline and that was it.”
It could have been it, but Clever missed the Saturday morning session and posted the following on Facebook, "Great to be back with the USA boys in my hometown (San Jose CA) We have a big game tomorrow vs Samoa. Sadly I won't be running onto the field tomorrow. #InTimeOut"
He was subsequently dropped from the team and never got back in.
According to Clever, his relationship with Tolkin began to sour during the November Tour in 2014, during which the Eagles beat Romania before losing to Tonga and Fiji.
“That November he just started taking things as more of a dictatorship – this is my way and making rules up and doing new things without discussing with the senior players group or discussing with myself,” said Clever. “The first time the senior players hear about it and I hear about it is the same exact time. Usually you kind of talk things through, but it wasn’t that at all.”
One specific rule Tolkin implemented for the Fall Tour was that no players were to have women in their hotel rooms. It created some conflict.
“That was the November Tour he kind of just made a rule up and told everybody right on the scene, and I told the guys we’ll get through this, but don’t bring anybody home,” recalled Clever. “Someone got caught bringing a girl home, he got disciplined, but then Mike Tolkin actually, after the tour, accused me of bringing a girl home. He said you brought someone home, and I said, oh no I didn’t.
“I was eating baguettes with Greg Peterson when we came back a couple hours earlier than most of the guys on a night out. He blatantly was straight up accusing me for that. It was pretty disappointing.”
Clever and Tolkin apparently didn’t see eye to eye on the proper volume of trainings, too. As captain, Clever would occasionally call a session short if he felt the team had done enough.
“The reason I stopped trainings is because they never had any sort of GPS for us. They didn’t know how far we were running. They didn’t know how long we were on for. With my experience being with so many teams and having games coming up, you know when you feel best, and whenever I know that their training is too hard or too long, that’s when I was like, hey we need to stop, we need to finish this session up, let’s get recovered up, ice baths and move forward,” said Clever.
“Whenever we played Canada in South Carolina the last time, you could look on the pre-interview after the captains run and I said to be honest I’m tired. We had a strenuous week, it was pedal to the metal, even through captains run they had control of it. They just don’t know the limits. They’re so far behind. They just got GPS this year.”
After the 2014 autumn tour Tolkin and his staff stripped the captaincy from Clever and gave it to Chris Wyles for the PNC. After the PNC, Clever said he tried to get back into the team ahead of the World Cup.
“From November I could just tell he was sort of out for it, and I was bummed. I tried all I could, setting up meetings one on one, asking is it OK, we need to go forward, I want to be part of this,” said Clever.
“I was in constant communication with Nigel. I was in communication with Mike Tolkin. I was in communication with Dave Williams. I wanted to be back on the team. Until the day they left for England I wanted to be with the World Cup team.”
It wasn’t just not being involved that chaffed Clever, but what he viewed as a character assassination.
“From my side, with them coming out with multiple squad violations to missing team meetings to missing field sessions – those are not true at all,” said Clever.
“I’m watching the game supporting the team and hearing my name – too good for the team, or he missed team meetings or whatever it was – I’m like they don’t know the whole story. It was a personal decision from Tolks, then have that as a personal decision, not make it for my character or that I’m too good for the team or my ego or that I missed something for the team.”
For his part, Tolkin is not apologizing for anything, backing his decision to nix Clever from the PNC and exclude him from the World Cup.
“In 30 years of coaching, I have always acted with integrity and without ego, and I have absolutely no problem putting my reputation in front of anyone. Naturally, along the way there may have been disagreements in policy or tactics, but not my integrity, which would be backed by many respected individuals. No selection process is ever perfect – period. I am content that I have always acted with the best intent for the Eagles’ program,” Tolkin said in a statement to Rugby Today.
“I solidly stand by our actions involving Todd and his suspension from the PNC, and the entire coaching staff and management have always supported this decision. The reasons for the suspension were clear and justifiable, and the fact that the suspension was only for the PNC was articulated in follow-up announcements.
“Quite simply, we had five back-rowers who worked hard and performed exceptionally well in the matches leading up to the RWC and throughout the tournament itself, and they were rightfully selected on form. It is no one’s given right to be put on the side.”
Clever was able to stay busy the last couple of months, being invited to play for the famous touring Barbarians and later signing a contract with the Newcastle Falcons of the Aviva Premiership. He waited until after the USA’s run at the World Cup to speak up so as not to be any bigger a distraction than necessary.
He still wants to be an Eagle.
“I haven’t retired, and I’m sure as hell not going to end my rugby career how I exited,” he said. “My whole thing is I don’t want to go out like that. I want to end on my terms. Obviously, you can’t always do that, but no matter what I don’t want to end like that.”