NEW YORK, NY – In a whirlwind week for rugby in the USA, with announcements about professional rugby and the nations Eagles XV seeking head-coaching candidates, we were fortunate enough to have a quick Q&A with USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville.
RWU: Thanks for taking time out, Nigel.
NM: My pleasure
RWU: It’s been quite a week for USA Rugby, with the announcement that the Men’s 15s program is seeking applicants for its Head Coaching spot and the forming of PRO Rugby.
NM: Yes a busy week indeed and more steps forward for the game.
RWU: Let’s get to the Head Coaching spot first… Does USA Rugby need to get approval from World Rugby before hiring someone as coach?
NM: No, the Head Coach is a USA Rugby appointment, obviously they are interested, but they have no part in the appointment.
RWU: Are you actively recruiting applicants or waiting to see what comes in?
NM: Yes, there is a link for interested parties to formerly apply for the role. The panel will review each application and create a short list for personal interview.
RWU: Is there a budget in place to hire the likes of a Stuart Lancaster or Eddie Jones and have either expressed interest in the job?
NM: The 2016 Budgets are not fixed at this stage, but we are very aware of the pay scale for coaches
RWU: Although the issued statement says, “All applications will be considered, including that of Mike Tolkin should he choose to reapply for position of Head Coach,” it can be inferred that the performance of the team was not in line with what you and the Board of Directors expected. How and why was the decision made to allow him to re-apply rather than simply firing him?
NM: Mike was not ‘fired,’ his contract expired after the Rugby World Cup. Following the review of the Rugby World Cup, the Board decided that the we should not automatically renew Mike’s contract but should see who else would be interested in taking the job.
RWU: What were the Board’s expectations and what tangible things has USA Rugby put in place over the past 4 years in terms of High Performance to help prepare domestic players and coaches to succeed internationally to warrant those expectations?
NM: We set some clear goals with Mike ahead of the RWC and that included a minimum of 1 win (we achieved that at the 2011 RWC). We felt that two wins were achievable and so did the coaching staff and the players. We appointed a full time American coach and provided him with the support that he required to effectively do his job. He was responsible for all aspects of the program; staffing, management and player identification and the results of the team. Mike’s role was to work at all levels of the pathway and also play a part in the development of individual players. Mike also worked with overseas teams, assisting with contracting players to overseas clubs and working with the clubs coaching staffs to continue his professional development, monitor the players and strengthen the program. The team were provided with a budget to deliver increased time together as requested by the Coaching staff and more games at the highest possible standard. I certainly think we achieved this. Going into the tournament, we felt the team were ‘on track’ to achieve their goals with strong wins against Canada, beating Japan and running Samoa close.
RWU: The other teams in Team USA’s RWC pool have higher-quality domestic set-ups, with clearer pathways to the international squads. All but Samoa have professional rugby and Samoan players can be seen in Super Rugby, the Top 14, Aviva Premiership and Pro 12. Further, Japan spent as much as any team at RWC and met 4x a week regularly to train. With that, how can a coach be expected to beat the likes of a Samoa, Japan, Scotland or South Africa? Simply put, how are the Eagles in a better position to succeed than their competitors?
NM: Well, we did beat Japan in July. We also ran Samoa close and beat Canada. Improvements to the domestic competition structure and placement of an increased number of players in Europe will help. I think the question has to be: Did we perform to our potential? If not, why not? The review has highlighted a number of areas to improve outside of the obvious lack of professional domestic rugby and professional contracts, we need to address those too.
RWU: If he’s not brought back as Head Coach, is there another position being considered for Tolkin?
NM: We will go through the interview process first and then consider the best utilization of our resources. Mike and his coaching team gained a lot of experience at the Rugby World Cup that will make them better coaches, we want to keep our elite coaches developing and engaged in the game here.
RWU: How much of an impact did the situation with Todd Clever have on the Board’s decision to seek applicants?
NM: It was discussed as part of the report and the wider management of the squad, but the decision to explore a wider pool of coaches was taken following a discussion following the review, not on a single item within the report.
RWU: As a former successful coach yourself, what kind of a coaching philosophy do you think would best fit the Eagles?
NM: I think Mike created a positive culture within the team as a whole and having an American coach certainly helped achieve that. The Head Coach needs to understand the real challenges that we face in terms of access to players, geography and also understand the strength and weaknesses of each player and how those fit together to create a game plan that best suits the players. The players need constant feedback on their performance and need to continue to develop their core skills under pressure. We need a simple game plan that enables players to play at maximum intensity and deliver a work rate (through sound conditioning) that will put our opposition under pressure. Our support staff need to be of the highest quality (defense/units/attack) and the players have to understand and buy into the development of the game plan.
RWU: Would you consider coaching? Crazier things have happened on the global rugby stage.
NM: Haven’t thought about it…but have fond memories of my time at Wasps and Gloucester.
RWU: Okay, let’s get you off the hot-seat and change gears. The Professional Rugby Organization (PRO) has us Rugby-heads all giggly, with it’s announcement that it will launch professional rugby in the United States as early as April. Unlike some other entities, it is officially sanctioned by USA Rugby. Businessman Doug Schoninger and long-time rugby man Stephen Lewis are the faces attached, but is this also a RIM (Rugby International Marketing venture? If not, will it be involved down the road?
NM: Yes, we are providing support for Doug’s league, support in terms of advice and expertise. He will require referees, players, coaches, team managers and also local event staff. We can connect him with these communities and also support alignment with our amateur clubs competitions and National Championships. If RIM can help in terms of sponsors, broadcast then it will.
RWU: Will the matches air on the USA Rugby digital channel and if so, will there be a charge?
NM: Yes, we would like to make sure all games are accessible to our rugby community and start to follow the teams as they develop.
RWU: Once a league is sanctioned by USA Rugby, do coaching hires and player signings need to be approved by your office?
NM: No, but we are working with them during the appointments process.
RWU: Final question: Which PRO Rugby team will win the first championship and what will the trophy be named? We’re suggesting the Johnathan Wicklow Barberie Cup.
NM: I am sure that you are, it has a great ring to it, I will pass it along!
RWU: Again, thanks for your time, Nigel. Much appreciated.
NM: My pleasure… thanks for your support of rugby in the USA