Starting XV: Everyone Wants A Foreign Coach

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On the same day that PRO Rugby was officially announced, another piece of news came from USA Rugby, that they were seeking applicants for head coach for the Eagles.

While Mike Tolkin has not been fired, his contract has expired, and he is referred to in the posting as the “former” coach. While they are explicit that all applications will be considered, including that of Tolkin’s, should he choose to re-apply, I doubt that he’ll return to the helm.

In an interview on, USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville mentioned some of the expectations for the team heading into the Rugby World Cup and that they did not meet them. He was, however fairly positive about Tolkin, so it’s not like there should be any bad blood. Indeed, Melville even gives hints that Tolkin will likely have some role within USA Rugby, even if he is not coaching the Eagles:

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.

That sounds like a positive approach, and there is a lot to be gained by building up capacity within the country. With the launch of PRO Rugby, and the opportunity for USA Rugby to be hands-on in how it progresses, Tolkin and his staff could find themselves in charge of one of those teams.

A weird quirk that also came out in that interview with Melville, is his referring to Tolkin as an “American” coach. He says it twice. While he wants to keep developing elite coaches in the United States, it sounds like they certainly are considering hiring a foreign coach.

Meanwhile, following an embarrassing exit from their own World Cup, England are looking for a new coach, after Stuart Lancaster stepped down by mutual agreement.  Every famous name in rugby is being thrown around to succeed him, from Graham Henry, Eddie Jones, Wayne Smith, Warren Gatland, and so on. None of those gentlemen are English.

Neither is Jake White, who threw his name into the ring in what can only be described as a bold and confident approach, by stating that he would not interview for the role, but would deliver a World Cup.

“If you are the right man for the job there should be no process,” said White. “If they believe you are the right guy that gives coaches confidence.

“You had to send your CV in and go through the whole interview process in the past. Nothing has changed since then for me. I am who I am and I have coached who I have coached.

“My CV stands itself. Getting England to win a World Cup is basically what it is. The jewel in the crown is the World Cup.”

While you have to admire the confidence of Jake White, I think that there are definitely some flaws to this kind of attitude.  I don’t see it as a respectful or professional approach and if I were part of the RFU, I would take it as an affront.

Selection processes exist to vet candidates and have an understanding not just of their CV, but what things will look like moving forward. For a national team, presumably you are hiring an individual that will oversee a full World Cup cycle. It’s not good enough for that individual to say that they have won titles. They need to be able to articulate their vision and their methods to coaching in a way that will sell themselves to the hiring committee. Too many mistakes are made when foregoing this step. Yes, it’s great to hire a proven winner, but sometimes you need to recognize the process that leads to the success.

That being said, all rumours indicate that Eddie Jones is being offered a pile of money from the RFU to take on the role, much to his protestations that he’s only just arrived in Cape Town, so maybe White was expecting the same treatment?

…and now, yer Starting XV:

