USA Women's Eagles coach Rob Cain admits he initially found the transition to international rugby union from the club game in England “strange”.
Barely a fortnight after masterminding Saracen Women’s victory in the inaugural Tyrrells Premier 15s final the Englishman was unveiled as the first ever full-time boss of the USA’s women’s national team last May.
In July, Cain moved across the Atlantic to start his new life, leaving behind the successful set-up he had helped to build during four years in north London to dip his toe in the more isolated waters of test rugby.
“I think the word is ‘strange’,” he replied when asked to sum up the transition.
“To go from having daily contact and having games every week was a little bit strange to begin with.”
Hungry to learn more about the state of the game in the US, Cain immediately started working with the country’s age-grade sides and accompanied the Women’s Junior All-American squad as they travelled to Nova Scotia for an U20 tri-nations competition against Canada and England in August.
Both games were lost but the trip proved fruitful. It gave Cain an idea of the challenges facing players in the States and brought him into contact with Kate Daley, who is now a Women’s Eagles assistant coach, and seven of his current performance squad.
“It’s less strange now,” he said. “More importantly, now we’ve recognised the challenges that the players faced in terms of contact time, the amount of rugby they were playing and the amount of time that was exposed to their development, away from the club competition.
“I think now it’s almost like a club team.”
The Eagles’ November campaign, which included heavy defeats to New Zealand at Soldier Field and England, was focused on providing a young squad with exposure to the demands of top-level international rugby.
“New coach, no international experience myself, new coaching team, very limited international experience, new players, at home, making history playing at the Chicago Bears’ Soldier Field, huge crowd, lots of top teams playing there.
“That’s a really pressurised environment. It’s not going to get any harder for them.”
The players were rewarded for their efforts with wins over England A and Ireland before the European leg of their tour was over.
“They’re very quick learners, very coachable and they’re very smart rugby players, once they got over that initial sort of transition of ‘this is what international rugby looks like’,” he said.
“In terms of moving forward, that’s where we were.
“We knew where we were in November and we want to be one of the top two teams in the world. That’s where we want to be.
“I’ve come to the US to try and help that come to fruition. I’m extremely competitive, I want the team to be really successful and that’s what we’re shooting for.”
Cain has helped to put in place a new calendar for women’s rugby in the States which it is hoped will make it easier for the Eagles to play tests between Women’s Rugby World Cups.
Increased exposure to the likes of world champions New Zealand and England will be vital if they are to fulfil their aim of becoming a contender in 2021 or four years later.
But Cain is also well aware that his job does not begin and end with the playing group. His philosophy when taking any job is to aid the “development of coaches, development of programmes, development of players”.
He has already started work on the former with Daley joined on the coaching staff by fellow former Eagles Jamie Burke and Jenny Lui.
Part of Cain’s ambition in the States is to develop his own successor, and he is adamant that the person who eventually succeeds him will “need to be American”.
“My aim whenever I go to a coaching job is do myself out of a coaching job,” he said.
“I think it’s wonderful, I had a great time at Saracens and it was fantastic to be there but they’re having a great (2018-19) season and I would like to think that the part that I played in that is still continuing.
“I’d like to think that when the time is up at the US exactly the same happens.
Gender doesn't matter
“We’re spending a lot of time on developing coaches. Emilie [Bydwell] has been a huge part of that in terms of project SOAR, which is identifying coaches throughout the country and we bring them into the performance camps and work alongside them to help development to help collegiate and club level.
“On top of that we have the high-performance staff who we develop at every opportunity.
“There is a big piece at the moment in regards to female coaches and for me a coach, whether they’re male or female, if they’re good at what they do it doesn’t matter about gender.”
Cain is working closely with Bydwell, USA Rugby’s General Manager for Women’s High Performance, as they attempt to achieve their lofty ambitions for the game in the US.
“Emilie’s very good at what she does, the whole programme is player-centred,” he said.
“If I didn’t share the same vision that Emilie did I wouldn’t have taken on the role. So, our relationship is huge and I very much enjoy working alongside her to make some big differences.”
Photo: Neil Kennedy