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Team USA’s boys finished the Youth Olympic Games 1-4, in second-to-last place, and winless in the pool rounds. Their only win came against Japan after all hope of medaling, in other words finishing in the top half of a six-team event, were gone.
The girls went 1-2-1 in the pool rounds, scooping up their only win against in-over-its-head-Tunisia. The Americans ended up with a better point differential than Spain and made it to the semifinals, where they were comprehensively shut out by Australia before being beaten by China for a second time.
The effort was there from the players and coaches, but they were set up for failure from the start.
The timeline goes like this – USA Rugby announced in April it would be sending teams to the Nanjing Games. They named Ben Gollings and Richie Walker as head coaches in June. The rosters were released in July – a month and two days before departure for China. The girls never really had a full assembly before arriving in China, and Gollings met the team he didn’t select just 12 days before kickoff.
All of that is compressed, and it showed in the results.
Early on, a very talented boys team was taking contact too much, picking-and-jamming repeatedly and bunching up around the rucks. By the end of the tournament, they were playing pretty good 7s. The girls, whose High School All American program is far less mature and developed, especially when it comes to 7s, never really hit their groove. Nonetheless, the coaches, players and team leaders did about as good as could have been expected given what they had to work with.
“We got a late invite, so we had to scramble a little bit to get the teams together, so we didn’t have as much preparation as we would have liked. At the end of the day, we had to make the decision to go with little preparation and give the kids a great opportunity or not go at all, so what do you do?” USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville told Rugby Today.
There’s an argument to be made that when it comes to the Olympic Games, or anything that relates to those five rings, whether it’s the Pan-Am Games, qualifiers or the Olympics themselves, you either do it right, or you don’t do it. And there are countries who chose not to play rugby at the Youth Olympics, as the USA only got its invite after nations that had actually earned bids to Nanjing turned them down. Still, USA Rugby, with low expectations in terms of on-the-field results, took money from the Senior National Team budget to pay for Nanjing.
“Did we feel we could create a team that could be more competitive? Yeah,” development director Alex Magleby told Rugby Today. “But I didn’t think we would be in the medal rounds given where rugby is in the high school levels in this country and that we couldn’t get these guys together for a long period of time.”
Other, better rugby nations turned down the chance to compete in rugby at the Youth Olympic Games, and USA Rugby took money away from its senior teams trying to get to the actual Olympics in their year of qualification, gave that money to two youth teams, and then didn’t equip those teams with a shot at winning. It’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul, but not paying Paul enough to get him off your back.
The underlying question is, are results of the underfunded Nanjing effort just a symptom of the larger problem – that USA Rugby is not focused enough on the Olympic effort overall?
Aside from taking money from the actual Olympic qualification campaign to underfund a losing youth effort, there are more glaring issues. The contracts at the OTC haven’t really changed since they were introduced three men’s coaches ago, and that’s a problem. There have been four men’s coaches since the announcement of rugby getting back into the Olympics – another problem.
The coaching issue has been a headache in and of itself. USA Rugby thought it had its guy in Magleby, but he chose to step away for personal reasons. Then Matt Hawkins, with no relevant experience, was hired. Less than a year later he was fired. Now USA Rugby thinks it has its guy again in Mike Friday, who Melville really wanted when he hired Hawkins.
The money issue, arguably, is greater. Not only has it retarded the effectiveness and potential of the age-grade 7s teams, but the pittance on offer for contracted athletes has seen several top players leave the Senior National Teams, and not just for pro contracts overseas, but for 9-to-5, suit-and-tie jobs here domestically.
“It’s about money. USOC only give you a flat line amount of money, and we pay a lot more than a number of sports do per athlete,” said Melville. “That’s a challenge for us. We’re paying two-thirds of the salaries, and the USOC probably pay a third.”
But if the 7s Eagles were winning with more consistency, the budget would likely be bigger already, which circles back to the coaching issue. The United States Olympic Committee hasn’t made a habit of backing losers, and if more investment and more shrewd personnel moves over the last five years would have resulted in a realistic expectation of making a splash at Rio, the USOC would probably have upped its ante.
“We didn’t have the best year last year, right? So we really have to start proving to them that we can get into the Olympics, one, but more importantly to them is medal,” said Magleby. “We need to perform. There’s no doubt about it. We own it.”
USA Rugby isn’t just sitting on a pile of cash that could be allocated to the Olympic Games that is instead going toward a raucous Christmas party. And Melville can’t just snap his fingers and, voila, there’s more money in the 7s budget. But we’re five years past the announcement that 7s would be in the 2016 Olympic Games. There’s been time to reallocate existing money and raise more.
The funny thing about budgets is they get made yearly, and not having much of a 7s budget before the Olympic announcement in 2009 is no excuse for underfunding what is the biggest opportunity for American rugby ever.
Since 2009, USA Rugby has added employees across numerous departments at their head office, some of whom aren’t bringing in any extra cash flow. Take, for instance, the college department. In 2009, there was no collegiate director. Now there are two, and USA Rugby’s collegiate landscape is as fractured and dysfunctional as it has been in recent memory. Could that money going toward salaries have been better spent if it were earmarked for the Olympic effort? If so, it’s just one example.
“We have to increase the pot as best we can. The focus in the next 12 months is to increase more and more money in the 7s program and keep that building as we go forward, but that’s at all levels. You’ve got so much money to go around. You have to balance it,” said Melville, who defends the stagnant pay of 7s Eagles as Olympic qualification nears.
“7s players at the training center are pretty well looked after in terms of food and things like that, so they can live, and it’s a great opportunity for them. We’re not saying it’s a great pot of gold for them, and it’s very tough for them financially, but it’s better than not paying them.”
The Youth Olympic teams were hurt not just by the lack of money, but the lack of high school 7s in this country. Outside of a few teams that take 7s seriously and the state of Iowa, there isn’t much in the way of 7s being played by high school students, including those who played in China. Even at the highest levels, with the High School and Collegiate All Americans, those programs are competing in just one tournament a year.
Think about how remarkable that is. We’re all pinning hopes of waking the sleeping giant on the Olympics, yet we’re not playing the Olympic version of rugby at the youth level, and we’re barely playing it at the age-grade level.
We weren’t playing it at the college level until after United World Sports and NBC created the Collegiate Rugby Championship in 2010, either. Then USA Rugby decided it needed its own championship and that focusing a bunch of resources to have ESPN webcast it and tuck it away in the hinterlands of cable was a good idea.
There’s still time to right the ship. The men’s 7s Eagles aren’t that far removed from beating the likes of South Africa and Fiji in quick succession. Under the tutelage of a highly regarded coaching staff, and with maybe their most athletic player pool in history, they could well catapult up the world rankings over the next several months, reverse their recent fortunes against Canada and qualify for the Olympics. Same for the women, who have an equally impressive stable of athletes. Then, maybe, the apparent lack of planning and resourcing might fade into the background.
But suppose all of that doesn’t happen. Maybe the lack of funding and focus on the Olympics results in more score lines like those experienced in Nanjing, and maybe USA Rugby sees its golden, Olympic opportunity slip away. The sleeping giant’s dreams might then turn into nightmares.