independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Pioneering spirit keeps American dream alive amid the reality of minority status

Soon after they arrived at their base in Surrey, Eddie O'Sullivan had a decision to make. The (English) RFU, as host union for the Churchill Cup, were picking up the tab for their lodgings.

In this case it was the Guildford Holiday Inn, an ordinary hotel charging extraordinary prices. The package didn't extend to wi-fi however. And to get on line you had to pay through the nose. So, did he sanction the outlay of $1,500 that wasn't in the budget, or did he tell his financially challenged squad to pay for it themselves if they wanted to stay in touch with home? He thrashed it out with the team manager and they decided they would have to be creative.

"We'll have to find the money from somewhere," he said. "Some unions would spend that on a dinner without thinking. Well, they'd spend it on the starters more like."

The Eagles don't do starters. In fact, they don't do anything without thinking if it can be done cheaper, or not at all. They are an anachronism in the modern game: a playing group which is a mixed bag of amateurs and pros, supported in this instance by a decent-sized coaching roster of eight -- except that only two of them are full-time with the squad.

Meanwhile, the medical team, which includes two physios and a masseuse working on a daily rate of payment, is led by orthopaedic surgeon Dr Pat McNair who is taking time at his own expense to be here. As he has been doing for the last 10 years. McNair had to get back to his Denver practice last Friday, whereupon he was replaced by another top-of-the-range medic also working for nothing.

The system wouldn't function without a whole lot of goodwill. When you spend a couple of days around them you see what keeps them strong. Loving rugby is not enough reason to keep going when it's mostly unrequited. You need real depth to your resilience. There has to be something special in your make-up to keep you sane when the more you put in the less you get out. And on Planet America, where the podium only has room for one, you need a pioneering spirit to stay in rugby. Maybe that's it.

Mike Tolkin is a good man to illustrate the point. Defence coach with Eddie's Eagles, he has invested more time in the American game than most. He was born and raised in New York and has the infectious enthusiasm that sets Yanks apart.

"I'm definitely a glass-half-full guy," he says. "I think I have to be with this much time in it. I see a lot of these young athletes in school and I'm waiting for the next generation because they're the first to be exposed to rugby on the internet, they've seen it on tv non-stop. Like, when I was growing up and playing all I saw was the Barbarians-All Blacks game of 1973 and a few other tapes over and over again. Not a bad game, right!

"And we'd see a sprinkling of Five Nations but now these guys see a lot of Super Rugby on the internet and on cable and satellite and they're involved themselves in world championships at under 20 and under 18. They're exposed to a lot more rugby. They train like mainstream American athletes: they have the size; they have the ability. When coaching catches up and we get a lot more qualified skills coaches it will help. This could be a very good sequence for American rugby. I'm optimistic it will be."

Tolkin has been teaching English and coaching rugby in Xavier High School in Manhattan for 20 years. He grew up nearby, enthused about the game because an older brother of one of his buddies played it. And Xavier, a Jesuit school with a roll of 1,000 boys smack in the heart of the city, happened to have a rugby programme.

That's the way it is in the States. If whoever runs the athletics department has the drive and vision and can sort the funds then it happens. In the 1960s, another school, St Francis Prep -- which was a football powerhouse -- was already some way down the rugby track, and when in the '70s they ran a successful tour to the UK and Ireland, it sparked a flame across town in Xavier.

Now Xavier are one of the top rugby-playing schools in the country, and in St Francis Prep the only oval balls are for gridiron. That's also how it is in the States: because suitable opposition is hard to find and the infrastructure for the game is weak, a school's love affair with the game can be transient.

* * * * *

Tuesday 9.15am. Squad meeting. It starts bang on time in a cramped room and a strained atmosphere for there is still carryover from the 80-point shellacking by the Saxons the previous Saturday.

O'Sullivan and Mike Tolkin make most of the running. As you would expect, it's very technical and the meeting lasts a little longer than planned because there is an issue with the training field. Nobody bats an eyelid at this. To cut a long story short, the first place they were given was crap; the second was good and was sourced by their liaison man; and the third -- next door in the University of Surrey where Harlequins train -- has issues about reseeding or pitch markings or something like that. Meeting over, everyone troops out and walks across the car park to a nice, if completely unmarked, surface, where a bloke is busy running around putting in flagpoles to make a pitch of it. No one complains. It's fine.

Tuesday 10.15am. Team Run. Occasionally the least instructive window on a team is to watch them train. If the session goes well you go away with a very positive vibe and high expectations. This one goes well. Again it is punctual and lasts as long as the schedule says it will last. From the warm-up drills to the unit skills to the team run itself, it is noisy and energetic and there are very few balls put down. A pro team at work.

