When it comes to identifying talent within the American rugby ecosystem, coaches, general managers and those otherwise interested in scouting and recruiting high-performing rugby athletes generally file into two types — list makers and list takers. List taking, the act of collating other people’s lists to make your own, is a time-honored tradition in athletic talent identification, but it’s especially baked into American rugby’s DNA.
America’s Professional Leagues
PRO Rugby North America was America’s first-ever professional 15s league. Launched in 2016, it lasted just one season. General managers Steve Lewis and Paul Keeler, both of whom had spent years coaching in the highest ranks of the amateur game, assembled the talent for all five teams.
They did so by going back a number of years to collect the names of every player who’d ever appeared on a list for the High School All-Americans, Under-20s and College All-Americans. Anyone who’d ever been invited to a national team camp or received a cap, filling the gaps with the players churned up from their collective rugby networks.
Major League Rugby launched in 2018 in the wake of PRO’s failure, opting for each of the league’s seven teams to largely do their own talent identification and recruitment. They all copied and pasted PRO’s rosters, collated them with updated versions of the age-grade and national team lists. Then filled the gaps from their own personal networks.
USA Rugby’s Selects Tradition
Looking back, on June 7, 1975, the presidents of the East, West, Midwest and Pacific Coast rugby unions met in a hotel in Chicago to sign USA Rugby into existence. A year later, the first American national team took the field since a rag-tag bunch of college kids won back-to-back gold medals at the 1920 and 1924 Olympic Games.
Before the national governing body ran into tough financial times, forcing an organizational reboot, USA Rugby expanded the number of member unions to seven, with the East splitting up into the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, Southern California sprouting out of the Pacific Coast and the emergence of the South. Those bodies were made up by more than 30 smaller organizations called Local Area Unions (LAUs).
For generations, list taking is how the talent identification pathway worked at every level: be one of the best players on your club team. Get scouted by the LAU select side, and be one of the best players on that team. Then get plucked off that list and plopped onto the roster for the Midwest or West select side, and if you performed well enough there, you’d make the ultimate list — the national team roster.
There was no film. There was no budget for national team or college coaches to fly around the country and watch individual players with their own eyeballs. Literally collecting and combining lists of names, often the collectors and combiners having little hands-on experience with the creation of the original or previous list, is how generations of Eagles were made.
This repackaging of old data is not exclusive or unique to talent ID in rugby, I figure. But rugby, and American rugby especially, is both late to professionalization and coming of age during the era of social media and constant connectivity, where there’s nowhere to hide the inevitable signs of puberty.
By now, American sports fans are so used to digesting intimate data in addition to the sport without any effort at a moment’s notice stats, biographical information, contract details, injury and health history – that the lack thereof in professional rugby seems so stark. By the time a track, baseball, football or basketball athlete funnels to the pros, they’ve likely been handled by a sports information director or two. Their year-over-year stats are readily available online, alongside their film and candid pictures of them in their personal lives.
That data infrastructure in American rugby simply doesn’t exist yet. Only now are organizations beginning to intently invest in their creation, making the job that much harder for talent identifiers, who often have no choice but to be that much more reliant on lists of names on paper. All that seemingly ancillary data 21st century sports consumers take for granted serves as ammo for coaches, GMs and scouts to make bold decisions.
Every talent identifier in the game is a list taker. Rarer are the list makers. Think of it like squares and rectangles; not every list taker is a list maker, but every good list maker is a list taker.
List making happens every day at the grassroots level. There, there’s no choice. 21 kids show up to practice. 16 of them have never seen a rugby ball before. There’s no roster you can possibly copy to ease the fear of making your own poorly. Put a team together, make mistakes, learn lessons and do it all over again.
That’s the life of a high school rugby coach, and that’s how good list makers are made. Even if you’re lucky enough to find a player who plays his way onto a list, their presence on your roster can only provide the security of not having to make a bold, lonely decision until they graduate.
Then you’re back to square one. For this reason, you often see bolder list making at the lowest level. As the game gets older and the standard higher, the coaches tend to be more conservative and reliant on list taking, because they can be. Those lists exist for them, where they don’t for high school coaches and the perceived stakes are higher.
Why did you pick Tonya over Tina? “Well it was a close contest, but Tonya is more polished and has more big-game experience” can be code for “It was too close to call, so I let a list someone else made be my excuse to not make a tough decision of my own.”
The higher up the chain you get, the more there is to lose, so the more so-called objective data you pull into your decision-making process. This explains how people like Jamarcus Russell end up getting drafted No. 1 overall, flaming out of the NFL in record time, while Doug Flutie had to toil in the Canadian Football League for a decade just to earn a genuine opportunity.
Inject them into your team for a couple of weeks and it would be easy to tell who the better quarterback was. But when forced to make a decision based on gathered information instead of learned information, it’s easier to misstep and pick the giant who can throw the ball a mile off his knees but won’t crack the playbook.
This dichotomy usually results in the best rugby instructors, those with the most intellectual property around how to develop players, having the least practical experience and honed ability identifying them.
Among those list-taking talent identifiers at the top, it’s often the personal networks that end up being the differentiators. It’s the one or two recommendations you took from a trusted colleague that turn into stars who fill the small margins between winning and losing, success and failure, genius and boob.
For Premier Rugby Sevens, the differentiator isn’t the personal network of General Manager Mike Tolkin, though it’s expansive. Tasked with fielding 10 competitive, world-class sevens teams for the Inaugural Championship in October, Tolkin started where everyone else would have, compiling the existent and relevant rosters and lists of players who might reasonably have what it takes to play in the world’s first pro sevens competition.
Tolkin’s differentiator is hours — no, decades — on the job in the grass roots as a list maker, combined with years of experience at the top of the game. He won a national championship playing rugby at Xavier in 1984, graduated in ’85 and started coaching his alma mater in ’86 while still playing varsity soccer at St. John’s University.
He became head coach in 1987 and spent the next 25 years turning anonymous, pimply-faced freshmen into rugby players, putting them on their very first lists. He helped create the first High School All-American list ever as its 23-year-old backs coach.
On the momentum of three national championships with Xavier, and another three at the top of the senior club game with New York Athletic Club, Tolkin grew a reputation for identifying and developing talent, earning opportunities on the other end of the development pathway, culminating in his appointment as the head coach of the men’s 15s national team.
Saturday, he was flanked by head of scouting Richie Walker, another former national team coach who spent years at the coalface putting relative unknowns on lists. They were surrounded by more than 100 eager athletes (I’d share their names, but you wouldn’t recognize them) hoping to make their way onto the next list.
For PR7s, the lists are growing — and setting new innovative standards — under Tolkin and Walker’s watch as North America’s next professional rugby league stands on the brink of it’s first full season this summer.
By Pat Clifton