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The idea of a World Cup cycle is dangerous. It’s hurt the national team in the past, it’s poisoning the decision-making now, and as long as the USA Rugby powers-that-be look at the Eagle schedule as one month long with a three-year preseason, it will remain an issue.
Currently, the obsession with the quadrennial event is in the process of tying the Eagles’ shoelaces together in the starting blocks of the Americas Rugby Championship – the new annual competition set to become America’s version of Europe’s Six Nations.
This competition not only adds five much-needed matches to the annual test calendar, it is the next chance for the Eagles to finally be a part of a meaningful competition every year instead of every four – something which is desperately needed.
The Eagles are without a coach, and it looks like they may well enter 2016 without one. Yet they’re supposed to line up across from the fifth-ranked team in the world, Argentina, in less than two months.
“We’re looking at World Cup 2019. We’re not looking at who’s in charge in February. It’s less important than where we’re going to be for 2019. You’ve got to get the right person. There’s no point in getting the wrong person because of a timeline. The critical point is getting the right person,” said USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville of the search for Mike Tolkin’s replacement.
So what kind of attack and defense strategies will the Eagles deploy against Argentina? What kind of terminology will they use? What kind of changes will they try and implement after a six-game skid? We don’t know, and neither do the players. Team USA is not in any way actively preparing for the Pumas, fresh off a year in which they beat South Africa and Ireland.
USA Rugby has put itself in this bind. Yes, Tolkin made some mistakes in many people’s eyes with the World Cup – the Todd Clever situation and the choice to run out a weak side against South Africa. But if those decisions weren’t well hashed out by Tolkin and his assessors in Boulder beforehand, there’s plenty of fault to pass around. And if the possibility of a winless World Cup wasn’t considered in advance, it should have been – the only team in the USA’s pool it had ever beaten was Japan.
No matter how you feel about Tolkin and his success with the Eagles, there’s no arguing any number of options would have made more sense than the one USA Rugby chose.
Tolkin’s contract could have been extended for any amount of time before the World Cup – he coached 30 games prior to the 2015 tournament kicking off, playing more Tier 1 teams more often than his predocessors. Still, he won more games than all but two National Team coaches before him, beating rival Canada a record three times in a row. Shouldn’t that body of work have been a bigger indication of his ability than the last four matches in a vacuum? They alone shouldn’t define the success of his era.
Tolkin could have been extended after the World Cup through the Americas Rugby Championship. National Team coaching jobs don't grown on trees, especially for Americans, so my best guess is Tolkin would have bought in. Worst-case scenario here would have been affording the team some continuity through its first run in the new competition, allowing for the change to happen in a longer window leading into one-off tests, and giving Tolkin the chance to beat Canada for the fourth-straight time and strengthen his legacy.
The decision could have been made to get rid of Tolkin before the World Cup even kicked off, allowing USA Rugby to publicly or privately narrow down its list of potential replacements months before it began its search in November. Either tell Tolkin he’s out and let the man pour every effort into the tournament he'd been building toward the last three years, or observe the practice of major college athletic directors by discretely headhunting and not axing someone before knowing the answer to this question: if not Tolkin, then who?
Or Tolkin could have been let go after he started 2013 with seven-straight losses. That wouldn’t have been hard to justify. But, partially because USA Rugby believes so deeply in World Cup cycles, it stuck with Tolkin through 2015.
The blind faithfulness to the World Cup cycle has blurred USA Rugby’s strategic vision not only in terms of making coaching changes, but in winning games. In a nutshell, the problem with overvaluing the World Cup is it means you’re undervaluing everything else.
If you’re New Zealand, that’s fine. If you’re South Africa, OK. Even England, alright. For those teams, you’re all but guaranteed to be in the dance every time, and you’ve accomplished everything else enough for winning anything but the Web Ellis Cup to seem like a disappointment.
For Team USA, which has to put everything it has into qualification, which has an abysmal record against the top 15 teams in the world, which has never sniffed a World Cup quarterfinal or won more than a game in a given tournament, there’s a lot of improving to do before using the same barometer as the world powers to gauge success.
Temple’s men’s basketball team made the NCAA Tournament every year from 1990-2001, only getting past the second round four times in those 12 years. Their coach, John Chaney, is considered a legend. Compare that to UCLA, where Steve Lavin was run out of town after making six tournament appearances in seven years, five of which led to the Sweet 16 or better. If Temple measured its success solely on wins and losses in the NCAA Tournament, like UCLA, Chaney would be considered a failure. Temple erected a statue of Chaney, a Hall of Famer, by the way.
The USA is 2-61 all-time against the top nine teams in the world, and both of those wins came between World Wars over France. The Eagles are 20-92 all-time against Top 15 teams, with 16 of those wins coming against Georgia and Japan. They’re 0-4 against Italy, 0-5 against Samoa, 1-5 against Fiji and 1-7 against Tonga.
All that’s to say the United States Men’s National team isn’t even the rugby equivalent of the Temple Owls. The Eagles are more like that mid-major with a handful of all-time tournament appearances, and before they start measuring themselves with the same tools as UCLA, they’d be better off trying to get on the same level as Chaney’s Owls.
The Eagles have selected away many a game in years past with the aim of seeing more players for the World Cup or expanding the player pool ahead of it or giving a younger player RWC experience that might pay off in another four years. While the World Cup matches are the ones the rest of the world pays attention to, those on home soil against the Harlequins or Tonga or anyone else are most likely to nab the attention of the American public. Keep in mind, most of the 2015 World Cup had to be watched on a pricy pay-per-view OTT platform or a now-defunct cable channel in America. Domestic matches have been showcased more prominently in the States than even the Eagles’ World Cup contests. And it’s the American people USA Rugby has to capture if its national teams are ever going to climb the ladder.
The World Cup is extremely important, no doubt. World Rugby’s revenues are kicked back to the USA and its Tier 2 counterparts based on RWC results and participation. Quality performances at the World Cup land Americans overseas contracts, which in turn help the program as a whole. But letting those four, or hopefully someday five or six games every four years, dictate the 44 or so games between World Cups is effectively putting the cart before the horse. If the Eagles win more, improve the culture and raise the expectations and reputation in the interim, the World Cup wins will come in time.