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For the second week in a row, Gary Gold's Eagles have broken the USA's all-time record for highest World Rugby ranking. The USA climbed to 13th last week off the back of a 9-0 test record, and Monday they moved up to 12th despite falling to No. 2 Ireland Saturday, 57-14.
The previous high mark was 14th, but that’s where the USA debuted when the rankings were rolled out in 2003. It took a few years for them to correct themselves with results, and the Eagles dropped to an all-time low of 20th in 2008. It’s been a not-so-steady climb back ever since. Until beating Romania earlier this month, the USA hadn’t broken the top 14 since 2006.
(Author's note: Every change to the USA's World Rugby ranking is plotted in a chart below the story.)
2018 has been, by every measure, the most successful season in Eagle history. 9-1 test record, 9-2 overall, second-consecutive Americas Rugby Championship title, first-ever wins over Scotland and Samoa, and the highest ranking in team history.
(Author's note: The only argument against the above claim would be for 1920 or 1924, when the USA won gold at back-to-back Olympics, but only two teams competed in ’20 and three in ’24. They’d secured a medal by merely getting off the boat. And the Eagles as we know them didn’t get their start until 1976, when USA Rugby was founded.)
The burning question is why. Where is credit due? Three answers come to the forefront – Coaching, Major League Rugby and the Americas Rugby Championship. But those are just the obvious ones. I put the question to a Twitter poll with those options, and 44% of 113 voters credited MLR, 29% credited the ARC, and 27% credited head coach Gary Gold.
Let’s start with coaching. Tom Billups was the head man when World Rugby introduced the rankings with the Eagles debuting at 14. Peter Thorburn took over in 2006, and at the end of his tenure in 2007, they’d slipped to 19th, but the results under him would see them fall to 20th after his departure and before Scott Johnson coached his lone test.
They moved up to 17th before Eddie O’Sullivan took over in 2009. The Irishman got the USA as high as 15th in the summer of 2010, but they’d fall to as low as 18th on his watch, too. Mike Tolkin inherited a 17th-ranked team in 2012, and he’d hand off a 17th-ranked squad to Mitchell, who’d leave the Eagles in the same spot at the end of his two years.
After Gold was hired but before he led the USA onto the pitch for the first time earlier this year, the Eagles fell to 18th. Under him, they’ve climbed six spots.
So Mitchell left the team in the same rank in which he found it, as did Tolkin, O’Sullivan and Billups. The Eagles fell five spots under Thorburn, and Johnson coached just one test. Those are the raw numbers. Read between them, and it’s not so straightforward.
The team obviously improved under Mitchell. They went from the wrong side of the biggest rankings upset in history opposite Brazil in the Americas Rugby Championship his first year to going undefeated in the same competition the next. However, if he’d not chosen to spend the entire first year blooding new players – he handed out 24 new caps his first month on the job – he may have left the team in a higher ranking than he found them.
Consistency is the biggest reason for giving Gold the lion’s share of the coaching credit for the turnaround. Let’s look at the scrumhalf position, for instance. In his first year, Mitchell started four different halfbacks and blooded five, giving three players their first-ever international cap at scrumhalf.
Somehow included in that group of guys was Stephen Tomasin, who has zero high-level scrumhalf experience. The sixth No. 9 he put on the field? Shaun Davies, the only one of Mitch's halfbacks to earn a cap at the position both before and after him. Davies, who's claimed another 17 caps the last two years, wasn’t even given a look in Mitch’s first year.
That kind of glaring oversight in player selection was symptomatic of Mitchell’s biggest weakness as the USA’s head man – he spent very little time in America scouting, creating relationships with coaches or poring over film of the domestic player pool. After a year of essentially open tryouts, Mitchell’s selections became more consistent, as did the results.
There’s no denying Mitchell loosened the lid of the jar for Gold, and his staff was integral in pointing the ship in the right direction. But ultimately, it was Gold who took the baton and got the results, and continuity played a big part in the equation. He chopped and changed far less, and logging those critical minutes together whenever possible could well have been the difference in one-point wins over Scotland and Samoa.
The loosening of the lid precedes Mitchell, too. AJ MacGinty is the best Eagle in the world. He’s the best flyhalf in USA history. He’s a generational talent. His first coach in America? Mike Tolkin, first at the New York Athletic Club and eventually for the Eagles.
When MacGinty landed on America's shore, he had no intention of making it the three years it’d take to qualify for the USA via residency. He was on holiday. It was under the tutelage of Tolkin that he was set on the course to a cap.
Tolkin also had the foresight to take a 22-year-old, uncapped, very inexperienced Joe Taufete’e to the 2015 Rugby World Cup, hoping the experience would pay off in the future. It has, as Taufete’e is one score shy of breaking British & Irish Lion Keith Wood’s record for most international tries by a front rower. It took Wood 63 tests for both Ireland and the Lions to notch 15 tries. Taufete’e’s scored 14 tries in 19 matches exclusively for the USA.
A compelling argument could be made that Tolkin is at least partially responsible for the careers of two players likely to go down in history as the best to ever play their position for the USA.
Under Tolkin, the Eagles lost their first four matches against Canada, but it was also under him that they snapped a seven-game losing streak to the Canadians and began their current nine-game unbeaten streak. O’Sullivan, before him, helped stop the backslide from the Thorburn era.
Major League Rugby
Would Will Magie and Shaun Davies have been Glendale Raptors if not for the MLR? If so, then there’s not much reason to credit the upstart league for the USA’s first five wins this year, as it didn’t kick off until after the conclusion of the ARC. If not, you could argue the continuity Davies and Magie built while playing for Glendale leading up to the MLR played a part in winning the last two ARCs.
