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Quick Taps: Where Are Our No. 10s?

Sunday Mar 29, 2009 in Magazine

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Rugby Union is the greatest team game in sports. The fact that you need 15 players to succeed, and that no one position dominates a game the way a quarterback does in football, is part of the attraction. The other attraction is that each position has its own vital role and each must operate at peak efficiency for the team to win.

But as George Orwell might say, some positions are more equal than others. What I’ve noticed in 11 years covering American men’s rugby is that among all positions on the pitch, the one most likely to be manned by a foreign-born player is flyhalf.

On the US National Team, even the American-born players at that position learned their rugby overseas. Since Chris O’Brien played his last test match in 1994, the only US-trained flyhalf to play for the Eagles was Link Wilfley—and he started at No. 10 only twice.

The main reason for this isn’t hard to figure out. There’s an old joke that a guy from New Zealand will play flyhalf on your club, only to admit  that he played hooker back home. But the joke rings true because the majority of American players have not been weaned on rugby. Those who have played the game since their youth are more comfortable with the patterns and flow of the game, which makes decision-making—a flyhalf’s essential job—easier. It’s all about experience.

This has created the perception that while you can learn to play rugby in the US, you can’t play flyhalf. It kind of echoes the old debate about blacks not making good football quarterbacks. Talented black college QBs would often be moved to receiver or defensive back once they made the NFL. According to the “experts” they were great athletes, but they weren’t leaders and couldn’t make decisions.

We now know that African Americans make pretty darn good quarterbacks. We also know that Americans of any shade can play flyhalf. We just have to give them the chance.

But this is a tough choice for American club and college coaches, who aren’t especially concerned about developing the next generation of Eagle #10s. Conservative by nature, these coaches want to win the next weekend and will go for a sure thing at #10.

“We have these players for so short a time,” says one college coach, “so if it’s a choice between spending time developing a flyhalf or having a player who can step in, you’re going to choose the guy who can step in.”

Even at the youth level, you see the same choices being made. If a team has a foreign player on their roster, chances are he’s got a one  and a zero on his back. Mike Tolkin, who coaches at Xavier High School in New York City, understands the dilemma.

“It is important that clubs use American talent,” Tolkin says. “There are more players beginning to play at high school and even below, so some players are now leaving college with eight to 10 years experience.”

American-born players still lack the kicking skills that make a great flyhalf, adds Tolkin, and others agree that the position has so many components you can’t just throw someone into the spot and expect him to succeed.

”Flyhalf is a specialized position that requires not only skills of all kinds, but analyzing, communicating, and leading,” Tolkin observes. “Yes, there’s a dearth of American-born flyhalfs, but some of the kids I’ve seen at camps have shown well-balanced skills and analytical ability. You can work with a promising young American, but you’re not going to use a second-rate player at quarterback. It will happen, but it can’t be forced. They have to earn it.”

But to earn it you have to be in the game. Many coaches plead guilty to taking a guy who played flyhalf in high school or college and moving him to the wing or another position rather than giving him a chance to develop at No. 10.

At the root of the problem is this country’s insecurity about its ability to play the game. It’s been a pleasure to watch and learn from many foreign-born or foreign-trained flyhalves like Mark Williams, Grant Wells, Mike Hercus, and Francois Viljoen. They are all smart and talented rugby players. But we should be able to develop American flyhalves. It’s up to youth coaches to give them the tools, and college and club coaches to give them a chance.

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