  1. White’s comments couldn’t have come at a worse time. Montpellier, the Top 14 club he currently coaches, were run over by Harlequins in European Cup play. It’s one thing to be confident, but it’s not a good look when you lose. There were probably more than a few English eyes watching that match.
  2. A set of South African eyes, Brendan Venter was definitely watching. He was highly critical of White, tweeting: “Having worked over there i can assure you the Twickenham faithful will be cutting their wrists if Jake got that job.”
  3. Venter follows that scorcher with a more measured point: “Once you decide to play this negative you have to win everything.” It reminds me of Jose Mourinho and Chelsea, who play a negative, park-the-bus style of soccer. Sometimes you win championships with that, other times you’re merely average. You don’t win many neutral fans with it, though.
  4. In his opinion, Venter finds White to be inflexible and unable to adapt to the demands of modern rugby. In contrast, Venter was complimentary of what he’s seen from Saracens and the work of their Director of Rugby, Mark McCall, because of their ability to find a balance between a kicking game and attack. He says that the All Blacks are the best team in the world because they do the small things well and that the Saracens are showing some of that. It’s probably worth noting that Venter is the man responsible for hiring McCall.
  5. Staying in the Premiership, Exeter’s Rob Baxter has ruled himself out of the application process at this stage in his career. However, he thinks that the RFU need not immediately sign a Southern Hemisphere coach and should consider candidates working in the Premiership. He sounds an expensive warning for the RFU: “The answer’s not just going out and finding some sort of messiah.” I’ve been in enough clubhouses to know about twenty reasons why Jesus can’t play rugby, I’ve not heard any about his coaching qualifications before.
  6. Local boy Jim Mallinder of Northampton seems to be the preferred choice for those who like to Buy British. Dean Ryan is one such fellow, and is frustrated that Mallinder’s lack of international experience seems to keep him off the RFU’s shortlist, despite being by all accounts a very good coach. He sagely notes that Vern Cotter, Joe Schmidt, and Michael Cheika had no prior international experience and are all doing well.
  7. Ryan adds this key point, which I found to be bang-on: “So we now know we are looking for a world figure such as Eddie Jones, but how long would he be interested in the job? You’d need to hear what his plan is and what sort of coaching team he’d want under him and what his thoughts on succession planning are. Otherwise it’s back to the same thing we’ve had after each of the past three World Cups.”
  8. What is the RFU’s plan? Each governing body seems to do things their own way, but that’s not always to their benefit. Whether you are the wealthiest rugby union on the planet (which England is) or you have a small, but dedicated country (like New Zealand) or you are a sleeping giant (maybe the USA), there needs to be strategic consideration about where you want to go, how you are going to get there, and the personnel involved to do it.
  9. Rugby Canada is carrying out a strategic review of its programs, following the disappointing 0-4 performance at the World Cup. Two questions being asked of the provincial unions are:
    1. What would you do to improve Canada’s world ranking prior to RWC 2019? In doing so please address where we should be in two years from now and four years from now immediately prior to RWC 2019.
    2. What would you do to develop and sustain the funding necessary to achieve and sustain that.
  10. Kieran Crowley, the New Zealander who has been the head coach of Canada for two World Cup cycles also has his position under review. While it was disappointing to see Canada lose games (two of which I did in person), Crowley has been a thoughtful and process-driven coach, and sometimes circumstances and bad luck undo all that hard work. He built a game plan that focused on our strengths (elite wingers) and tried to mask our deficiencies.
  11. Before the World Cup, Canada hosted the USA in Ottawa for a warm-up match and the night before, the Rugby Canada coaching staff put on a fantastic clinic, which was attended by nearly every high school, university, and club coach in the city. It is unprecedented to get that type of access to elite practitioners of any sport so close to competition. I rank it as one of the top five learning experiences I’ve ever had, inside or out of rugby. Regardless of what happens to Crowley, I have to thank him and his staff.
  12. Two of that Canadian staff, Neil Barnes and Kieran’s brother Leo Crowley have taken roles in Super Rugby for the upcoming season. I think that speaks to the high quality of coaching that Canada attracted. Still, there needs to be a plan to ensure that we are able to develop our own capacity. It’s not easy, with even England doubting their own abilities to develop high-end coaches, but it needs to be a priority for any country to improve. You can hire Eddie Jones or Jake White or Kieran Crowley and they will only work with thirty to fifty players, and on an irregular basis, at that. How many other players need to be taught fundamental skills and tactical awareness? It’s not good enough to just have former club players teaching current club players. Elite coaches don’t just appear, they have to be cultivated.
  13. With the USA Rugby Sevens residency roster named, are those that we could consider ineligible for PRO Rugby? Or, are there names there that if they don’t make an impression at early stops on the World Sevens Series, could find a home in Sacramento or elsewhere? I’d have to think that Zac Test and Perry Baker are going to be protected in bubble wrap before Rio and ten matches of fifteens just before seems unlikely.
  14. It was disappointing to hear that there will only be four stops on the women’s World Sevens Series, particularly in an Olympic year. With both North American teams medal contenders and hosts of events, we should be proud of the investment we’ve made, but can’t help but be concerned about the preparation before Rio.
  15. With everything that has gone on in Paris, it is clear that there are many things more important than rugby. At the same time, we have to live our lives without fear and prejudice. On Friday night some people just wanted to see a soccer match, hear a concert, watch a film. Our hearts go out to all of them.


Brent Smith is a player, coach and director with the Ottawa Irish Rugby Club. You can follow him @brentssmith


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