The only worry is over loosehead Mate Moeakiola who has his hand stood on late in the run. Being Tongan it will be hard enough to face his countrymen the next day. Harder still if he has to pull out. Turns out nothing is broken.

* * * * *

The generation Mike Tolkin talks about might not include current Eagles Shawn Pittman and Scott LaValla. They might be a few years ahead of the guys he has pinned his hopes on, but at 23 and 22 respectively they are somewhere in the middle, between the older crew who only came to the game in college, and the torch carriers who have picked it up from early teens.

"I started when I was 16 -- which is old, but young by American standards," LaValla says. "I actually wanted to play when I was 15 but my mom wouldn't let me because she didn't want me to get hurt, it was an under 19 club and 15 was too young."

That tells you something about the lack of opportunity, that a 15-year-old in Washington State didn't have ready access to a team of his peers. Typical of the system too, it's a short journey on to rep teams and LaValla managed three world championship trips at 19s/20s, one of which was in Belfast. That in turn opened the door to Trinity where he would spend the next four seasons plugging away in the Second Division of the AIL under coach Tony Smeeth, who had spent a chunk of his earlier coaching career in Seattle.

"I don't know what he thought of me but if you're a student in the AIL you don't count as a foreign player," LaValla says, displaying a ready understanding of the nuts and bolts of team selection. "So it was a case of going to Eugene, Oregon and taking my chances playing football, or go to Dublin and take my chances playing rugby. It was a chance to see a different part of the world, a step into the unknown and really exciting."

On road trips -- as he might call them himself -- to the likes of Clonakilty and Ballynahinch the imposing second row would engage his team-mates with 'jumpers for goalposts' stories from the US. The lads couldn't get over this veteran of underage world competitions whose domestic rugby was played in a public park with a tarpaulin thrown over their kit on the sideline to keep it dry.

Degree finished, but promotion to Ireland's top tier still unsecured, LaValla was looking at a move somewhere in Ulster when last month another coaching connection suddenly had him on a flight to Paris to sign a contract with Stade Francais. Just like that. In fairness, it wasn't as if Michael Cheika had pursued this hard-working grunt who others in Ireland had ignored. Rather a late gap opened, and one of Cheika's staff knew someone who could fill it fast and cheap and would be worth the punt.

And so Scott LaValla has become another entry on the credit side of the ledger: a home-boy exported to the professional game in Europe, one whose experience there will help the Eagles' cause.

* * * * *

Tuesday 8.0pm. Jersey Presentation.

They do this for every Test and they take it very seriously. The format is that the coach speaks, followed by the captain who then presents the jerseys to his team-mates. It's not easy to come up with something clever to say every time the team plays a Test match and O'Sullivan sticks to the theme that the world could end tomorrow, so be safe and use very moment.

"If you're lucky you might go on and win another 20 or 30 caps, or you might win none," he says. "So approach this as if it's your last and give it everything."

Captain Todd Clever looks like he is happier playing in front of a crowd than addressing one, but he bristles with passion. "Whether you do this for your wife or girlfriend or family, or for your dog, I dunno -- just dig deep out there tomorrow."

Wednesday 3.30pm. Squad meeting. Very short and sharp. Followed by a bus journey to Esher -- not exactly an ideal venue for Test rugby -- which is a bit longer than planned. Because of a low bridge en route the driver has taken a circuitous approach which feels like he is circumnavigating the county of Surrey. Tension is rising as manager Tristan Lewis makes a call to NASA to see if they can pick us up on satellite. Maybe it's a portent of things to come, for the game is a disaster.

Wednesday 5.30pm. US v Tonga. Inside two minutes the Eagles have a glorious chance: as they counter-attack from 60 metres, Paul Emerick, a player winning his 40th cap, gets his depth all wrong and his centre partner Andrew Suniula completes a pass that inevitably will be forward. Schoolboy stuff.

At no stage in the 80 minutes do the US stack together enough building blocks to put real pressure on the Tongans. Warming to the task, the South Seas demolition crew tear down virtually every construction site with one wrecking-ball hit after another.

On Saturday in Northampton, when they were being led around the place at speed by the Saxons, Eddie O'Sullivan was sanguine enough, for all but four of the side were from American clubs -- light years removed from the standard of the Premiership. This was different however: the bulk of the starting team were pros and still they were milled out of it by an understrength Tongan selection.

"That's the most disappointing result since I took over the job," he said afterwards. "Whatever about 30-13, the 14 points we coughed up on top of that at the end was a killer. That's very hard to take."

