Former player Hawkins now leads U.S. rugby team

Stephen Tomasin got a chance to see Matt Hawkins as a coach long before his U.S. sevens rugby teammates, playing for him on San Diego State’s club teams.

It was there that Tomasin saw Hawkins’ organizational skills, his grasp of how to win in rugby, both the seven- and 15-player versions.

“He understands the game better than everyone else,” said Tomasin, a center from Redding, Calif. “He incorporated the USA system into our San Diego State team when I was there.”

So the 30-year-old Hawkins might be a rookie coaching the national team, but being the man in charge isn’t new, whether it be with the Aztecs or as the California director of Serevi Rugby, a developmental program.

He essentially was a coach on the field for the previous seven seasons with the U.S., and Hawkins guides a struggling Eagles team to the USA Sevens tournament, which begins at 4 p.m. today at Sam Boyd Stadium. The Eagles play Argentina at 6:12 p.m. and France at 9:30 p.m. in two pool-round games.

Hawkins hopes for a much better result than the U.S. produced through its first three tournaments, standing at 14th with nine points in the series, which makes stops in nine countries. New Zealand sits in first place with 58 points.

But Hawkins also keeps an eye on the larger picture, something he has to remind himself when the losses mount.

“Right now, I’m still in the mode of: What’s the chess board look like and what are my chess pieces?” Hawkins said.

In trying to fit which piece into which part of the board, Hawkins spent the first part of the season seeing what he had. It meant mixing up the lineup to create competition and depth, and increasing the full-time roster from 14 to 25 players.

Hawkins is working toward putting a quality team on the field for next year’s Pan American Games and qualifying for the 2016 Olympics in which sevens rugby makes its debut.

Just where the U.S. is on the international level is uncertain.

Hawkins said he doesn’t believe it’s as low as the Eagles’ place in the standings, nor is it as high as the strong finish to end last season when the U.S. made three consecutive final appearances in the Plate division and won two of them. Winning the Plate title is essentially the same as finishing fifth.

Not long after that strong finish, coach Alex Magleby quit after one year. Hawkins was elevated from captain to coach Aug. 1.

“A lot of these (players) in the last two years have had three different coaches,” Hawkins said. “So I’m trying to give them, No. 1, consistency. I’m trying to give them some form of a foundation and an infrastructure where they can actually grow and develop.”

Hawkins grew up in South Africa, moving to the U.S. with his family when he was 18, and he possesses dual citizenship. He has built his adult life here, getting married and having children who are 5 and 3.

“I’m an American,” Hawkins said. “San Diego’s home to me, and America’s home to me. South Africa’s part of my past and part of my history. It’s a huge part of who I am, but at the end of the day, I’ve given a lot to the (U.S.) program as a player. So being able to give back as a coach is really special.”

This being his country, he badly wants to make rugby a winner here. It’s a sport well below most Americans’ radar, though rugby enthusiasts hope that changes should the U.S. make the Olympics.

Hawkins knows people love a winner everywhere, and that’s especially true in the U.S.

“I’m as competitive as the next person,” he said. “I hate losing. It’s the worst thing in the world, and these (players) know it, even from playing with me. So I’m not happy with just sort of getting by right now, but I understand the bigger picture.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.

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