Mike Tolkin has been promoted to head coach of the US national team, edging fellow Eagle assistant Dave Hodges and San Francisco Golden Gate head man Paul Keeler.
Tolkin's credentials include three high school championships at Xavier, where he teaches history, and another three Super League titles with the New York Athletic Club. His no-nonsense teams have been particularly difficult opponents in close matches, notably 2008's triple-overtime championship against Belmont Shore and 2010's finals win over Golden Gate.
Seen as a clear communicator, Tolkin helped set up USARFU's high school XV back in the early 1990s, and led NYAC into the Super League at the start of the last decade. He joined Eddie O'Sullivan's Eagle staff as defense coach in 2009, a position he held at the 2011 World Cup.
The decision makes good on chief executive Nigel Melville's wish to hire an American. From 2006, USARFU brought in a trio of 'brand name' foreigners, at seemingly ever-higher salaries, only to lose ground in the International Rugby Board rankings, slipping from 14th (with 68.29 ratings points) to 17th (65.63).
Tolkin inherits a program buffeted by far-reaching changes in the structure of American rugby. Prodded by the IRB, on whom the union depends for funding, chair Kevin Roberts and Melville have been tinkering with key competitions and organizing bodies. The Inter-Terrorital Tournament was disbanded after 2008 and the collegiate ITT after 2011, meaning for the first time since 1979, America has no representative competition between the club and international levels.
The North American 4, launched in 2006 with great fanfare, has receded into the more modest Americas Rugby Championship, a round-robin played in Argentina as a prelude to the yearly November internationals.
The tactic of exporting players to professional European clubs has been more successful: About half the national squad now plays professionally in Europe. Meanwhile, the 7s Eagles have become a 'core member' of the IRB's World Series, and as 7s prepares to debut in the 2016 Olympic Games, USARFU has seized the opportunity to place a dozen athletes in subsidized training at the Olympic Training Center in San Diego.
Registered playing numbers have climbed to just less than 100,000, up from 63,000 at the end of 2005, which has helped the union's ailing balance sheet, in the form of dues, more than the national team. The Eagles selected the second-most non-native ('America qualified') players at the World Cup. Yet US Olympic Committee regulations require program athletes to be American citizens, which may be an impetus to the test squad, and as a longtime high school coach, Tolkin might be more inclined to leverage the decade-long growth in youth ranks than his predecessors.
On the matter of paying for the Eagles, USARFU's business management has been lackluster. But Tolkin's scholastic teammate, Peter Seccia, sits on the board, suggesting there will be a sympathetic ear for the chronic shortages which have plagued the team.
Tolkin's appointment comes late. While virtually every other World Cup finalist opened the year with its head coach in place, he has no more than 15 weeks before the team musters for its June 9 opener against Canada. The following match, against Georgia, looks to be the summer's defining moment. Two years ago the US handled the Lelos 31-13 in Denver, but in 2010 dropped a 19-17 contest is Tbilisi, and the Eagles have since fallen 3 places (and more than 5 points) behind in the standings.
Presuming 2015 World Cup follows 2011's precedent, just 17 months remain before America faces qualifying rounds.
During interviews, Tolkin and his rivals were asked to nominate prospective staff members, but yesterday's press release did not identify any assistants. The Collegiate All-American coach, a position open since last August, also remains undeclared.
While heading the Eagles, Tolkin was expected to take a leave of absence from Xavier.