Let me give you an idea how this is going to go right off the bat – I was recently named the self-appointed president of the “I Hope the Blue Bulls Lose Every Game Club,” or the IHTBBLEGC for short.
John Mitchell was hired and signed up to be the USA Eagles Head Coach in January 2016 on a purported four-year deal that was meant to settle him in as coach until the completion of the current World Cup cycle. Instead, he’s gone less than halfway through that cycle, off to rejoin Super Rugby as coach of the Blue Bulls in South Africa.
The Mitchell era in the US never felt particularly stable. In one sense, hiring Mitchell was a stroke of good luck for USA Rugby in that here was a well-known coach internationally (he once coached the mighty All Blacks, for goodness sake) agreeing to take the reins of a fledgling Tier Two rugby nation and guide it through the next World Cup. On the other hand, this was a well known coach internationally agreeing to take the reins of a Tier Two rugby nation all the way through the next World Cup, meaning the possibility of him receiving something he considered a more attractive offer felt like it was always out there. Didn’t the last part always make you a bit nervous?
More than anything, what the Eagles needed during the course of this World Cup cycle was stability, and they didn’t get it. The ether around the Eagles includes a governing body at USA Rugby that is always seemingly embroiled in some sort of chaos (or they’re just busy making downright “questionable” decisions), and various factions flailing away as they try to bring professional rugby to the US. Amidst that mess, the Eagles very badly needed an experienced leader who was ready to commit through Japan 2019. They got the experience, but ultimately, for whatever reason, not the commitment. And, unfortunately, the failure of that commitment is probably going to sting, badly.
To be fair, proponents of the Mitchell era have at least a couple of things to point to to justify their support. First, the Eagles won the Americas Rugby Championship earlier this year and in June qualified for the World Cup as the top Americas qualifier for the first time ever. Second, there are those folks that have applauded the Eagles’ and Mitchell’s seeming focus on using domestically-based players whenever possible as a supposed means of building stability and consistency.
Unfortunately for Eagles fans, you shouldn’t really be persuaded by either of those notions. Qualifying for the World Cup is great, and winning any trophy on offer is always good, but if you visit the current World Rugby rankings, you’ll find the Eagles at 17th. That page happens to also have a very handy tool where you can look at historical rankings, and if you use that tool to look at the rankings as of mid-December 2015 (shortly after the last World Cup, and just before Mitchell took over), you’ll find the Eagles at 16th. We’ve actually gone backward a spot.
Now maybe the answer to that is that there was some grand plan to focus on using US-based players over the course of the ensuing four years after the last World Cup with an eye toward developing synergy and consistency that was supposed to ultimately pay off in 2019. That might be a reasonable goal, except for two things – first, the coach didn’t stick around to carry out that plan, and stability has now pretty much gone out the window. Second, that plan might be very much defensible even with the coaching change if the US had a viable professional rugby competition that could continue to provide for some synergistic development of the Eagles and other professional players. But that doesn’t exist, and isn’t going to for a while. The best we can hope is that MLR gets up and running and sticks, but even then you’re not going to see the fruits of developing professional domestic players in the World Cup until at least 2023. In the meantime, we’re asking too many amateur players to tangle with the World’s top professionals.
In sum, it’s not as though the next coach is going to inherit a demonstrably successful platform from which to build. We don’t know if the focus on domestic players is going to work, and even if it can, the process of developing those players certainly isn’t aided by changing coaches midstream. We’ve started down a path that someone else is going to have to figure out and continue to pursue on the fly (that ain’t easy), or we have to change paths and start again (a year and a half behind every else’s plans for the next World Cup). Either way, it’s going to be difficult.
It’ll be very interesting to see who emerges from the dumpster fire that is USA Rugby to coach next. Hopefully they feel the pressure of finding someone with a resume that approaches Mitchell’s and that brings with them a bunch of rabbits to pull from their hat, because we’ll need them. Whether that person exists or is willing to work for USA Rugby is an open question. In the meantime, whether Mitchell’s departure was of his own volition, the product of USA Rugby dysfunction, or a matter of him finding a job he liked better, fair or not, on the off chance that Mitchell did simply abandon the Eagles I’m choosing whatever team is playing the Bulls as my second-favorite Super Rugby team each week until further notice, because this whole scene has hurt the Eagles one way or another.