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USA Men's 7s Head Coach Matt Hawkins isn't too happy, and that's to be expected.
His team is 1-9 in its last two tournaments, and he is taking criticism for
the performance of his team (which has been bad), his selection choices
(which have been surprising), and, of course, the results.
"I know how it is," Hawkins told RUGBYMag.com. "I have been a part of this for seven or eight years. These sorts of things have gone on for a long time."
Hawkins spends a lot of his non-coaching time speaking with mentors and coaches he knows, everyone from his dad, Glen, who texts his son with his observations on games, to internationals, to the guy on the other side of the office at the Olympic Training Center, Ric Suggitt.
"I don't read comments and follow the social media; I know some of the players do, and there are all sorts of people with opinions. Social media has a lot of positives but a lot of negatives, and it's tough on them when they see some of the comments," said Hawkins. "But I do talk with certain people who I rely on and respect, and that provides some perspective."
What that perspective is depends on who you are. Hawkins has a plan, he said, but he understands that fans will have a different perspective.
In essence, it boils down to this: fans want the USA team to win, and if they don't win, to play hard and come close. The Eagles haven't done much of that.
Other observers are thinking about the Olympics. For American rugby to take a big step forward, they have to play in Rio in 2016, and to do that they have to be better than Canada. They don't look better than Canada right now.
And the coach? Well, he's looking to the future.
"As a fan or supporter of the USA I would be pretty frustrated right now," said Hawkins. "We had good elements in the two tournaments, such as the first seven minutes against Fiji, but then we fell apart. There were moments in Port Elizabeth where we could have done something special, but we didn't."
But all of that is part of the Hawkins plan. He took the coaching job, looked around, and realized he didn't have all that many players.
RUGBYMag reported on that issue back in September.
Not only did Hawkins lose players, he lost veterans. He could have looked to some stop-gap selections (bring Mike Palefau in for a tournament to help lead the youngsters) but he didn't. Instead, he filled the holes with debutants and players who had been out of the circuit for a long while.
The results were predictable (see what Alex Goff wrote about veteran leadership in the Sevens World Series).
But Hawkins did all this for a reason. He wanted to get as many players as possible some experience. They needed to see what playing on the circuit was like, and the more players who know that, the better competition in training camp.
"We've got a group of young players we're trying to blood," said Hawkins. "And we haven't had a lot of opportunities to do that. We didn't have a lot of time before we got started, and we wanted to get some form of additional tournaments outside of the circuit. We did that, but there's more to do."
In addition, said Hawkins, there was a leadership gap. With former captain Shalom Suniula not picked on form, and former captain Hawkins becoming the coach, the Eagles needed other players to step into the void. One of those players might have been Blaine Scully, but he took a contract at Leicester. Colin Hawley's poise and character was gone, too.
"A lot of guys on our team used to be top try-scorers and all-stars, but other people were shouldering the burden of leading and coordinating and allowing them to do their thing," said Hawkins. "I don't think they quite understood what it takes to lead the team, and these last two weeks made them understand.
"From the players' perspective. they are disappointed in themselves. They know they could have done a lot better. But we were also expecting it to be a rough ride. We are trying to build and develop young players. Steve Tomasin, Patrick Blair, Pono Haitsuka are all new; Brett Thompson is still a very young player."
Hawkins called out his leadership group a little bit during the last two tournaments. He had expected Nick Edwards, Zack Test, Folau Niua, and Thompson to form the core leadership group. But none played as well as he has previously.
"When those four are on song we've got a really good team, and
when they're not on song, we struggle," he said.
Edwards ended up on the bench by the end of play in South Africa, with Test leading the team out onto the field.
So it was a rough lesson for the new players, but also for new leaders. And, it seems, the new coach wasn't happy.
"It's all a very different dynamic," said Hawkins, who acknowledged that it's different for him, too.
"Nick is our captain and we are looking for him to lead us, but he is just really, really struggling and he knows that," said the coach. "I think the added burden of being the captain has effected that. For me, doing all the administrative stuff has been new. I've been on the field with these guys and when I was on the field and stuff was happening I was able to help them. Now the leadership job has been placed on others and young players need guidance. More and more people are going to have to step up."
Coming into camp starting December 29 will be a USA squad that is changed - new contracts go out soon - and one where many of the young players now have their first IRB tournaments under their belts. The veterans will now have worked their way through the difficulties of leading as well as playing. And the coach has some time to reevaluate, too. That, for better or worse, has been Hawkins's plan - raise the experience level on the team, and get better after that. Whether accepting losses in the fall will create wins in the winter remains to be seen.