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I've looked into the crystal ball to see the future of our men's and women's Olympic programs, and it isn't pretty. The Men’s 7s Eagles are enjoying another fantastic year under head coach Mike Friday, which is why it might be difficult to look past the lipstick and see the warts. But they’re there, and if something’s not done to peek behind the mask of current success, a crash is imminent.
Under Friday, the men's team has reached new heights. The highest an American team ever finished before him in the World Series standings was 10th. In his first two years the Eagles finished sixth, and they’re on pace for fifth this season. Before Friday, the Eagles had made three semifinal berths ever, and under him they’ve more than tripled that total, making back-to-back-to-back semifinals on two separate occasions. Before Friday took them to the 2015 London 7s title, the Eagles had never won a tournament. Before Friday, the Eagles had never beaten New Zealand. Under him, they’ve beaten the All Blacks three times. Before Friday, the Eagles never enjoyed a winning season. Under him, they’re on pace for their third in a row. Before Friday, no coach had ever won against rival Canada more than they'd lost. Friday’s on the verge of a third-straight season with a winning record over the Canadians. During his regime, the USA is 9-2-2 against its neighbors to the north.
That behemoth last paragraph goes a long way to put Mike Friday on a pedestal, as it should. He’s the most successful men’s senior national team coach in the history of American rugby. Up on the pedestal with him should be assistant Chris Brown, who handles the day-to-day operations in Chula Vista, Calif., and physio Brian Green – all of them are the new variables which have seen the program to its current perch.
But what happens if Friday’s no longer the coach, either by his own volition or his employer’s? Do the Eagles go back to competing for ninth-place most weekends and battling more against relegation than for gold?
‘Just make Brown head coach. He does most of the coaching, anyway,’ you might hear from a critic of Friday’s. While he has certainly earned the right to hold the reigns of his own program, and it’s only a matter of time before another union comes calling to give him that opportunity, he’s never done it at the international level on his own. Like there’s no telling if Belichick could have accomplished it all without Brady, or whether Brady could have done it sans Belichick, we won’t know if Brown can duplicate the success without his mentor until he’s thrown in the deep end.
And if not Brown, then who? The only person who’s ever scratched the surface of what Friday’s done is Alex Magleby, who currently holds the title of general manager for national teams and performance. But his doing that job, and taking the duties which go along with it off the head coach’s plate, has also been an integral ingredient in the team's recipe for success. So simply sliding him from one job to another would be like taking your finger out of one bullet wound to plug another only to bleed out from the first one.
There is no safety net of qualified, experienced, or groomed coaches waiting in the wings. The coaching pathway of age-grade 7s isn’t even there, really. Paul Holmes was named the U20s coach for the 7s program some time ago, but the team has never assembled or played a match. The 7s All Americans, which really only ever played a tournament a year, appear to be without a coach altogether.
When Friday stepped down from the England job in 2006, he was succeeded by another competent, experienced, qualified head coach, as Ben Ryan stepped in. When he vacated the Kenya job after the 2012/2013 season, he was succeeded by former Blitzbok coach Paul Treu, who left midseason citing poor working conditions. Since then, Kenya has been wildly inconsistent and never reached the same standard as under Friday.
USA Rugby, with its ever changing leadership structure, $1 million budget shortfall and lack of a backup plan sure looks like it’s a lot closer to being in Kenya’s situation than England’s. And that’s just the coaching bit. Player personnel problems, you could argue, are masked by an even thinner veil.
The three most integral, valuable, can’t-lose pieces of the team are Madison Hughes, Folau Niua and Perry Baker. If any one of those guys goes down, so do the USA’s chances of competing. Hughes leads the team in points again, as does Perry Baker in tries. Last season Hughes led the entire Series in points, and Baker is currently second in the world in tries. Niua is the most important cog in the best restart machine in the world.
Look at where each of these guys came from. Hughes was born to American parentage but grew up and was developed in England, Baker tinkered with the game on-and-off for years before finally making a run at international play just shy of turning 30, finally putting his gridiron dreams to bed, and Niua was found as a needle in the haystack of Polynesian-American talent that is the West Coast.
You can’t point to the way any of those three guys came into the program as a sustainable, replicable, controllable model. It’s more like catching lightning in a bottle, or even catching three separate bolts in the same bottle at the same time. And don’t neglect their age. Hughes, at 24, could have two more Olympic cycles in his legs, but Niua will be 35 when Tokyo 2020 rolls around, and Baker will be 33.
There are certainly talented players coming into camp before each tour, contracted at the EATC and sprinkled throughout the college and senior ranks, but there isn’t another Madison Hughes, Folau Niua or Perry Baker currently in the queue.
