Canada. Eagle coaches and players don’t particularly like talking about Canada, they don’t like to give weight to the thought that results against Canada mean more than just another win, or usually, a loss, and they don’t seem alarmed by the fact that while we’re trying to gain ground on the rest of the world in rugby, we’re still having an awful lot of trouble surpassing our closest competitor.
Former Eagles 7s coach Al Caravelli once reasoned to me that Canada would usually beat his teams by small margins, but when his teams beat Canada, they did so with plenty of points to spare, indicating that somehow leveled the table between the sides, even though Canada racked up many more wins.
I once asked Alex Magleby how important it was to start beating Canada, given the Eagles will likely have to go through Canada to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. He told me they weren’t focusing on that, but rather on becoming one of the top four teams on the series and qualifying that way.
I contend the first step toward solving the problem of losing to Canada is recognizing there is indeed a problem. Our National Team coaches, players and the entire USA Rugby National Office should understand just how comfortably below Canada we are on the field.
In 15s, the Eagles are on a five-game losing streak to Canada dating back to 2009, and they’re 2-10 in the last 12 meetings. No Eagles coach has ever finished his career with a winning record against Canada. Mike Tolkin is 0-2 against Canada.
In 7s, The Eagles are also 2-10 in their last 12 meetings with Canada. Alex Magleby finished his recent stint as 7s head coach 1-5 against our neighbors to the north.
The women’s 7s Eagles have also struggled against Canada as of late. They went 0-2-1 against Canada in the inaugural Women’s 7s World Series. At the Las Vegas Invitational, a non-series tournament, USA and Canada entered two teams each. Both of the American teams lost to Canada’s second team.
Those numbers paint the picture pretty clearly – Canada is kicking our collective butt, and no matter how close the game is, a loss is a loss. Why is that a problem? There are some more practical reasons, but I’ll start with the psychological one – Americans don’t expect to lose to Canada, at anything, and doing so hurts rugby’s reputation in the greater American sporting conscious.
Except in sports where ice and snow are paramount, the American public expects USA to be better than Canada at most everything. Americans are taught from an early age that America is the best, at or in, military prowess, quality of life, music or performing arts. That extends to sports. We expect to be better in baseball, basketball, football, volleyball, soccer, women’s field hockey, etc. And in all those sports, we are better than Canada.
So when you tell someone that the USA is playing Canada in rugby, they ask if the USA is going to win, and you have to cringe, hesitate and regretfully inform them, ‘probably not,’ it helps shape that potential rugby fan’s opinion of our sport in this country.
The more practical reason losing to Canada is problematic? We have to beat Canada in 15s to reach the World Cup. If the Eagles best Canada in a two-game series next month, we’re in the 2015 World Cup. If they don’t, the qualification process continues.
The Olympic qualification process hasn’t been officially announced, but many expect it to look something like this – the top four teams from the 2014/2015 IRB 7s World Series, the winners of regional qualification tournaments, and the top finishers of a repechage tournament all get in. Assuming Canada and the United States aren’t both going to leapfrog the likes of Samoa, Fiji, Kenya, a Great Britain team to be named later, Australia, France and Argentina and take two of the top four spots on the World Series, the Eagles are most likely going to have to beat Canada to get to the 2016 Games.
So why not be open and honest about making that a goal? It’s been invigorating seeing USA Rugby engage Rugby Canada in a Twitter war over #BeatCanada #Rednation and #Bluenation hashtags. But let’s declare war on Canada on all fronts of high performance rugby – age grade, men’s, women’s and 7s.
Rivalries breed improvement. Teams lay it all on the line in true rivalry games, and occasionally Louisville beats Kentucky and wins a National Championship (apologies to non-basketball fans for the reference). But real rivalries come with pressure. Lose to Michigan too much as the Ohio State football coach, and you’re going to lose your job. But put more trophies in your case than your rival’s coach puts in his, and you’re a legend. That level of competition is needed in the USA/Canada rugby rivalry.
Make no mistake, I’m not calling for Tolkin’s job. And I wouldn’t be calling for Magleby’s if he hadn’t resigned. Those guys have, or had been, on the job for pretty much just one year. But if, in time, Tolkin proves unable to beat Canada on a regular basis, then perhaps a change should be made. Same goes for everyone in the HP department.
One rung above Tolkin in the hierarchy is Nigel Melville, the CEO and head of High Performance for USA Rugby. He’s presided over the 7s team's 2-10 stretch against Canada, and the 15s team is 1-7 during his tenure. You could certainly argue he’s, over a long period of time, not closed the gap.
The point is, let’s acknowledge where we are (not as good as Canada), identify why, make a plan to improve our standing (become better than Canada) and fight like hell to get there. #CatchCanada