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New Coach for 7s Eagles - Part I

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New Coach for 7s Eagles - Part I

As early as the end of this week we might find out about who is the new USA Men’s 7s Head Coach.

 

Matt Hawkins was let go (Dismissed? Terminated? Choose your euphemism) last week and we found out in an announcement that was intriguing in its candor.

 

At least, Hawkins got to say something along the lines of what he was feeling, given that the headline said he stepped down, and his statement said something else:

 

“My career with the sevens program as a player, captain, and coach has been one that will be looked back on with much emotion and pride,” Hawkins said. “Unfortunately I have been asked to step down from my position as Head Coach. There was a real opportunity to make a change and have our program step forward in a new direction that allowed for short- and long-term sustainable success.”

OK so he did step down, because he was told to step down, which is the same as being fired. 

Hawkins opted not to return a phone call from Goff Rugby Report, and Nigel Melville at USA Rugby isn’t talking about who will be the new coach, but that doesn’t stop us from  speculating. 

First off, The Matt Hawkins-coached USA team struggled. The Eagles finished 13th in the World Series standings, down from 11th in 2012-2013. They made the top eight twice, getting to the Plate Final in Tokyo, won the Shield (the lowest of the consolation trophies, equivalent to 13th out of 16) four times. No other team won the Shield more than once, and in fact the USA has won more Shields than any other country all-time.

The Shield, then, is a symbol of inadequate expectations. We can be happy that the USA won at least two straight games (you have to in order to win the Shield), and that they get a trophy presentation, but it’s a trophy that shields fans from the fact that the team performed poorly on Day One, and then lost their Bowl Quarterfinal.

And then don’t forget that twice the USA finished dead last in a tournament, and once they finished 11th. They were saved from a worse standing because Portugal and Spain were consistently at the bottom. 

The reasons for these finishes are many, but one is that Hawkins was forced to test out a bunch of new players. After last season, Blaine Scully went to play pro in England, Colin Hawley decided to take a break and work on his non-rugby career, Hawkins himself was semi-retiring as a player, and Luke Hume also looked to go pro.

With that outflux of experience, size, and height, Hawkins had a lot of work to do. He decided, at the same time, to sit some of his most experienced players in Shalom Suniula and Jack Halalilo. What Hawkins was thinking was, if I’m going to have to lose games as I blood new players, I may as well clean house a little, too. The result, though, was that both players left the program entirely.

Rumors that Hawkins didn’t like to entertain alternate views haven’t been fully substantiated, but he and Suniula did have a disagreement. Suniula apologized to Hawkins for his role in the confrontation, but it’s not hard to see that a young coach who is now coaching his former teammates might be a little thin-skinned. That spells out why there might have been issues with players, but that doesn’t explain the fact that coaches like Richie Walker, Ben Gollings, Waisale Serevi, and Andre Snyman were asked to contribute, and then just as quickly faded to the background. Young coaches have to seek advice.

The upshot was a parade of players new to international 7s. Some panned out, some not so much. Most I would say rank in the "give them time" category. Almost all were given a little free rein to just show what they can do, while the more experienced players had to fill in the gaps.

Here I think Hawkins made a mistake. He chose to bench a former team captain in Suniula rather than bringing Suniula to his side. In addition, he’d lost Hawley, who can be a bit of a goofball at times but was a mature, calm, intelligent influence for the team in many ways, as well. And he’d lost Scully, who has been the most mature and dedicated voice on the team.

Those types of guys don’t just fall in your lap, and Hawkins assumed that Nick Edwards, Zack Test, Brett Thompson, Andrew Durutalo, and Folau Niua would be the same. They weren’t, and the one guy I think was in position to be the undisputed leader of the team, Thompson, was too new to the circuit and the team.  

And the new guys needed to be shown that making the team is one thing, playing well on the team, and achieving the standard of the World Series are different things, entirely. Would we had someone like DJ Forbes to set the example. Instead, the team looked to ... Nick Edwards.

For me, Edwards was not the guy to be captain in this environment. You needed someone who understood where the new players were coming from. You needed someone who took every aspect of play seriously. You needed an unselfish player. You needed someone who busts his behind to do all the gritty stuff, make all the tackles, and help elevate his teammates. You needed someone who doesn’t have a cute little dance every time he scores a try. 

The leadership and experience void was clear. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the USA made the Cup Round the two tournaments when Mike Palefau played. Palefau is not in residence with the team because he’s got a job and a family and a life in Seattle. But he showed, when he played in Tokyo and Hong Kong, as he did leading the Serevi/Seattle teams to victories in the LVI and Elite City 7s, that he’s probably still the best 7s player in the country, and his play, fairly or unfairly, didn't reflect well on what was going on in Chula Vista.

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