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There are three major story lines for the United States coming from the World Cup, and all of them have to do with choices. The first two have been talked about – the exclusion of Todd Clever and the selections for South Africa – and the third is a decision yet to be made, or at least announced. Will Mike Tolkin continue as head coach?
Only one American coach has ever skippered the Eagles the year following a World Cup. Tolkin’s been on the job since 2012, and it’s entirely possible he will either move on without being asked to, or he’ll be asked to.
The success of the Tolkin era is fodder for a future article, so I’m not going to do something as crass as give him a grade or declare if he’s been a failure (though he hasn’t been), but if the 2015 RWC proves to be his only as the USA’s head man – it will be remembered for his handling of Clever and South Africa.
I have not spoken to Clever about his ouster. He has politely declined comment. I have spoken to Tolkin and gotten the media-safe version of the story from his perspective. Combined with having talked to others with better knowledge of the team’s inner workings than myself, these conversations lead me to the conclusion there isn’t a crucial secretive piece of the puzzle we’re all missing.
Two men, a captain and a coach, and one or more assistant coaches, didn’t see eye to eye. The coaches decided they’d be better off without the now former captain, and they excommunicated him. Egos were involved. The team went winless at the World Cup, lacking punch from the exiled player’s position group.
At the end of the day, Todd Clever would have helped the Eagles at the World Cup. Danny Barrett is a rising yet not refined star and Al McFarland put in a workman’s performance on defense, but neither is the equivalent of Todd Clever. If Scott LaValla never gets hurt, this is less of an issue, but he did.
The decision to leave Clever off the team is one Tolkin has to live with. So is the decision to select down, way down, for the South Africa game. The Eagles were compelling in their effort in the first half, holding the Springboks, with everything to play for, to a 14-point advantage at intermission.
As inspiring as the first half was, the second half was equally staggering. 50 points in 40 minutes is special. It’s historic. It’s embarrassing.
The reason behind the selection was to have the team as ready and rested as possible for a winnable game with Japan, which ended up a not-that-competitive loss. If the Eagles beat the Brave Blossoms, some face would be saved. They didn’t, making Tolkin’s selections for South Africa the wrong ones.
In 2011, it took about a month after the USA’s final pool loss for O’Sullivan to confirm his departure. It took three more months for Tolkin to be hired. He kept much of the staff intact from the O’Sullivan era, making just two changes. They were announced a month after his hire.
Then he made several more changes over the next three years. Only Chris O’Brien, Paul Golding, Dave Williams and Tristan Lewis, who’ve seen multiple 15s and 7s coaches come and go, are still on the staff from 2012.
If Tolkin is to be replaced, the 2011 timeline won’t do, as the new American version of the Six Nations is supposed to kick off in February. If Tolkin is to be replaced, the decision should have been made before the Eagles ever played the Harlequins in Philadelphia, the Wallabies in Chicago or landed at Heathrow. For CEO Nigel Melville, three years of evidence should have been enough to decide if Tolkin was the man for the future or not. And for Tolkin, knowing the new Pan American competition was looming a few short months after the conclusion of the World Cup, should have made his intentions clear long in advance.
But, it’s not always been Boulder’s modus operandi to think in advance when it comes to these matters – see the Alex Magleby/Matt Hawkins/Mike Friday shuffle.
If USA Rugby leadership and Tolkin are already on the same page about the near future, or if Tolkin is out and a list of potential replacements has already been drafted, narrowed down and vetted, we’re on the right track.
If we’re in a review period still thinking about the next move, it’s a costly error. If the new competition, the Americas Rugby Championship, June tests, the Pacific Nations Cup and the November tests are to be properly competed for, marketed, promoted and leveraged, there is no time to waste.
Unlike in 2011, there is someone very capable looking over the player pathway – Alex Magleby. He should have a handle on which veterans are thinking retirement, which amateurs are one-and-done and what a potential player pool for the Pan-Am Six Nations competition looks like.
The problem with looking at international rugby in four-year World Cup cycles is those cycles end, and when they do, there are still plenty of opportunities to either make hay or continue backsliding right away. In the past, USA Rugby has stalled in these moments. The future success of the Eagles relies on that being different this time around.