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Alex Magleby, USA Rugby’s Performance Director, has been at the center of many of the most visible things happening in USA Rugby for the last year, even if he hasn’t been the most visible figure. For that reason, I was eager to chat with him while he was in Philadelphia last weekend to talk about, among other thing, the Eagles Elite Training Squad, expectations for the Eagles this summer, and PRO.
One of the things I was most curious about was the composition of the Eagles Elite Training Squad. The 50-player list, released late this winter, included several players whose focus this summer is preparation for Rio rather than paying 15s. It seemed odd to me that players who were clearly not going to play in June were named in the EETS.
After listening to Magleby’s explanation, it makes much more sense to me. “We see them [the players in the squad], in addition to the work they’re doing in sevens, as 15s players. They understand we believe they have a future there.
“It’s a training squad. So we’re going to keep our eye on you more than other people. And it’s a shot across the bow to some guys that you’re not in this and here are the reasons why. They got individual feedback from their coaches on what they need to work on to get better, and some have done that and put their hand up for the June tests potentially. I think we’re going to do it every six months. The next one will be in July, July/August. Over time, you really want to be in that because that’s where you’re going to get resourced more.”
I asked Magleby to clarify what it meant to get “resourced more.”
“Your strength and conditioning is going to be monitored on a day-to-day basis—we don’t have the resources to monitor 150 players at that level. You’re having a conversation on a regular basis with your specialty coach, your strength and conditioning coach, your mental skills coach—all of those pieces of the puzzle.”
I asked about whether or not it was redundant to include a player in the EETS who was already at the Olympic Training Center.
Magleby’s explanation: “From a 15s perspective, these are the positions and skill work we are looking for you to do. And we already made that decision, we volumed out most of the sevens players a year and a half ago, two years ago. What’s going to happen through Rio and the  World Cup. I think we did a really nice job of getting [Mike] Friday and [Mike] Tolkin on the same page in that regard. I think you can see that with, my opinion, some of the better players in the World Cup were guys coming out of the sevens environment. Drew [Durutalo], Danny [Barrett], and a couple others. I think that the discussions even then, a player like Madison [Hughes], if he’s going to play test match 15s, that’s going to be his choice and whether those coaches want him and everything else… What are the skills he’s going to need outside of what he is getting in sevens to do that?”
As an example: “An international open side flanker is not going to hit tackles in the same way that he does in sevens. We’re still going to have to figure out ways to help him with his running lines” and other things.
It is hard to argue with the inclusion of someone like Madison Hughes. While he has been focused on sevens, if he can transfer his decision-making and execution under pressure to 15s, it would be almost impossible to leave him out of a gameday-23. The players I suspect raised the most eyebrows were Perry Baker and Carlin Isles. Baker, especially, has continued to grow into more than simply a fast guy on a rugby field. He was involved in the center of the field much more this season than last, and he became a real asset at restarts. We’ve seen a little less of Isles this year. And, yes, he had a brief stint in 2014 at Glasgow that didn’t result in playing time with the first team. However, when looking at how much he and Baker have improved over the last few years, it doesn’t make sense to me to assume they can’t continue that progress into 15s.
The only way to criticize the decision is by pointing to other players who might play wing and be a better investment. I can think of a few players I would have been excited to see on the list, but I don’t know that any of them are more likely to be regular Eagles over the next few years.
Because Magleby is involved in evaluating the national coaches, I asked about his expectations for the Eagles under John Mitchell.
“The Men’s National Team needs to qualify for the World Cup. We need to perform, there’s no question. The expectation is that our team will qualify for the world cup and perform in the world cup.”
A few months ago, Magleby talked with now-England coach Eddie Jones who speculated that, ”With the athletic potential, the US may need to lose for a couple years to learn how to play a chaos game as opposed to just a set-piece game in order to be the team it’s capable of being. That’s one way to think about it.”
With the limited number of matches that coaches of national sides get to build structures and cohesion, experimentation is not easy. (Eddie O’Sullivan commented on that while speaking with Murray Kinsella recently.) Losing in the short-term matters.
“We have to perform. Does it really matter if we beat Italy in June of 2016 if we just drop the ball on the World Cup entirely? Probably not, but all of those things [wins and losses] are tied to future dollars which then help us to continue to grow the game, whether that’s through World Rugby or through sponsorship and everything else. It is about winning at that level. It can’t be those situations where we’re just testing out new players. Which happened a bit in the ARC, and it happened a bit in the past. It’s a test match and we play our best team even if we have to manage a test three days apart and all that kind of stuff.”
When asked about PRO Rugby: “I think it’s going to have a major impact on our national team, even in the short term. The really positive change is that our athletes are in a full time training environment. Those training environments aren’t where they can get to, but it’s a dramatic improvement from where the vast majority of where our top 100 domestic athletes were. There are also another top 50 not playing in PRO. We’re not saying right now you have to play in PRO to be selected for the Eagles. That conversation hasn’t been had.
“PRO has put our athletes in a daily training environment where they are getting feedback everyday, their fitness is improving, they are getting the repetitions they need. A vast majority of these guys weren’t getting [those things].
“If you look at some of our top club teams in the country train 50-75 times a year. Guys at the OTC [Olympic Training Center] train 300 times a year, and that doesn’t include strength and conditioning sessions, where they get another 200 strength and conditioning sessions in. The volume of catching the ball and passing the ball under pressure has dramatically changed. You take a prop at one of our old top club teams and … you have a two-on-one in the game and he can’t execute under pressure because he’s only getting 70 of those touches in that season, and none of them really under pressure. So it’s a big change volume-wise.”
It is easy, and not necessarily wrong, to focus on the coaches of the national teams when discussing successes and struggles. Magleby’s influence should not be overlooked, though.
I did ask about the CEO search, but Magleby is “Not at all involved” in the CEO search. ”I don’t know when I will be asked my opinion on the candidate.”
In addition to what is in this post, we also talked some about the women’s sevens and 15s, as well as the National Tracking Camps and other things related to identifying and developing young players. Those parts of the conversation will be shared soon.