We’ve already seen some of the ill effects of being too reliant on individual players. Without Hughes’ full focus, or even Friday’s, the Eagles got off to a crazy slow start this season, finishing 9th, 11th and tied for 7th in the first three tournaments.
Developing a true second layer or team and realistically expanding the pool of players talented, experienced and skilled enough – those who are legitimately ready for World Series play – has been something every American coach has talked about. Al Caravelli wanted it, so did Magleby and Matt Hawkins, and so does Friday. However, we’re not much closer to realizing it now than we were 10 years ago.
In fact, this season, we’ve taken steps back in that vein, with fewer tournaments and high-level playing opportunities for the Falcons than the year before. That’s been a casualty of the union’s financial woes.
The thought of players, coaches and many observers was that Team USA’s participation in the 2016 Olympics would act as a springboard for future program growth and on-field success. There would be more resources, more sponsors, more donors, more athletes, etc. The reality was always that if there would be more, it wouldn’t be provided by the United States Olympic Committee.
The USOC, which funds dozens of sports for both the summer and winter Games, prioritizes its support based on cycles, meaning summer sports get more in the year leading up to their Olympics than they do four years out, and vice versa.
So capturing Olympic momentum and using it to fill the coffers was USA Rugby’s task. But, like there aren’t systems in place to cultivate the next set of coaches and players, USA Rugby didn’t have a mechanism in place to refill and surpass the resources it enjoyed in the months leading up to Rio. And now both the men’s and women’s teams are back to basically where they were four years ago in terms of funding and resources.
So what can be done? I’d argue what needs to be done is simply skewing our overall high performance budget to send more support to the 7s programs. On the women’s side, the 7s players are already treated better than their 15s counterparts in that they’re compensated for their commitment and time. On the men’s side, the gap isn’t so big, as men’s 15s players earn $100 a day when they’re assembled and generally have to sacrifice less than the women to be involved.
That certainly isn’t equitable, and gender equity within our high performance sector or USA Rugby as a whole is a topic for its own column, but the truth is World Rugby’s grant money comes with strings attached, and a large chunk of the men’s 15s team’s budget comes directly from World Rugby grants that have to be spent on men’s senior 15s, per World Rugby’s stipulations.
Another truth is that American women simply have more athletic opportunities than their counterparts just about anywhere else. Title IX, the landmark 1972 legislation on equity in education, which has had a massive trickle down effect on sports, is unparalelled anywhere in the world, and it's helped narrow the gap between opportunities for men and women. As a consequence, America's female population is simply more athletic than the rest of the world's, evidenced by the USA's dominance in women's sports that aren't traditionally American-dominated, like soccer. It could be pointed to as a major factor for USA winning the inaugural Women's Rugby World Cup in 1991. That gap is also narrowing, evidenced by the USA's slip in the women's rankings, but it's still very palpable, and the women's national teams are more competitive at the top level as a result.
Nonetheless, the Olympic opportunity is the biggest one on USA Rugby’s horizon, and the books should reflect that for both the men and the women. Right now, USA Rugby commits about as much money to the 15s programs as they do the Olympic ones, but the only way to alleviate and mend the systemic issues challenging the present and future of our Olympic teams is by committing more money to them. That means taking some away from 15s.
Sure, the youth game is huge. The concept of sowing as many seeds as possible in the youth sector to create more future fans, members and potential Eagles makes all the sense in the world. And that should be the top priority for CEO Dan Payne and his regime. It is.
But if when that generation gets to be old enough to compete for a spot on Team USA, the Eagles are still making poverty-line wages and there are still so few development opportunities, we won’t be in the best position to capitalize on the influx of people. In other words, we can’t fully cash in on human capital without financial capital.
Exactly how that impacts the 15s program is unknown, but I’ve got to think one result would be not paying a head coach $260,000 a year to live in South Africa and spend just around a quarter of the year on American soil. (Payne said in one of his social media Q&As that Mitchell was moving Stateside. That has changed, and there are currently no plans for him to move to America.)
I’d imagine another result would be assuring there are fewer empty seats for domestic tests, either by actually marketing them appropriately or by playing them in appropriately-sized venues. Those empty seats come at a steep price. There’s also significant fat to be trimmed in the national office and beyond.
If it weren’t for Friday, Team USA’s men would have probably missed out on Rio altogether, and perhaps that failure would have forced USA Rugby into actually fixing the system, like a winless World Cup spurred the Board and then-CEO Nigel Melville to run off Mike Tolkin and replace him with John Mitchell at two-and-a-half times Tolkin’s salary.
But we did get Friday, the men did make the Olympics despite all early projections, our superior athleticism and luckily striking good with the pre-Rio coaching change did see our women do well enough to expect we're on the uptick, and the unparalleled success we’ve enjoyed has lulled decision makers into a false sense of security. We’re effectively living in a house of cards with no insurance.