By the time Gold had to name his team for the June tests earlier this year, only two weeks of MLR had been played, so there’s no weight to the concept that MLR helped the Eagle staff identify talent for the summer series. And it’d be a stretch to say anyone except Mika Kruse was identified out of the league for the November tour, either, and Kruse didn’t earn a cap.
Going forward, if MLR is doing its job, we’ll see several players raise their hands for international duty. It will happen. It just hasn’t, yet.
The greatest benefit of the MLR to date, though, has been increased playing time at a higher standard for the domestic Eagles. It wouldn’t have made a difference for those first five wins of 2018, but it certainly helped in June, by which time most MLR players would have had at least a couple of months in a heightened environment, as well as November.
It’s important to note MLR teams train less than elite college programs. Two or three practices a week is fairly common across the league. The standard of those sessions and the strength and conditioning built around them is a massive step up from the domestic club level, but still probably a large step below that of overseas professional clubs.
Americas Rugby Championship
The Americas Rugby Championship started in 2016. That it’s only been played in non-World Cup years to date gives us a clean sample from which we can draw some conclusions.
From 2016-2018, with the advent of the ARC, the Eagles have averaged 9.3 tests a year. That’s nearly a test-and-a-half more than they averaged from 2012-2014 under Tolkin. From 2008-2010 and 2004-2006, they averaged about five tests a year, so nearly half of what they’re playing now.
In order to get better at rugby, you have to play more. Same holds true for international rugby; the more tests you play in that arena, the better your results are likely to be in that arena. The Eagles are playing more rugby now than they did before the ARC, and they played more under Tolkin than they had prior to him.
We’re not just seeing the cumulative effect of those extra caps and training days, I’d posit we’re also seeing the effect of winning. The Eagles aren’t just playing more matches; they’re playing more winnable matches. Losing to Ireland by 43 or the Maoris by 37 provides plenty of opportunity for improvement, but if those losses aren’t sandwiched by some positive results, it can be detrimental to the team’s psyche.
Imagine the Eagles enter the June tests without a single match under their belt, without the confidence built by consecutive ARC championships. Do they hang 62 on Russia after what would likely have been just a week of training in Gold’s first match?
Imagine the Eagles don’t have the experience of playing Argentina XV to draws in 2016 and 2017 before beating them by a single score in a nail biter earlier this year. Having not learned to cope in those down-to-the-wire fistfights, do they win at the death against Scotland and Samoa?
The other benefit to the ARC pitting the USA against beatable teams is it allows for player development. Take out the ARC, and 19-cap Will Magie has only two starts at flyhalf as an Eagle. With the ARC, the USA’s third-string flyhalf has eight starts at 10 under his belt.
More to the point, the Eagles would never be ranked 12th right now if not for the eight-consecutive ARC tests they’ve won in a row. They simply wouldn’t have accrued enough rankings points for World Rugby’s formula to slot them that high.
Alex Magleby and Dave Hodges. Both former Eagles have certainly made personal impacts in their roles as high-performance managers, but I’d argue it isn’t what they’ve done with their jobs that’s been the secret sauce. Rather, it’s that their jobs exist at all.
Prior to Magleby assuming the role of director of performance in 2015, it didn’t exist. Former CEO Nigel Melville was also hired to be the director of rugby operations, but if there was much labor put toward that role, it bore no apparent fruit. The men’s national team coaching staff had to do everything from recruiting, scouting and liaising with age-grade coaches, to fundraising, logistical planning, negotiating player releases and any internal communications.
In 2017, Magleby’s role became even more focused when Hodges was hired as the general manager specifically for the men’s 15s team. Now Magleby’s role, which didn’t exist until 2015, was divided even further. What the head coach used to have to do on his own there are now several people in charge of, allowing the coaches to focus on coaching.
Full-time training contracts for the men’s 7s team were instituted in 2012. Before, crossover from 7s to 15s team was commonplace. Several years into the 7s team’s professional era, there was still plenty of crossover.
Folau Niua has 17 caps and Danny Barrett 13, but neither has earned one since 2015. Brett Thompson has six caps, Matai Leuta has three, as do Martin Iosefo and Madison Hughes, and Stephen Tomasin and Malon Al-Jiboori have one each. Those numbers are paltry compared to what they were for their predecessors.
America didn’t used to have enough talented, skillful rugby players to fill out both a 7s team and a 15s team without double dipping regularly. Now they do, allowing for more caps for everyone in their respective code, benefitting both programs.
The answer that all too often gets missed is maybe the most important one – all of the oars in the water at the grassroots level across the country. There are more competent, driven, passionate yeomen volunteering the hard yards in coaching and administration from coast to coast.
You’ve potentially heard of Brian Richardson, the Daytona coach who also coached high school football, where he found Perry Baker. Richardson introduced the future two-time World Rugby 7s Player of the Year to rugby and made sure he was never more than an arm’s length away from the sport, even as he pursued and played professional football.
You might have heard of Shane Young. He’s one of the founders of Memphis Inner City Rugby, a non-profit changing the lives of young people. If his family never moves to Florida and starts the Naples high school program, and Young never asks a lanky, lean Cam Dolan to play rugby, he never intercepts all those tries.
Every Eagle has an origin story. For the homegrown ones, the common element is almost always that someone who doesn’t draw a paycheck from the sport of rugby got someone to try it out for the first time that eventually would. Every year there are more and more of those stories being told, and without them, none of the other stuff matters.