Major League Rugby: Coaching Carousel, Player Power, Need for Adult Supervision

Article by DJCoil Rugby Guest Journalist,  Steve Lewis

Steve Lewis Joins NSCRO Rugby Board of Directors

Steve Lewis

Major League Rugby’s second season concluded on Sunday with a thrilling 26-23 last play victory for the Seattle Seawolves over the San Diego Legion, and nothing screams professional sport more than the ritual NFL-style culling of Head Coaches before and after the final whistle.

Of the nine MLR Head Coaches who started the season, only three will remain, Rob Hoadley of the losing finalists San Diego Legion, Chris Silverthorn in the very stable Toronto Arrows organization, and Nate Osborne of the New Orleans Gold who has been rewarded for a fast start to the season with a three year extension.

Photos – Rob Hoadley, Chris Silverthorn, Nate Osborne

First to go was Justin Fitzpatrick in Houston, whose 3-16 record didn’t cut it with an ambitious ownership group. Having been granted full control of player procurement and all things rugby, a theme to which we will return, Fitzpatrick’s limited tactical approach and personal style failed to energize a talented group of players who were instrumental in his ouster, and who then finished 4-0 in his absence.

Next up was Davie Williams in Glendale, another victim of player power in a place where 6th place in anything doesn’t cut it with legendary Mayor Mike Dunafon, soon to be followed by Alan Hyardet, the French coach of the hapless Austin organization. Quite how he survived so long in that 0-16, year-long exercise in futility remains a mystery to most onlookers. Then Tuesday came the news of the release of Utah’s Alf Daniels, who paid the price for an underwhelming season in Salt Lake City.

The future of New York’s Mike Tolkin should also be resolved in the very near future, a credible and agonizing semi-final loss probably not enough to get him an extension of his one year contract from an owner with whom he is unlikely to exchange Christmas cards any time soon. Their relationship was fragile from the start, and not improved by a dressing room atmosphere where senior players regularly made known their feelings regarding tactics and selections.

And finally, Richie Walker of the champion Seattle Seawolves, brought in as a caretaker coach on short notice, is moving back to his native New Zealand for a position within the Auckland Women’s program.

So three musketeers remain, and while Glendale has moved fast to promote Pete Borlase to run the cutter, there will be, with the addition of three new franchises, at least nine new Head Coaches next season. Let that sink in.

Photo: Glendale Raptors Peter Borlase

While this results-driven turnover is to be expected in a league where owners are investing large sums of money, two other factors are at play here. As discussed above, player power tipped the scales in Houston and Glendale and is one factor in the New York situation. Which leads directly to the second factor, the absence of legitimate General Managers (GM’s in American parlance) or Directors of Rugby, whose job, in mature professional leagues, is to rein in both Head Coaches who stockpile players with no heed of cost and disruptive player power when it arises. Oh, and have a plan to actually build a team and set a course, any course, over the medium to longer term.

Indeed two of the three expansion teams, New England and Atlanta clearly understand this, with two of American rugby’s smarter operators, Alex Magleby and James Walker, filling this role, while both Ryan Fitzgerald and Mark Winokur have contributed mightily to their club’s success in New Orleans and Toronto respectively.

Photos: Top – Alex Magleby,  James Walker & Bottom – Mark Winokur, Ryan Fitzgerald

While it has been a thrilling and successful second year for Major League Rugby, with coaching changes a natural consequence, its continued successful evolution will only be assured when its org charts more closely mimic those of established leagues.

Copyright Steve Lewis 2019

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North American Rugby News With A USA Slant