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“A significant aspect of my role as head coach is to bring American coaches into the program to secure some succession planning,” – Eddie O’Sullivan circa 2009.
Not that long ago, developing domestic coaches was part of a greater plan. O’Sullivan came to America to coach the Eagles after a long stint as Ireland’s head man, and one of the tasks he was charged with was helping cultivate a stable of experienced, qualified American coaches who could succeed him and potentially even be his successor’s successor.
That resulted in American assistants filling O’Sullivan’s staff. The likes of Dan Payne, Matt Sherman, Dave Hodges, Chris O’Brien and Mike Tolkin all assisted the Irishman at one time or another. And Tolkin, of course, succeeded O’Sullivan as head coach. Even under the New Yorker, though, the Eagles staff became less American as a whole.
Now, there isn’t a single American born-and-raised coached on the senior 15s coaching staff. Head coach John Mitchell is from New Zealand, as is assistant coach Marty Veale. Phil Greening, Rob Hoadley and Mike Friday are all English. Same goes with the senior 7s staff, which includes Friday, Greening and Chris Brown.
Furthermore, Americans are conspicuously missing from the age-grade ranks. The All-Americans are coached by Gavin Hickie (Ireland), the U20s by JD Stephenson (Australia) and the High School All Americans by Salty Thompson (Ireland). The lone domestic head man is Tony Pacheco of the 7s All Americans, though there are rumblings that he’s either out or soon to be.
There certainly aren’t any hard and fast rules about the coaching staff of a national team needing to be filled with patriots. England has an Australian head coach. Ireland, Scotland and Wales all have Kiwi head coaches. Italy’s head man is Irish. But USA Rugby’s coaching pipeline is practically devoid of Americans altogether.
The conversation about foreigners is a constant one in rugby – professional leagues usually have rules about how many can be on a team, USA Rugby even limits how many can suit up for amateur sides.
When USA Rugby was shelling out a quarter of a million dollars a year for an Irish coach, many wanted to spend less on an American. Same when the English Nigel Melville was raking in similar coin as CEO. Then an American, Tolkin, takes the helm and is exactly one win away from being as good as any American rugby coach in World Cup history, because he won 0 games compared to 1, and others label his tenure a ‘failed experiment’.
Same with players. How many accents on the pitch at the same time is ok? The newly minted World Rugby vice chairman, Agustin Pichot, is calling for an overhaul on the residency rule to make national teams more reflective of the countries they represent.
The reality is there is no right or wrong answer on how red, white and true American rugby should be. But the fact that there are essentially no Americans in the USA Rugby coaching pipeline is at best a coincidence and at worst a troubling development.
PRO Rugby is the new track to the United States National Team, you might say. Well, the majority of its coaches are foreign, too. San Diego’s Ray Egan is Irish, as is Denver’s Sean O’Leary. Ohio’s Paule Barford is English. San Francisco’s Paul Keeler and Sacramento’s Luke Gross are the only American head coaches. And most of the league’s assistants are expats, too.
When we talk Eagles, we usually focus on player development – how many are playing professionally overseas, how many are full-time with the 7s squad, or how many are playing PRO? How many came through the age-grade ranks, and what systems are in place to keep them training and fit between assemblies? How do we get more high-level, high-pressure, high-performance playing opportunities for our domestic guys?
The same questions aren’t being asked about coach development. Perhaps they should be.