Mike Tolkin was the only domestic coach interviewed for the Eagle job, filled last week by New Zealander John Mitchell.
All of the seven finalists, save for the outgoing Tolkin, work abroad, according to people familar with the matter.
The lopsided cohort reflects the past decade’s shrinking horizons for American coaches. Overseas experience alone cannot be equated with superior skill in training and leadership. Otherwise, there would be scant examples of the progression from high school to college and on to the pros routinely seen in US sports.
Although Tolkin went 0-4 at the 2015 World Cup, his 4-year record does not indicate the cohort of 2011 finalists was wholly inadequate. Upon Eddie O’Sullivan’s 2009 hiring, the contemporary proposition was that the Irishman had previously worked in the USA and would create a cadre of potential successors. And so it was in 2011 all three finalists were Americans; all were recent representative coaches, two having been Rugby Super League championship winners; and two had assisted the outgoing O’Sullivan.
But in the broader trajectory following Kevin Roberts’ becoming chairman and Nigel Melville chief executive, Tolkin’s hiring looks an aberration and the 2015 cohort a self-fulfilling outcome.
Four of five national team coaches have come from overseas. Since 2010, USARFU has abandonned representative play and collapsed the RSL — both without any nationwide successor — and has yet to introduce elite-level programming to its coach development scheme. Also, the national team coach has assumed responsibility for the ‘A’ team.
For aspiring domestic coaches, there are many fewer opportunities than ever before. For foreign coaches, a salary of $200,000-plus is too good an opportunity not to apply, particularly if you’re not holding a plum job.
Mitchell, the winner, has a wealth of experience. Best known for guiding New Zealand to third place at the 2003 World Cup, he has also lead Sale in England’s Premiership, New Zealand’s Waikato and Chiefs, Australia’s Western Force, and South Africa’s Golden Lions. As an assistant, he was worked with England and also Melville at Wasps.
Last fall, Mitchell declared his interest in coaching England, and lost out on the top job at South Africa’s Stormers, owing to his reputation for an autocratic temperament. Although his short-term results have been good, some players have resented his management. The question hanging over his career is whether he can sustain progress.
Mitchell’s first assembly, the revived and expanded Americas Rugby Championship, begins in eight weeks. With so little time to prepare, it will largely reflect Tolkin’s work.
Mitchell’s assistants are yet to be named.