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It's been a busy summer so far, so busy that instead of tackling one topic in this edition of Cliff Notes, I've gone after three. See below thoughts on John Mitchell's final weeks as head coach of our men's senior national team, what the Junior All Americans' failure to qualify for the Junior World Trophy really means, and early movement on the Major Lague Rugby front.
When news broke that USA head coach John Mitchell would be leaving for a new job at the end of the summer, his most recent act as coach had been leading America to its first significant title since the 1924 Olympics. That painted his departure in a light that would suggest the Eagles would be worse off in his absence.
Since then, what we’ve seen will be his real legacy – a 55-19 drubbing at the hands of Ireland and a 21-17 loss against Georgia. The theme through these two games has been the theme throughout Mitchell’s era – queer selections and obedience to the concept of World Cup over everything else.
Shaun Davies is the best scrumhalf in America. For some reason, he’s been thrown away, overlooked and disregarded by Mitchell and Mike Tolkin before him. All Davies has done is win at every level. He won two national championships at BYU. He helped Life’s men’s team win the DI title in 2014 and the American Rugby Premiership in 2015. In 2016 he led the Ohio Aviators to a second-place finish in PRO. He ushered Glendale through a 2017 spring campaign in which the Raptors didn’t lose a single match against domestic competition.
In the ARC, that tournament the Eagles won giving them their first major championship in nearly 100 years, Davies started four of the five contests at scrumhalf, proving he can also win on the international level. Still, Mitchell is hell bent on starting Nate Augspurger, a very good rugby player who is still green as a halfback, over the proven winner. (At least Tolkin had a bonafide pro in Mike Petri he favored over Davies, and was willing to bring up another talented true halfback in Niku Kruger – he didn’t try and convert Luke Hume to the position.)
That’s not the only oddity in Mitchell’s selections. Against Ireland, he started Marcel Brache, a wing in Super Rugby, at inside center. He started Ben Cima, a defensive turnstile and flyhalf, at fullback. He started Peter Malcolm, who isn’t very far removed from playing conference matches against Iona, at hooker instead of Joe Taufete’e, who plies his trade in one of the best professional leagues in the world. Somehow Andrew Durutalo hasn’t gotten a start this summer.
Why? Well each case is a bit different. In the case of Davies, he genuinely is convinced the proven winner isn’t the man for the job. With many others, it was a case of resting them for the Canada matches because the World Cup is all that matters. If he could trade every test match from 2015 to 2019 for two World Cup wins in Japan, Mitchell and others who subscribe to the backwards concept of RWC over all, would do it in a heartbeat.
Forget that in 2011 at the World Cup we gave a full-strength Ireland a run for its money, losing 22-10. Never mind that in 2013, when Ireland was weakened by a Lions tour like this year, we were unlucky to lose 15-12. This year, we rested players and were blasted.
Disregard the fact that before Saturday we had a 3-1 all-time record over Georgia with all of the matches being played between 2009 and 2013. Forget that a win over the Lelos, ranked 12th (five spots ahead of the USA) would have been Mitchell’s first with the Eagles over a higher-ranked opponent. And it would have been the highest-ranking win for the USA ever. Since the inception of World Rugby’s rankings in 2003, the Eagles have never beaten anyone ranked higher than 13th. Instead, we lost a very winnable game to Georgia.
Regardless of how these next two Canadian matches go, for this American rugby pundit, supporter and USA Rugby member, Mitchell's era can't come to a close soon enough.
The harsh reality is that USA Rugby doesn’t do any more for its age-grade programs than most colleges or high schools do for their club rugby programs. There is minimal investment, and the overwhelming majority of their budgets come from generous donors and the players' pockets. They’re basically USA Rugby’s teams in name only. Considering that, the results of the Men’s Junior All-Americans’ two-match series with Canada last week is not a surprise.
The MJAAs lost the first game 46-12 and won the second 27-25, losing the aggregate qualifier for the Junior World Trophy. There were some good performances by individual players and some poor ones. I’m sure it was a great experience for all involved, and one that will aid in their development as athletes and coaches.
