Head Coach Josh Syms to Leave Old Glory for Italian Job

By Alistair Kirsch-Poole
May 24, 2023 - 10:49am

Old Glory's current head coach Josh Syms will be leaving DC after signing a two-year deal to be the forwards coach at Zebre Parma in Italy. The 42-year-old is in his first season with OGDC, having been hired last October. Since the URC season doesn't start until September, Syms will be able to finish this season with Old Glory, including a potential playoff run, before he leaves.

This new job will be a notable improvement for him. While he will stepping down from head coach to an assistant position, he will be coaching in one big four professional rugby leagues in the world, the United Rugby Championship. It will mark a significant increase in exposure and is a clear next step if Syms wants to take his coaching career to the next level. This news is yet more proof that MLR can be a stepping stone for coaches and should help the league attract more high-quality coaches.

Still, it won't be easy for him. Much like with Old Glory, Syms will be expected to help turn around a Zebre Parma that has been a perennial bottom feeder, having won a paltry 20% of their matches since joining the URC and coming off of a winless campaign in the most recent season. Syms' experience rebuilding Old Glory likely played a part in his hiring by the Zebre Parma staff.

Syms took over at Old Glory after a disastrous year in 2022 that saw the team go on a 9-match losing streak to open the season. That led to the dismissal of OGDC's long-time head coach Andrew Douglas, who had coached the team since its formation in 2019. Ex-NOLA head coach Nate Osborne was brought in as an interim and managed to increase Old Glory's attacking output, delivering them three wins in the final nine matches. Osborne was not retained, with the owners opting for Syms instead.

Under Syms, the team has had a clear turnaround. While some of the explosiveness of the the Osborne attack has left the team, the defense has seen a huge improvement. Tackling is much better than is used to be and the average points conceded has dropped from 37 points last year to just 27 points this year. While he doesn't currently have a winning record, having 5 wins, 6 losses, and a tie this season, he seems likely to lead Old Glory to its first ever playoff appearance. That is a monumental achievement after last year's 3-13 season.

His impact on team culture has been keenly felt as well. He has not been afraid to switch players in and out and give opportunities to younger players that proved themselves capable, like Collin Grosse. He has also selected based on work ethic and determination, leading to a team with more grit than we've seen in the past. Even when down on the scoreboard, the players have shown a tenacity and willingness to keep fighting that has been missing in years past.

There is no sense yet for who might replace Syms as head coach. If they look internally, there are several options who might be interested in stepping up: Callum Gibbins, who played for the team in 2021 and spent the last two years as the forwards coach; Ben Cima, who won the 2019 MLR Shield with Seattle before joining OGDC as attack coach this year; and Kurt Baker, who is a player-coach in the backs this year. One of them may be trusted with the reins, although none have held a head coach position before.

More likely, however, the team will conduct a wider search for their coach. Known options would include Nate Osborne, who has been in the commentary booth since leaving Old Glory, or Navy head coach Gavin Hickie, who has helped coach OGDC's scrums in the past and remains close with the team.

However, rugby is a global sport and we may well end up with a coach no one in the North American rugby scene is familiar with. Given the Argentine contingent in the team, we may see a coach from that quarter. Scottish Rugby, which has a minority stake in Old Glory, will likely also play a part, which could lead to a Scottish coach getting the job.

Regardless, hopefully the owners have learned some lessons from the 7-month long search last year that will help them wrap this search up in a shorter timespan. The team struggled to secure a coach last year, with multiple candidates withdrawing just before signing due to personal reasons or better professional options opening up elsewhere. Avoiding a drawn out process this time is likely a top priority for the owners.