New York Athletic Club had big news this week as they announced that current Connacht backs coach and former Australia 7’s and Sydney University coach Billy Millard has been added to their staff. Millard will reportedly oversee the team’s backs, which include the Eagles halfback pairing of Mike Petri and Toby L’Estrange, and the team’s 7’s squad. The Millard announcement comes only weeks have Old Puget Sound Beach hired former Irish international Justin Fitzpatrick as their full-time coach.
While bringing in coaches with overseas experience is nothing new (just take a look at some of the top coaches in the country) the reality is that these hiring show that top clubs in this country are taking their game to another level. There have always been a handful of elite clubs throughout the country with more resources than the rest of the domestic field and that has allowed them to have top facilities, paid coaches, and occasionally a paid player. San Francisco Golden Gate has been the best example of this over the last few decades. But still, with Millard and Fitzpatrick’s hiring you get the sense that something bigger is happening in with these top clubs.
What could be spurring on these teams to make big hires? The most optimistic out there may say that these clubs are gearing up for eventual professionalization. That may happen in the future, but in the short-term it doesn’t look like that will be happening with these specific clubs. Possibly the strongest reason for these clubs making moves like this are that the quality of rugby at the elite level in this country is getting stronger. With overseas contracts difficult to come by and U.S.-qualified Americans living overseas look to get the attention of U.S. selectors, these top clubs have become a prime destination.
Certainly having former NYAC head coach Mike Tolkin land the top job with the Eagles has had an influence. But the charge that Tolkin has directed players to only Elite Cup teams is off base. Through conversations with Tolkin he has repeatedly emphasized that players need to get themselves into the best environment possible. Being an Elite Cup team does not automatically put a club in that category and being a strong DI team doesn’t not rule a club out.
Put yourself in the shoes of a player coming from overseas to play in the U.S. for a moment. Are you going to go to a club that has a proven coach and proven track record of producing Eagles? Absolutely you are. It’s unfortunate that not all clubs have the same access to financial backing and general support that some of these bigger clubs have, but it’s the reality and from an national team perspective it only makes sense to continue to let these clubs do what they need to do.
Another aspect of these hires, in particular Fitzpatrick’s hire, is that the clubs involved have become so large in terms of the number of players turning out to practice as well as youth programs, that an administrator is needed to oversee that the club runs properly. Camps need to be set up for youth players, travel needs to be arranged for the first team, etc. All of this takes someone behind the scenes making it work. Having a large club with a number of due payers helps fund the position. It’s a good thing that these clubs need the administrative help. The U.S. is only going to make its impact on the world felt when more clubs have paid administrators.
Millard’s hiring also shows that clubs are beginning to takes 7’s more seriously. Already there have been several programs around the country that have invested a lot of resources into their 7’s program like Tiger Rugby, Serevi Rugby, and Glendale just to name a few. In order to compete nationally and to be involved in the Olympic Development Academy teams need to increase their investment in 7’s. For NYAC, Millard’s position as former coach of the Australia 7’s certainly qualifies. Having better instruction at the club level is only going to help our national team succeed.
It’s a great sign that NYAC and OPSB have been able to make these strong hires and hopefully soon other clubs will be able to follow their lead. We need good coaching in this country whether it be foreign or domestic (being foreign born does not automatically make you a great coach) in order to grow the game. The younger we can get players good coaching the better off we will be.
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