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You’ve all heard it. After being stuffed repeatedly, a scrum or lineout inside the attacking 22 provides a rare scoring opportunity. To make sure the sense of occasion isn’t lost or wasted, someone points out the newfound proximity to the try line, hoping to inspire hyper focus.
After 42 years of hard yards, the ‘look where we are’ moment for American rugby has arrived. The men’s Eagles have reached previously unfathomable heights in 7s, and Chris Brown has the women looking like they’re on the verge of doing just the same. The men’s 15s team is coming off its best year to date, and, on the heels of a semifinal appearance at the World Cup, the women have a promising coach who seems to be energizing the player base.
If you look at the average World Rugby ranking across all four senior national teams, 15s and 7s, men’s and women’s, there’s a strong argument to be made USA Rugby will finish 2018 as the third-best union in the world, on the pitch. The men’s 15s team is ranked 12th, men’s 7s first, women’s 15s fifth and women’s 7s third, which averages out to 5.25. The only countries in the world better are New Zealand (1.25) and England (4.5).
Several heavyweights across both codes in the men’s game don’t field core teams in the Women’s 7s series, like South Africa, Argentina, Wales, Scotland, etc., so therefore aren't ranked. If you eliminate that category to include those nations, the Eagles are still third, though tied with Australia. That by subtracting the reigning Olympic champions from the equation, it hurts the USA’s case, is alone incredible.
Considering the heaps of off-the-field turmoil the union has recently suffered thanks to ineffective leadership, the feat is somewhat miraculous. At a time when the national governing body is enduring its most trying financial challenges, somehow the national teams are doing better than ever.
Credit goes all the way around, from coaches and players to administrators on down to grassroots. But a big slice must be given to outgoing sevens director Alex Magleby. Since stepping aside as coach nearly five years ago, he’s largely been reshaping USA Rugby’s entire high-performance department.
His title has changed over the years, but Magleby basically served as the general manager or director of rugby for all national teams before Dave Hodges came on as GM for men’s 15s and Emilie Bydwell as GM for both women’s programs last year. Billy Millard served as GM for the men’s 15s team for a short stint, and in 2016, JD Stephenson was named the database manager, taking some work off Magleby’s desk, too. But no one has had more influence across all four Eagles teams in recent years than the former Dartmouth coach.
The entirety of his tenure, which ends with the year as he shifts focus to running the New England FreeJacks, hasn’t been so rosy. A series of messy hires and fires arrested the women’s 7s team’s development for a couple of years. His HP department went $800,000 over budget in 2016, assisting in the union’s financial collapse. The pathway to the senior national teams looks more like a labyrinth, and the under-funded age-grade teams continue to largely underperform. Those last two problems existed before Magleby’s tenure and likely will for sometime after.
But no one can deny Magleby’s done some heavy lifting the last five years, and he’s certainly leaving all four jerseys in a better place than he found them. The sport’s renewed relationship with the Olympics has surely played a part, as has the uptick in resources in the college game (read varsity movement), as well as fits and starts toward professionalization.
Equally as remarkable as the fact that USA Rugby pulled this off despite some serious issues is the union’s potential; just how good could the Eagles get if their organization was run effectively and efficiently?
How good could the women get if they were given the same resources as the men? How good could all teams be if a logical pathway was paved, our age-grade teams received financial support equal to their peers, and we could afford more development opportunities and assembly time, assistant coaches, and better compensation for the athletes themselves?
2018 was a wonderfully worked team try. In the proposed new Australasian league with the weird rules, Global Rapid Rugby, it might even register as one of those newfangled power tries worth nine points, no conversion necessary. Heading into 2019, we’re knocking on the door of the try line again.
Last week, I wrote about appreciating the moment, stopping to smell the roses, so to speak. That’s important, but so is capitalizing fully on the momentum we’ve got going. How do we make sure this isn’t a blip, but rather a long-term positive trend?
When I was coaching college ball a few years ago, I was lucky enough to get Eagle scrumhalf Shaun Davies to work with my team for a few sessions as well as look at our systems and provide some input. One of the things he picked up at Life that I stole was the emphasis on double scores. If you can score consecutively and prevent the opponent from doing the same, you’ll win a whole bunch of games. Sounds a bit obvious, but repeating the term "double-score" served as an effective reminder, even in-game, of the next-job mentality we were trying to instill.
CEO Ross Young would be wise to get the sharpest minds in American rugby in a room to draw up a creative, sound set-piece play to try and get back across the line again in the next few years. He needs to look beyond the current piecemealed board of directors to do so and repair any necessary bridges to the community in the process.
What could that double-score look like? A third Americas Rugby Championship title is nice but think bigger.
There’s room for Olympic medals on the mantle at the national office, and an infusion of cash to deepen and strengthen both player pools and provide more playing opportunities for the women would go a long way.
In 15s, the women going a game further in 2021 or the men winning two games (dare we dream of a quarterfinal appearance?) in Japan next year would certainly register as a score. If the “league of nations” concept being promulgated by board member Gus Pichot comes into play after next year’s World Cup, being in the top tier of that competition would be a score, too. Perhaps multiplying the per diem or finding a way to centrally contract players would get us over one of those try lines.
For the women specifically, the budget to hire as many coaches as the men’s teams and to play the same number of tests as their competitors is a good start, but far from enough. Everyone would benefit from a centralized headquarters. It stands to reason a physically centralized organization might run more efficiently than one based in Colorado that operates its full-time teams out of California, headed by a guy in New England.
By the time you get to the game, it’s too late to prepare. You won’t magically get fitter, more skilled or noticeably better in the warm-up alone, much like USA Rugby won’t get financially and organizationally sound over the holidays. But even if you arrive to the game undercooked, as USA Rugby has, you can still put in a gritty shift and get the result.
Collectively, that’s what we have to do to make the most of this prized territory. While the teams themselves slog through another proverbial 80 minutes, off-the-field our current leadership needs to draft some help to make this success as replicable as possible.