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There are three major story lines for the United States coming from the World Cup, and all of them have to do with choices. The first two have been talked about – the exclusion of Todd Clever and the selections for South Africa – and the third is a decision yet to be made, or at least announced. Will Mike Tolkin continue as head coach?

Only one American coach has ever skippered the Eagles the year following a World Cup. Tolkin’s been on the job since 2012, and it’s entirely possible he will either move on without being asked to, or he’ll be asked to.  

The success of the Tolkin era is fodder for a future article, so I’m not going to do something as crass as give him a grade or declare if he’s been a failure (though he hasn’t been), but if the 2015 RWC proves to be his only as the USA’s head man – it will be remembered for his handling of Clever and South Africa.

I have not spoken to Clever about his ouster. He has politely declined comment. I have spoken to Tolkin and gotten the media-safe version of the story from his perspective. Combined with having talked to others with better knowledge of the team’s inner workings than myself, these conversations lead me to the conclusion there isn’t a crucial secretive piece of the puzzle we’re all missing.

Two men, a captain and a coach, and one or more assistant coaches, didn’t see eye to eye. The coaches decided they’d be better off without the now former captain, and they excommunicated him. Egos were involved. The team went winless at the World Cup, lacking punch from the exiled player’s position group.

At the end of the day, Todd Clever would have helped the Eagles at the World Cup. Danny Barrett is a rising yet not refined star and Al McFarland put in a workman’s performance on defense, but neither is the equivalent of Todd Clever. If Scott LaValla never gets hurt, this is less of an issue, but he did.

The decision to leave Clever off the team is one Tolkin has to live with. So is the decision to select down, way down, for the South Africa game. The Eagles were compelling in their effort in the first half, holding the Springboks, with everything to play for, to a 14-point advantage at intermission.

As inspiring as the first half was, the second half was equally staggering. 50 points in 40 minutes is special. It’s historic. It’s embarrassing.

The reason behind the selection was to have the team as ready and rested as possible for a winnable game with Japan, which ended up a not-that-competitive loss. If the Eagles beat the Brave Blossoms, some face would be saved. They didn’t, making Tolkin’s selections for South Africa the wrong ones.

In 2011, it took about a month after the USA’s final pool loss for O’Sullivan to confirm his departure. It took three more months for Tolkin to be hired. He kept much of the staff intact from the O’Sullivan era, making just two changes. They were announced a month after his hire.

Then he made several more changes over the next three years. Only Chris O’Brien, Paul Golding, Dave Williams and Tristan Lewis, who’ve seen multiple 15s and 7s coaches come and go, are still on the staff from 2012.

If Tolkin is to be replaced, the 2011 timeline won’t do, as the new American version of the Six Nations is supposed to kick off in February. If Tolkin is to be replaced, the decision should have been made before the Eagles ever played the Harlequins in Philadelphia, the Wallabies in Chicago or landed at Heathrow. For CEO Nigel Melville, three years of evidence should have been enough to decide if Tolkin was the man for the future or not. And for Tolkin, knowing the new Pan American competition was looming a few short months after the conclusion of the World Cup, should have made his intentions clear long in advance.

But, it’s not always been Boulder’s modus operandi to think in advance when it comes to these matters – see the Alex Magleby/Matt Hawkins/Mike Friday shuffle.

If USA Rugby leadership and Tolkin are already on the same page about the near future, or if Tolkin is out and a list of potential replacements has already been drafted, narrowed down and vetted, we’re on the right track.

If we’re in a review period still thinking about the next move, it’s a costly error. If the new competition, the Americas Rugby Championship, June tests, the Pacific Nations Cup and the November tests are to be properly competed for, marketed, promoted and leveraged, there is no time to waste.

Unlike in 2011, there is someone very capable looking over the player pathway – Alex Magleby. He should have a handle on which veterans are thinking retirement, which amateurs are one-and-done and what a potential player pool for the Pan-Am Six Nations competition looks like.

The problem with looking at international rugby in four-year World Cup cycles is those cycles end, and when they do, there are still plenty of opportunities to either make hay or continue backsliding right away. In the past, USA Rugby has stalled in these moments. The future success of the Eagles relies on that being different this time around.  

