Team USA Head Coach Mike Tolkin Answers Tough Questions

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548193_10100304366673684_2146091434_nNEW YORK, NY – Following Team USA’s difficult summer, culminating in two losses to neighbor/rival Canada, RWU’s Matt McCarthy spoke with Team USA  Head Coach Mike Tolkin on the phone. Here is the printed version of the call:

RWU: Coach, thanks for speaking with us today.
TOLKIN: No problem. Matt

RWU: We had your boss, USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville on Monday and we’ll get to what he had to say in a minute, but first… It’s been a tough summer, capped by two distinctively different losses to Canada. Fans are frustrated and some are calling for changes. How do you respond to that?
TOLKIN: It was definitely a difficult summer but it was our first time in the Pacific Nation’s Cup, playing against teams that were all ranked higher than us. And although it’s now over a year since we’ve been on the job, we’re still in the relatively early days. We’re still transforming and transitioning, working in match-tested veterans with an infusion of youth and new players. I know fans are frustrated, though. So are we as a team, players and coaches… and we are working hard to get it right.

RWU: What Canada does better than us right now is provide a transparent pathway to the National Team. A player knows that they can play for a club in his province, make the Province’s Select Team and play in the CRC (Canadian Rugby Championship). The best players from the CRC get invited to the National Team’s camp… In the USA, we don’t have that right now. We had a semblance of that with our ITTs, but that no longer exists.

TOLKIN: I hope we can get something like it in place, and perhaps one day even have a cross-border HP (High Performance) competition based on true regions that mean something to people rather than birds (Falcons & Hawks NA4).

usa_rugby_logoRWU: Since USAR disbanded Super League Rugby, we now have our best teams playing in Division I – in their respective GUs (Geographical Unions) – with the Top 8 playing in an Elite Cup competition – like the Heineken Cup in Europe. During the course of the IRB-mandated longer season, these 8 teams will find windows to play these games.  Right now we have 4 teams from the West and 4 teams from the East comprise the Elite Cup, yes?
TOLKIN: Yes. The West teams play each other and the East play each other. 2 from each will then go to the Elite Cup Playoffs.

RWU: That format started last spring, so the teams were picked, right?
TOLKIN: They were. But if it goes forward, all will be subject to Promotion and Relegation, so the worst of the 8 will possibly drop down and the 9th ranked team will come up.

RWU: Luke Gross is the High Performance Director for USA Rugby. If the funds were in place, what could the HP do to help build the talent pool for you to choose from? What would you like to see in place?
TOLKIN: It’s a big country and a challenging task, but we just need to get started, no matter how small the scale. Three things to start:
1) Talent Identification from 16-18.
2) Setting up a comprehensive HP training program for identified prospects (all levels) at various USA connected HP centers around the country.
3) Monitor HP players for national teams and make sure they are playing competitive matches and proper skill work.

mike_tolkin_usaRWU: Nigel Melville pointed to the Canadians using the 7s program to feed their 15s program, indicating that maybe you aren’t doing that enough.
TOLKIN: We are using our 7s program and will continue to do so. Canada had seven of their 7s players on their roster and we had 3. We invited 2 others but they couldn’t participate. Other players in our 7s program have no real 15s experience. Canada also has more back row players in their 7s program as we are more back oriented.

RWU: How about Carlin Isles and Zach Test?
TOLKIN: Isles hasn’t been available for our camps and Test has been injured this summer – but was considered.

RWU: With losing, everything comes under scrutiny, especially with the fans. Your coaching staff has been questioned. When we asked Nigel about staffing and funding a proper staff, he said that you have all you asked for. Is that the case? Do you have specific needs – like a skills and handling coach – as some say in our Comment Sections?
TOLKIN: I have the ability to hire who I believe will do the best job but that is curtailed by part-time status, of course. That is fine; most Tier 2 countries have that set-up. We have to evaluate after each assembly and make changes as we see fit. All of us are accountable. But more funding would always help, which gets us to your skills coach question. We can only get together for about 8 training sessions before our matches. We do what we can in those sessions but the skills handling that you’re talking about only improves under continuous pressure – work done over many months. I don’t downplay skills at our sessions at all, but people need to be aware that there is not unlimited time and resources, and each part needs time together. Mix that with a need to rest, and time dwindles quickly. Our players need to be playing the highest level rugby they can be when they are away from us. That way they will be developing skills under pressure – not just at our training sessions. When we get to the ARC (Americas Rugby Championship) in October, for instance, the Canadian Provincial season would be just completed. So even their players that aren’t back with their professional teams will be battle-ready.

arc bannerRWU: As for the ARC, it’s a Catch-22. You’re current squad needs any and all time to mesh, but at the same time you need to develop. Will you be bringing current players or developmental players?
TOLKIN: It will be a mix. Last year we brought a very, very green team to the ARC. It was ground-zero to start rebuilding the entire program and we got several capped players out of it who performed well last November.

RWU: Are all selections, game plan and choices are up to you?
TOLKIN: Ultimately, yes.
RWU: What do you mean, ultimately?
TOLKIN: Meaning I consult/listen to the coaching staff before making final decisions.
RWU: Does the Director of Rugby weigh in?
TOLKIN: No.

RWU: What is the plan going forward?
TOLKIN: Well, as we talked about earlier, the IRB has us playing more matches against higher quality teams. And while we didn’t get the victories we would have liked, it’s a necessary part of the process of getting our players used to playing at a high level, more frequently. And we hope that -ultimately – will get us more wins. With an influx of newer players coming through, we can and will be better.

RWU: Final question: How sick of Canada are you?
TOLKIN: Only the questions about Canada. I’m looking forward to the ARC.
RWU: Not biting, are you?
TOLKIN: No, Matt.

RWU: Thanks, Coach.
TOLKIN: Thank you.

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RWU Co-host Johnathan Wicklow Barberie is the contrived Kiwi rugby personality who can't go ANYWHERE without being asked for an autograph. He always obliges... Matt McCarthy handles the more serious interviews and handles the RWU Sports Desk.