Too Early to Judge John Mitchell’s Performance

HIGH WYCOMBE, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 23: John Mitchell, the Sale Sharks head coach looks on during the Aviva Premiership match between London Wasps and Sale Sharks at Adams Park on December 23, 2012 in High Wycombe, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

American rugby fans are quick to judge coaching performances and John Mitchell’s start is not exempt.

USA Rugby is attracting fans at an amazing rate. Rugby is the fastest growing sport in the country. Pro Rugby is drawing in new fans to the sport, as has the Olympics. Americans are struggling with their place in the world when it comes to rugby. 17th in the world behind such nations as Tonga and Georgia is a tough pill to swallow for the American superiority complex.

John Mitchell’s initial performance helped the false image

Americans expect great performances every game and immediate improvement with each new coach. John Mitchell’s performance during the Americas Rugby Championship and during the summer internationals endeared many US fans to him. Taking Argentina to a draw and finishing second behind only them in the overall standings made American’s hopeful for the future. It was happening in only understood timeline by Americans, quickly. The summer internationals were next and although Americans were were sad losing to Italy, especially after watching their teams in the Pro 12, they still had hope. The next week the hope remained after the defeat of Russia 35-0. As an American it always feels good to beat Russia. Problems offensively and moving the ball have plagued the Eagles for a long time. Even with a 35-0 victory over Russia, American’s knew it would be a long fall international with American difficulties on offense.

People still had unrealistic expectations of a win or near loss against the Maori, even with six of America’s best players unavailable. These hopes died on the rocks of performance that day. After the loss to the Maoris, the strong criticism of how John Mitchell was selecting his team began, that very same day, only to be made worse.

Failure against Romania makes the case for John Mitchell more difficult.

Following the Eagles’ loss to the Maori All Blacks, many thought the road through the Autumn internationals would be easier. The  United States were 6-1 against Romania before last weekend. New strength from the Eagles who are playing for European Clubs securing their release infused the Eagles with more skill.

Hopes were high, almost to the level of an expected win. Weak defense and an abscence of team unity destroyed American hopes. The Eagles looked uninspired at the start of the game. Allowing Romania to dominate not only possession, but territory as well. All of Romania’s 20 points were scored in the first half. The US defense did not maintain their lines and created gaps for The Oaks. The United States shored up their defense, and maintained ball in hand significantly better in the second half. Ball control in side the opposing 22 and an obsession with 1 man rugby prevented the Eagles from performing with any sort of score board effectiveness.

Madison Hughes is a proficient sevens player who American’s have quickly welcomed to the 15’s squad. Placing him at Full back was not an ideal location for his skill set. He does not have the size necessary to work well in the number 15 jersey. The player selection for this match was at times confusing and could affect the perception of Mitchell’s coaching abilities.

An unrealistic fascination with All Blacks coaches.

The American rugby community was elated when John Mitchell was hired as head coach. An All Blacks coach for the USA seemed absolutely too good to be true.

Instant improvement is not realistic

The United States has been playing rugby since the 1800s. Over that time period USA Rugby has had only two major achievements: women’s Rugby World Cup winner in 1991, and the Olympic gold medal in 1924. With that long a history of poor performance, no new coach will be able to fix that quickly. The development of USA rugby will take many years, potentially generations. Rugby is competing with major domestic sports for recruiting the best athletes and the payoff is simply not good enough to attract them. The expansion of the game is a welcome sight, and is absolutely essential to improvement on the world stage. No coach, not even Eddie Jones, could affect the immediate change Americans crave.

Improvement requires development of the game at lower levels.

It is safe to say that the United States is the dominant world power in Basketball. Is it because the national coach is amazing? Is it because they have a professional league? Neither of these questions even begin to capture the reason. Every playground in the United States has a basketball court. Every high school in America has a team. A large portion of the American population spend hours every day on the court honing their skills.

Rugby is almost non existent at a high school level. It will always be an uphill battle for rugby to find relevance at a non club level. Rugby must compete with both American football and that other sport where you kick the round ball for the time of American youth during the fall. The skills acquired in American football can be useful for rugby. Spike Davis and Carlin Isles are wonderful examples of that. This transition of skills is not seamless, and results in rugby being picked up mainly by college or Pro Football rejects.

John Mitchell must improve team work on the US squad.

The United States have some very good rugby players. Against Romania Threaten Palamo and Langilangi Haupeakui played very well, and had some impressive line breaks in the second half of the game. Two individual performances cannot make a game. Spreading the ball down the line and drawing in defenders worked much better than relying on the star runner only. The Eagles must grow together and find cohesion if they are to improve and climb the world rankings.

The United States have a wealth of talent athletically and the abilities to improve the stock of the US national team. John Mitchell is working to improve the outlook for the Eagles. The improvement will be small in an absolute sense. The concerns over how Mitchell selects his squads are valid. It may be the pieces of some larger design that we have not yet seen. If the team is still 17th by the 2019 World Cup there is reason for concern. Until then the American people need to concentrate on developing the game at the level they can control.

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  1. How do you leave Camp Dolan out of selections? Makes as much sense as Clever getting dropped from USA World Cup squad. Dolan plays pro rugby for Cardiff Blues. His talent must justify the salary he is making. Why not selected for this match? Makes no sense. All of our players playing pro rugby should be at the top of the selection list unless unavailable due to contracts.


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