Comments

If, as you report, the coaches didn't see eye to eye with Clever, then why did they feel compelled to launch a character assassination on him? Wouldn't a decent coach thank him for his service and quietly offer the opportunity for him to bow out similar to other Eagles that were reluctant to 'retire'?
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You voted '-1'.
Clever would NOT have increased the offensive power of the Eagles. When I watch them, the most rudimentary skills seem to go away in competition. They don't pass well, they kick too much and defend too little. Somehow even foreign born players resort to American football mentality, put your head down and run into someone. It is more club rugby than national team rugby. that is not to say there isn't some quality guys on the team, but it ain't a team of quality individuals.
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@Douglas ... You are entitled to your opinion - but everyone should understand that it is an opinion. Obviously Clever's influence is an unknown. My opinion is that Clever added a fire in the belly to the Eagles and the 2nd half debacle in EACH of the RWC games would not have been the pattern had Clever been the leader or even just on the pitch. Some have speculated that Wyles had better ref management, my opinion is that he had NO management what so ever. Rarely do you find a Captain that's position is so far from the thick of the action.
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Find the millions of dollars from all those wealthy playboy-rugby-rowing-club-polo-playing-yachtsmen-lawyers here in America to fund Eddie Jones coming over to coach the Eagles. Provide him with a big Bel-Air mansion, a Porsche Carerra 4, a membership at the Westminster Cricket Club and make Clever his personal assistant, surfing instructor and bodyguard. Badda-bing..Badda-boom. We're in..!
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Pat, nice job reporting on this topic. We are all disappointed, and you bring up a lot of excellent 'tactical' thoughts/ideas. I have some thoughts on the matter (blog.ridnell.com). A lot of this is identifying issues we all know exist. The question is 'what are we going to do about it'. The problems with rugby in American (from Eagles to Girls under 8's) all derive from the top down. This is on the field stuff and off the field stuff. The CEO is accountable, and we have had a dearth of leadership for a very, very long time. There is not much to dispute, a lot of people have valid assessments. Here is my thought on leadership for USA Rugby... My Assessment - USA Rugby CEO Requirement: 1. Rugby (I believe should be ex Eagle who has experienced the humiliation and excuse making) 2. Business (Qualifed Executive who understands creating standards, actions, etc.. and holding people to account – including themselves) 3. Leadership (this of course is qualitative) 4. Passion to make a difference. 5. ‘American’?? I don’t know, but I am open. Anyway, thanks for caring enough to report on the state of things. We need honest self assessment at all levels and the leadership to carry out the actions derived from those assessments.
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On Clever - what character assassination by coaches? Joe - other than stating that he missed multiple trainings, I don't recall seeing a single attributable reference to anything even close to something of that nature. Did he miss them? Yes. Was he allowed to? No. Done and done. I don't care what you are, but especially from a captain on the RWC build-up? Sorry, I would have dropped him too, even if he was a blood relative. Pat, I'm sorry, but you can't fault for the SA selections. Like it or not, even after the Japan loss, we could have played our firsts and maybe lost by only 30 or 40, then gotten trounced by Japan, or get flattened by SA and have a shot at Japan. What was clear to me is that our non-professionals have not been able to close any gaps to professionals, and I don't see them ever being able. I agree with Doug in skills. This RWC was a regression in skills and tactics. What none of us knows is what was a field decision and what was a coached tactic. I had seen a significant decrease in aimless kicking throughout the last several months of play, only to see us revert to awful, pointless, poorly executed kicking away of possession. If this was by design, I'm all for getting rid of Tolkin now. Tactically, even with stagnant ball, kicking away possession results in only a few events - recover the kick, knock on by either team, kicking into touch, counterattack, and a return kick. Going through the list, we rarely made any kicks that we could recover, and when they were close, we were happy to stay down and make a solid tackle instead of taking it in the air. Result: Defending against superior talent. knock on by either team - either way, while our scrum was mostly improved, still not a strength - why play to it? This is not an effective result. Kicking into touch - okay to relieve pressure behind the 22, but too often we did this on the full and straight out. Result - their ball with no change in field