Can you succeed in International Rugby as a player-coach?
That will be the question that needs answering when the USA 7s team goes to a warmup tournament in Fiji, and then starts the Sevens World Series in Gold Coast, Australia.
Head Coach Matt Hawkins has selected himself as a player, ostensibly because Andrew Durutalo cannot travel. Needing an experienced forward to replace Durutalo, Hawkins felt he didn’t really have a choice.
Well, that’s probably true. Nu-u Punimata might have been picked, but he hasn’t suited up for the USA since May of 2012. After that, there’s no one.
Hawkins might have chosen instead to go with another back – Shalom Suniula being the obvious choice there – or a multi-positional player such as Mike Te’o, but then he would lose the mix of players he wanted: five forwards, four backs, and three guys who could do both.
But … will it work? Being a player-coach in club rugby is tough enough. Many clubs have them, but many of those coaches can’t accurately speak to how the game went since they were busy playing. In 7s it’s even tougher, because you have to analyze the last game and produce some cogent thoughts between games for the team during the tournament.
Given how grueling international 7s is, and how much work has to go into analyzing film, assessing performance, and addressing issues throughout the day, you need a coach on the sidelines, not at the bottom of a ruck.
The choice of Hawkins is not an example of the coach deciding to pick himself because he wants to play – it’s actually an unselfish move, because it seems clear that Hawkins wants to concentrate on coaching. He feels, however, that he has to step in at this moment to fill a need.
What is likely is, starting in Fiji, he will see how tough the two jobs are, and will keep his minutes low. As an impact sub he might be the perfect guy. He can come on for the final two or three minutes and know exactly what the coach wants, since that’s, him too! But if he starts and plays a lot of minutes, the toll will wear on him.
It is very likely that we will see Zack Test, Brett Thompson, and Jack Halalilo start as forwards. Miles Craigwell could well be used as a forward or a back. Patrick Blair will have to get minutes if he is to develop. Where does that leave Matt Hawkins as a player? Hopefully, more on the sidelines as a coach.