But is it a sign of what’s to come for the senior national team? Is it evidence that the age-grade pathway is on track or falling apart? No. It is just evidence of the age-grade program being what it is.
There is no money to properly scout – head coach JD Stephenson’s best scouting tool is his phone, because USA Rugby can’t afford to send him many places to do it in person. The players all pay big fees to play – we’re talking hundreds of dollars for a “camp fee”, plus the cost of travel, just to be identified. I’d estimate each player spent more than $1,000 on average to participate in the program this year, and that kind of cost prices too many talented guys, if we’ve been lucky enough to identify them, out of participating.
The rest of the world participates in these age-grade competitions, so we as Americans feel pressure to play along, even if we can’t afford to do it properly. Furthering that analogy I used at the beginning, our age-grade teams are treated by USA Rugby like members of a typical high school or college club funded minimally, if at all, by their institution, and they’re often competing against teams who are treated better than our actual senior national teams. That doesn’t mean the players and coaches don’t pour their hearts into it. It doesn’t mean they do a bad job. It doesn't mean the entire exercise is worthless. It doesn’t mean USA Rugby CEO Dan Payne or Alex Magleby, the head of high performance, are the villains. It just means we’re a very poor union trying to dine at the same restaurants as the rich unions.
Even if we had the money to sink into the programs, instead of spending it on costly foreign tours I would argue we deploy it to actually immerse dozens of up-and-coming rugby athletes in a daily training environment for weeks on end so as to actually spend time downloading skills, concepts, habits and information. But we don’t have the money to pull that off either, and it’s a lot easier to sell rugby philanthropists on donating toward some fancy competition overseas than an all-inclusive boot camp, so it’s really a moot point.
Until we have six figures to spend on each age-grade team annually, expect more of what you saw this year with the MJAAs, with the stars aligning occasionally to get your hopes up.
MAJOR LEAGUE RUGBY
Because the last two subheads contained some pretty depressing material, here’s a little optimism. Major League Rugby is plugging along toward its goal of playing a season in 2018. Coaches and players are being signed every other day, it seems, and that’s all encouraging. This far out from PRO’s debut, we knew next to nothing.
In Houston, the Strikers are the most proactive in terms of gathering personnel. They’ve inked a couple of former Eagles, a few former European pros and some local guys. Former USA assistant Justin Fitzpatrick will be the head coach. New Orleans announced former USA assistant Nate Osborne as its head coach recently. And the Dallas Griffins just hired former British & Irish Lions and England assistant Mike Ford as their director of rugby.
These signings and movements are encouraging to see, even if they don’t give us any answers about the potential longevity or success of the league. Ultimately, we won’t know until we know. But the thing I like about the MLR is the teams are independent. With PRO, only one man paid for everything, so if he ran out of money or went off the rails, the whole venture went with him. With MLR, if one organization fails, miscalculates its revenue, floats checks or folds, it doesn’t necessarily doom the whole venture.
I believe some of these teams have realistic expectations, the financial and administrative wherewithal to lose the money they’re bound to, and possess potential for staying power. Others, I suspect, are just trying not to be left behind and perhaps getting in over their heads. So I expect this league to contract quickly and early, but there is enough reason for me to be optimistic that some teams will survive, and maybe thrive, long enough for MLR to have a good run. And I’m sure if season one goes well, others will be clamoring to jump in.
One of the red flags I’ve seen, though, is the naming of the competition. The name “Major League Rugby” was first used by a competition in the early ‘00s which folded rather quickly. It was a rival to the Super League. There is also another entity that popped up in recent years using the name. You can find it on social media – the shield featuring a player reaching for a ball is this one, and the shield heavily featuring a ball with stars on it is the one with announced teams planning to launch next year. Recently, the former’s CEO, Clinton Courtney, has alerted Rugby Today that Major League Rugby is a registered trademark and that he intends to protect it against the upstart league.
If this sounds confusing, it is, and the fact that the new league didn’t just decide to pick a different name from the jump is somewhat alarming to me. While branding is certainly important, I can’t imagine the success of a league is dependent upon the acronym attached to it, and this business with Courtney seems like an unnecessary headache. But, at the end of the day, if Major League Rugby is successful, no one will care.