position. Counterattack - well, if we had stagnant ball, and didn't have the proper personnel in proper places to attack, the same goes for a proper chase and cover. And as we were prior to RWC, we were exposed frequently on the counter, immediate or sustained. The return kick occurred some as well, to which we were again forced to kick, to same effect, or to a loss of territory, etc at best. But that's only one example...I won't delve into the lack of "dangerousness" when running with the ball (esp forwards), the poorly executed lineouts (this was a strength just prior to the RWC) and so on. I'm not delusional. When these pools were drawn, Scotland and Samoa were in disarray and poor form, and Japan was, even with Jones, an afterthought to most. The thoughts of having a shot a three wins was real, given some improvement. Scotland got (much) better, as did Japan, and Samoa made some gains as well. We did too, but lesser gains than Scotland, and about even with Samoa and Japan (IMHO). But we still had a shot at two of these games, and if we went 0-4 I would not be surprised. But the Samoa and Japan matches, and maybe Scotland, should have been more dynamic and closer. But we actually regressed while others improved since summer. Tony - I read your blog, even before seeing it here. I think, to be fair, there have been huge strides in terms of exposure, marketing, coverage by TV/web, matches, and so on since Nigel took over. Could there be more? Certainly. There has to be or we've peaked as a rugby nation. More former players are doing more for the game now than ever before. but domestically, there is still a shortage of quality refs and coaches. We can have all the top athletes we want - without enough coaches (way short)and refs for high level matches (this has improved a fair amount in most regions as well, but we're still short), it won't amount to much. Where we need to develop is in continuing to attract high level athletes from other sports, but also to develop coaches and the ground level ( to me, from college down). I feel the sponsorship opps and availability has now surpassed the team and organization. I hope this wasn't too muddied - I have so many thoughts on the topic, and I struggle with trying to be too detailed here, while still wanting to make my point.
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@Dan - Hopefully now you have the details of Clever's suspension/release. I would hardly describe 'Multiple Team Conduct Violations' by missing a 'run' with 6 other nonsuited up teammates. That is exactly what happened and it is correctly labeled as Character Assassination to an Eagle that has given the better part of his life to USA Rugby. Nigel Melville needs to publicize a formal apology to Todd Clever. Tolkin had it out for him and succeeded and the American public isn't doing anything about it because as you were so misled I'm guessing they too fell into the groove of ignorance.
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There's a whole lot of questions to be asked, and probably not a whole lot of answers coming, in the wake of the Eagles RWC disaster, but clearly the real problem isn't Tolkin, or Clever, or any of the players who played as well as they could in the RWC. Eagles RWC record: '87 - 1-2; '91 - 0-3; '95 - did not qualify; '99 - 0-3; '03 - 1-3; '07- 0-4; '11 - 1-3; '15 - 0-4. In that time, we have watched the structure of rugby in the US go from a four Territorial Union structure with national club champions, sub-union and territorial union select side competitions to a structure where the the "have" clubs have two separate elite leagues and competitions and do not even play each other at the championship level; two levels of college competition where the "have" powers won't even field second sides to compete in the national collegiate championships; and no structure where clubs and college sides can move up or be relegated down; and the "have" clubs and colleges strive, in the fashion of the professional leagues in Europe, to bring in foreign players who can help them win now but who will never qualify to play for the Eagles. Thus there really is little development, and frankly each year when I see the Eagles camp invitees, I have to wonder how the selectors could possibly know that these are the best players in the country at their respective positions when there is no regular territorial select side competition s where a player from a small club in a small market could get a chance to show what he can do against the best, regardless of where he went to college. Maybe after all these years with no improvement in RWC results, it's time to focus a bigger part of the budget away from the national team and RWC run-up and pour more into developing more inter-regional club and college select side competitions. Just a thought - not saying it's the right answer, or that it's all USA rugby's fault as clearly the clubs and colleges have a lot to do with how things have gotten to this point. I am saying though that what we're doing currently is absolutely not working if the goal is to improve our ability to compete in the world stage.
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