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His hire was announced in October, the official start-date the first of the year, but for all intents and purposes, the first time Gary Gold put his boots on the ground as the new Eagles head coach was at USA Rugby’s National Development Summit Jan. 19-21 in Denver. His first time in the States as a USA Rugby employee, his first time being introduced to the American rugby community, and his first chance to meet with members of his coaching and management team in person.

He also had to jump into the coaching development bit right away. Having a head coach whose function was not only to win rugby games, but engage in the development of American coaches, is something CEO Dan Payne has longed for since coming on board. It’s something he never got from the departed John Mitchell, whose unwillingness to take on that role was a major source of contention between boss and employee.

Payne also wanted Mitchell to relocate to America, something he was unwilling to do. Gold, who like Mitchell makes his home in South Africa, is open to the idea, but won’t move his family until his daughter graduates in the fall.

Gold was the star of the NDS. He presented two separate modules, one on creating a high-performance program, another on the management of the mental side of the game, during which he revealed an affection for the mental toughness of Tiger Woods. He also sat on a stage while the entire assembly ate lunch, taking questions from the crowd and social media. In his first 48 hours in America, Gold had arguably done more for coaching development and winning-over-his-constituency than Mitchell did his entire tenure.

The reception was warm. USA Rugby staffers had to remove the partition between two ballrooms to accommodate the crowd for Gold’s second presentation, the end of which essentially turned into a press conference. One attendee commented privately, “You know how I know Gary Gold is going to be better than John Mitchell? He’s here.” Even Tony Ridnell seemed smitten with the new guy.

The weekend was a whirlwind – meet with assistants in the bar one minute, fend off admirers en route to an interview the next, then present to a captivated audience, go up to your room to change, return for a reception with a new sponsor, followed by more meetings with staff. But it was probably a cake walk compared to what the next five weeks will bring.

Gold has only seen two Eagles games so far – Georgia and Germany from November. So he didn’t select the player pool for the upcoming Americas Rugby Championship, which kicks off for the Eagles Saturday in Carson, Calif. He’s barely met his assistant coaches, let alone players. So he’ll be balancing getting to know them with installing his modus operandi simultaneously, all the while trying to not upset the continuity of a team trying to defend a title.

“I think one of the reasons why the ARC management team has pretty much been kept together is for that very reason,” Gold told Rugby Today. “This ARC for me is going to be an opportunity to look at the wider group that there is.”

Two years ago, Mitchell came into a similar situation. He hadn’t coached the team in November, but would be the head man through the ARC, having seen next to none of the Eagles play. The result was 24 new caps being handed out and a loss to Brazil, the biggest upset in the history of World Rugby’s rankings.

Gold, who cherishes continuity and is less than two years out from the World Cup, where Mitchell was four, won’t go that far.

“I’m anticipating because of a few logistical issues, we’ll probably end up using close to 30 guys, which is more than I would have originally wanted to,” said Gold, “but some guys are going to have to leave after a couple of weeks, and certain guys can’t come in, so our hand is forced a little bit there.

“Post-this-ARC, I think it’s going to be critical for us to certainly finalize a larger group and try and stick together as much as possible and create as much continuity as possible leading into the World Cup.”

Another stark difference seems to be the approach to the job. Where Mitchell had written in his own book, published a little more than a year before he’d be named Mike Tolkin’s successor, that he wasn’t interested in coaching a team coming from a weak starting point, explicitly citing Tonga and Scotland, two teams who have owned the Eagles on the field, Gold views the job not as a stepping stone or step back, but an opportunity.

“I love a challenge. I’ve taken on some pretty tough challenges in my career, not so pretty ones, certainly not sexy jobs necessarily, because I enjoy the game,” he said.

“One of the things I love the most about the game is seeing guys fulfill potential, when maybe other people didn’t believe they had the opportunity to do so. I know a bit about U.S. Rugby, and I know a little bit about the players, and I think that, by and large, there’s some pretty good players here. I think there’s going to be huge potential here. It’s an exciting country.”

During his first presentation at the NDS, he made it clear he concerns himself first and foremost with what he can control, and then with what he can influence. He doesn’t dwell on the uncontrollables. For a guy beginning his work for a union which struggles to make ends meet, that’s an encouraging sign.

Signs are one thing. Results are another. Gold was hesitant to commit to a definition of success, what accomplishments would, at the end of his tenure, amount to a job well done.  

“I would really like to see that the team are really competitive, and competitive against tier-one teams in the world. That even the cynic of rugby can watch the game and see the Eagles team know exactly what they’re trying to do, works as hard as the opposition do, and hopefully along the way we’ll be able to shock a couple people and get some big results,” he said.

One of Gold’s immediate plans to make that happen is refining what he calls game management. He thinks the Eagles tend to play too much high-risk rugby in the wrong end of the field. Along with a love for Tiger, Gold revealed at the summit his preference for attack over defense, referring to attack as the chocolates you enjoy and defense as the vegetables you eat out of necessity. But he thinks he can pull the Eagles' defense up, too. Off the field, he wants narrow the gap by inputting a system to keep tabs on his players spread across the world, as well as create a strong bond with the coaches and brass of Major League Rugby, where much of his domestic player pool will surely ply its trade.  

“They want to work closely with us. We certainly want to work closely with them,” said Gold of the MLR.

“I’d like to get around the MLR. I’d like to get my teeth into it and understand it as quickly as possible. I will definitely watch every game that’s played every weekend, and get to understand every different player and every different coaching methodology.”

He says he’ll be visible at domestic matches. He wants to get to some of the overseas fixtures involving Eagles, too, as well as have his coaches interacting with the remotely-based players on a regular basis. He plans to have film available on every active Eagle Monday mornings. That’s his tactic for getting around one uncontrollable hurdle – geography.

The other major challenge is closely linked – the fact that prior to a tournament or tour, whether it’s the ARC, June tests or November tests, he’ll only ever have five days with his team before kicking off, often against a team with a lot more assembly time under its belt.

“It’s not ideal. It’s not a coincidence that the best teams in the world insist their best players play at home. We’re not in that position at this moment in time. I do believe the hierarchy understand that and down the line are working towards that. It’s not going to happen before the World Cup,” said Gold, who plans to mitigate the lack of time together with more consistent selections.

“You’ve got 17 test matches before you get to the World Cup. That’s all you’ve got. So you’ve got a very, very small period of time before you get an opportunity for guys to play together a lot,” he added.

“And you’re going to go there with very few cumulative caps. World Cup winning teams, as an example, will aim to go with 750 cumulative caps in the starting 15. That’s a lot of shared experience. That’s a lot of continuity. Just out of circumstances, we’re not going to be able to achieve that. But you’ve got to do your best to try and get that going as quickly as possible.”

So the hurdles haven't changed. The country is still wildly vast, and the top players don't get to train or play with and against each other enough. There isn't enough money to assemble for a proper amount of time ahead of matches. There isn't really a player pathway. There's still a dearth of quality coaches across the country, leading to a lack of ready-made internationals. The difference is there's a new man charged with clearing these hurdles, and he's excited to be doing it.