Being a 7s coach can be difficult. There isn’t much game time for things to unfold and one or two mistakes from players can be the difference between a trip to the Cup competition and a trip to the Bowl. That said, there have been plenty of coaches that have found success by instilling in their players certain habits during training that translate well into matches. All you have to do is look at Gordon Tietjens and the New Zealand 7s team to see just what can be done.
In the end it all comes down to results. With Olympic qualifying fast approaching time is running out for coaches to implement their systems. You are already seeing countries, like Canada, that have instituted their system and seeing it pay dividends. The U.S. has put forth a system but has yet to see dividend and instead has gone backwards.
The U.S. backslide was surprising to a lot of analysts because the U.S. had done so well to end the 2012-13 season going to three straight Plate finals and winning two. They also made the Cup quarterfinals more times than they missed. In comparison, this season the team only won 14 of their 50 total matches. They only reached the Cup quarterfinals twice and only played for something other than the Shield three times. Of the Eagles 14 wins, three came against non-core teams and eight came against Spain and Portugal, the only teams to finish lower than them in the standings.
Although there were a lot of changes around the team last offseason with several key players, including Luke Hume, Blaine Scully, and Colin Hawley, leaving the squad, the biggest change was at head coach where Matt Hawkins took over from Alex Magleby. In situations like these it’s easy to blame the coach for the team’s struggles but in this case is Hawkins really to blame?
Let’s look at the situation. One of the biggest things that stands out in Hawkins’s first year is the number of players that have cycled through the OTC. Players that began the year with the team—Jack Halalilo, Tai Enoa, and Zach Mizell—weren’t with the team for more than two tournaments. Eventually they all left the program. As did players like Carlin Isles and Folau Niua, both of whom signed with the Glasgow Warriors. Shalom Suniula is another veteran name that barely made any appearances before leaving. You have to wonder if players felt like they weren’t given a fair shake or that they felt marginalized to the point of leaving.
At the same time, Hawkins did well to get new blood into the program. He increased the number of players training at the OTC from around 15 to around 25. The WCAP initiative has flourished under his leadership with a half dozen military players supplementing the existing squad. Hawkins has also brought in players like Steve Tomasin, Pono Haitsuka, Danny Barrett, and Madison Hughes, all of who have succeeded to one degree or another this year.
Injuries were also a big part of the year. Several players that were emerging with the squad either picked up injuries during the season or were late getting started because of an injury. Still, that typically isn’t an issue if you have built up squad depth. It was obvious throughout the season that outside of the top five or six players there isn’t much depth in the program. The idea behind packing the OTC is that you have people challenging for starting spots. As it stands that isn’t happening and instead you seem to have the whole team playing down to one another’s level. That’s not good and the onus of creating depth falls to the head coach.
On the field the Eagles often looked lost. When Carlin Isles was with the team it often looked like the team was trying to find Isles the ball but were never sure how to do it. Aside from a few players, basic skills like passing and catching were lackluster at best. The U.S. consistently turned the ball over with stupid penalties or with handling errors. Defensively they were weak and they never appeared to be playing to their strengths. There wasn’t much of an offensive or defensive system that was recognizable.
Any coach is going to need time to settle into his new duties, especially if he doesn’t have prior international coaching experience. The trouble is that there isn’t much time left to have a coach settle in. If Hawkins hasn’t found his rhythm by next January (there are only a few tournaments between now and then) then the team will likely have to parachute players in to salvage a chance at Olympic qualifying. Right now Hawkins needs to be soliciting advice from others on how to best proceed but he doesn’t seem to be doing that.
In the end we’re inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and another half season to get things turned around. If not, then it’s time for him to step aside.