The dressing room is the size of a telephone box and no place to have a debrief. The schedule mentions an after-match function but it amounts to a swapping of pennants outside the jacks, a few handshakes, and the teams go their separate ways. The bus driver has figured out a quicker way back to the hotel. Thankfully.

Dinner is fairly sombre but there are new caps to be handed out to Eric Fry, Troy Hall and Tai Enosa. There is a warmth about the congratulations from each of their colleagues that reminds you what team sport is about. No horrendous concoctions are forced down the necks of the debutants. In fact, there is no alcohol at all. They disappear off to bed leaving the coach sharing some raspberry crumble and a jug of water with this correspondent.

* * * * *

"I don't find it difficult," Eddie O'Sullivan says, "and I'll tell you why: I made a mental adjustment coming to the US that this was going to be a part of the job that I didn't have with Ireland. With Ireland I knew that every need would be catered for, every cheque would be written, and if we needed a week off to be paid for then the IRFU never sold the team short in any way. I always felt I was reasonable about it and didn't do anything stupid. But I knew that with America -- as it was in '99 -- you'd have to cut your cloth and there would be other issues to be dealt with. So I got on with it. I'd prefer I didn't have to deal with them but the reality is that I do.

"In some way it's just a different headset about doing the same job. I would hope you get the impression from watching them, even for a brief time, that they're a decent bunch of young fellas who train very hard. They want to learn and there aren't any drama queens, they wouldn't be accepted here. And the staff are a good group of American lads who by and large are doing it because they love it, not because someone is writing them a cheque because most of them don't get a cheque. And that energy gets you over a lot of stuff.

"It goes back to something I've been saying about American rugby: people say to me why do you coach in America, are you stupid going there? And I've said this a thousand times: the problems America have in order to play rugby are a multitude and if we had half the problems in Europe we'd probably play something else. They overcome immense geographical, climatic, financial issues to play the game. These fellas do this stuff every week, it's not a big deal. Like, fellas trying to get off work to get a flight that they paid for themselves to go and play a league match. People would scratch their heads and ask why would you do that?"

They are a warm and welcoming group of people. Maybe if they were better at rugby they wouldn't be, for then the media would be all over them and, as it always does, the attention becomes painful and the questions more intrusive. You ask yourself will American rugby ever get to the point where you have to hurdle a team of media prevention officers before you get to the people you want?

Not quickly they won't. Of course the game has moved on there since O'Sullivan's first coming, when he went to the 1999 World Cup as assistant to then coach Jack Clark. But not so much that you'd notice. If you were to throw a few quid on the next nation to challenge the elite in world rugby, it would sooner be Georgia, who have just over 5,000 players, than America which has 95,000 bodies registered to USA Rugby. The latter figure however includes coaches and referees and in fact is their main source of revenue: you pay to register and that modest $2m fund makes up 25 per cent of the total USA budget.

The Georgians meanwhile have just completed two 3,000-seater stadiums in Tbilisi where they successfully hosted the Junior World Rugby competition two weeks ago. There is huge government investment in the sport, and crucially it is enhanced by a sugar daddy who has set up a charitable trust that is investing €34m in the game. Three of their under 20s have just been signed to Top 14 French clubs for next season.

The great mystery with rugby in the States is not that it has been unable to topple the traditional heavyweights but that in a country of such vast wealth they haven't nailed down a benefactor. Traditionally in the US sports donations from the wealthy are made to their alma mater. This is great for the university concerned but doesn't add much colour to the bigger picture.

In many universities rugby is not a collegiate sport -- not recognised and funded by college authorities as being 'serious' -- so they end up on the outside looking in. And high schools are influenced by the direction taken by the colleges. There is light at the end of the tunnel however. Play Rugby USA is a programme trying to win converts in schools using the holistic attractions of the game -- its positive impact on a player's sociability and discipline and overall education. The brightest light though may be on top of a tv camera.

For the first time ever the Rugby World Cup will be getting network coverage in the US, through NBC. And the same broadcaster has secured the rights to the Olympic Games in 2016 and 2020 when Sevens will be on view to the nation. As it happens, the Americans are handy enough at Sevens.

And that's part of the problem. Eddie O'Sullivan is not just wondering whether the budget will stretch to a pre-World Cup camp in late August, but how he can assimilate Sevens players back into 15s. His outhalf in Esher last week for example was starting his first game in the position in 15s this year. Sevens is sexier and easier to understand and has the potential in America to leave the bigger game behind. It has never been more important then for the Eagles to fly high at a World Cup. They open their campaign against Ireland in New Plymouth. On 9/11.

http://brendanfanningrugby.-wordpress.com

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