Most Americans who saw Clint Eastwood’s rugby epic “Invictus” in 2009 probably had no idea the sport is that big. Americans may grudgingly admit that soccer, or football as it is known everywhere else, is a big deal with the rest of humanity. But rugby—who knew?
In countries like New Zealand, South Africa, England and France the naming of a coach to head the national rugby side is also a big deal. Here in the United States, not so much. So it is not surprising that you are unlikely to have heard of Mike Tolkin, who was named in February as head coach of the United States National Men’s rugby team.
Tolkin, until recently an English and American literature teacher and rugby coach at Manhattan’s Xavier High School, acknowledges that reality.
“To be head coach of one of those tier one nations would be much higher profile,” he told CNY during a recent interview in his Manhattan apartment. “You’d have to respond to a much greater audience, not only in terms of media but also in terms of the fan base. The scale here is much smaller. ”
The U.S. men’s team, known as the Eagles, is currently ranked 17th in the world. It is comprised largely of part-time players who hold down regular jobs and must fit practice time around their work schedules. A few professional players such as Todd Clever, Takudzwa Ngwenya and Chris Myles fly home from Europe or elsewhere for practice and games. That is one reason why Nigel Melville, USA Rugby’s president of Rugby Operations, picked Tolkin.
“He has worked internationally and domestically as head coach and understands well the challenges Americans players face,” stated Melville at the time of the signing.
The main challenge is that the American part-timers are playing against skilled athletes who play in highly competitive and thriving professional leagues. In such a David vs. Goliath relationship, placing 17th in national ranking is really no disgrace. But that doesn’t mean that Tolkin is satisfied with maintaining that status.
“Here, we have an amateur culture where guys work during the week and they’ll play rugby on the weekends and train a couple of nights a week,” he explained. “Our guys on the national team really have to go out of their way to make themselves professional in terms of attitude, in terms of preparation.”
Preparation and discipline are two virtues that the Jesuits at Xavier drilled into Tolkin, class of 1985, as a student and as a rugby player. He brought those attributes to his career as a coach there as well, leading Xavier to three national championships, six national championship appearances, 17 national semi-finals appearances and 20 regional titles. Tolkin’s record as a coach at the senior club and international levels is also impressive. Before taking over this post, he had been the Eagles defensive coach.
“I think there is something about Jesuit education,” he said. “There were high expectations and there was discipline and if you look at anyone who’s been successful its all about working hard, and working hard was expected of us. The discipline of the school was always there and I think I’ve carried that throughout my life and into my coaching.”
He will miss Xavier, no doubt. “The two things I miss the most about teaching are my colleagues and the students,” he acknowledged.
But he also sees himself as a teacher in his new job. “Teaching skills work great for coaching,” he said. “It’s all about communicating clearly, getting your vision across and improving performance.”
A big part of Tolkin’s new job will consist of scouring the country, recruiting and signing new talent. He speaks of the potential talent pool available in this country with a mixture of awe and some envy. If the United States put as much effort into rugby as football and basketball, he believes it would move up the international rankings very quickly.
“It’s amazing to think of the talent pool that’s just sitting out there,” he said. “No question about it. In our professional leagues we take about one percent of the top college players to go pro in football and basketball. Think of the guys just under that who don’t make it, it would be great to tap that resource.”
And his preference for prospective players might surprise you.
“The young guys who make the best natural rugby players are basketball players,” he explained. “Take away the tackling element and it’s a very similar game, it’s pass and move, pass and move. Football players are physical but the instincts of football are so ingrained.”
But the sport that he looks toward as the model for the development of rugby in this country is soccer, which has made tremendous strides, both in the women’s and men’s games, in the last 20 years.
“I’m familiar with the progression of U.S. soccer,” he said. “I played soccer growing up and I played at St. John’s and that’s what I envision for us. I think we’re better than 16th or 17th, and the first thing I want to do is build the pride in this team so that they believe in themselves, believe they can win.”