The Eagles Comeback and Why it Happened
The Eagles Comeback and Why it Happened
Was this the greatest comeback in USA Men’s National Team history?
Down by 17 points in the second half, the USA scored 20 unanswered to win 38-35 over Canada, and in so doing finished June on a high and garnered no little bit of fan appreciation in Sacramento.
As far as I can tell, this is most certainly the biggest USA comeback. The last one was against Canada, also. In 2000 in Manchester, NH, the Eagles were down 25-10, and then reeled off three scores - two in lineout-and-mauls with prop Joe Clayton and hooker Robbie Flynn scoring, then Juan Grobler went over late to put the USA ahead. Grant Wells, who converted all four tries (Kurt Shuman scored the first one) added a drop goal for the 34-25 win.
At the time that game set the record for the most points, and biggest winning margin, for USA v. Canada. The record was broken in 2003, and Saturday the points record was eclipsed again.
What made this possible was the fact that the USA offense was actually working very well. The Eagles were down 17 points, that is true, but they had already proved to us and to themselves that they could score tries. A wonderful power run from Todd Clever had set up Blaine Scully’s try, and some good team rugby, punctuated by a pass from flanker Scott LaValla that any scrumhalf would be proud of, created one for Chris Wyles.
So when you’re down 17 points and you haven’t been able to score (say it’s 20-3), the deficit can be daunting. When you’ve shown you can score, then it just means you need the ball and a little bit of time.
The Eagles got themselves in a hole with some soft tries. There wasn’t enough urgency in covering the kick ahead for James Pritchard (who was simply faster than Mike Petri in scoring the try). No one was watching when Ciaran Hearn wasn’t held in the tackle by Scott LaValla - everyone was worried about spreading out - so Hearn just stood up and started running. And then, of course, there was the interception. So that was 21points the USA handed Canada, tries that turned the score from 18-7 to 18-35.
But what will hearten any fan was how the Eagles put that all aside, and started playing rugby. They weren’t rushing, because they knew they had 35 minutes or so to go.
So they marched into the Canadian 22, and worked a very nice series of simple attacks that challenged the Canada defensive line. Eventually they got a couple of penalties, and got a yellow card pulled on Canada’s Jeb Sinclair. This is something that doesn’t always happen for the Eagles - the yellow shown the opposition for a professional foul - but it happened this time, I believe, because they were patient. Chris Wyles dutifully kicked three points and that made it 35-21.
Now, on TV, Universal Sports analyst Brian Hightower, a former Eagles, poo-poo’d the decision to go for posts, saying “you’re 17 points down, you’ve got to get a try.”
That’s a former wing for you. This was a vote of confidence from Todd Clever for his team. He said, let’s get all of this back, not just try to be close, but get it all back, and to do that, you need penalties, tries … you need multiple scoring opportunities.
Now you score one converted try, and you’re within another try to tie it.
Within five minutes, the Eagles were ready to score again. All it took was some decent running from the backs (Canada tried to slow the ball down and the ref played advantage), and then ice Wallace pulled in two defenders and popped to Todd Clever, who shrugged off a couple more and galloped on. This game was a wonderful example of how great Clever can be as an offensive threat. With him, of course, was Petri, who was just ankle-tapped down.
Now, what I love about this sequence is that, 40 meters downfield, who was the first guy to that ruck for the USA? A prop. Titi Lamositele, who put his considerable power behind securing, with Clever, that ball. The Eagles had to go through a number of phases after that and were fortunate not to be called for a knock-on at one point. They got a penalty, tapped quickly (not a good icing angle and Clever knew the try would matter more now), and eventually a nice no-look pop-pass from Petri put Scully away. Wyles hit the difficult conversion and it was 35-28.
The comeback, at that point, was essentially complete. Sure Canada was ahead, but now the deficit was just seven points, a converted try. Canada was now looking over their shoulder, and the USA had shown again they could score tries. After all the talk, especially on TV, about the need for urgency, it was a one-score game with 20 minutes to go.
They added a penalty that was just part of regular play (Wyles shaking off some leg pain to hit it), and then it was 35-31 with 13 minutes to go.
The process of eating away at the deficit showed how, in fact, the Eagles weren’t that worried about what they could do. The way they played was, in fact, their pattern, their way of playing, without getting antsy about time. It was the TV announcers who were panicking.
And in fact, the whole thing was decided moments later. Canada was tied and overheated, and they were slow to move. Nathan Hirayama was perhaps a little slow in his clearance kick, and maybe saw the substitute hooker Tom Coolican lumbering downfield and figured he wasn’t a threat. But, it turned out, Coolican has orangutan arms and blocks the kick.
Now, here’s where a little thing can be a big thing. Many players would have just picked up the ball and started running, perhaps being tackled and losing possession. But Coolican rightly realized that he a) had already run a very long way, and b) was having to slow down to pick up the ball. Thus, the hooker looked to pass to someone. For me as a rugby writer and occasional coach, this is something many players should do. If you’re slowing down to pick up the ball, do that, pick it up, and then look to pass to someone who is running fast. If you’re lucky, you have someone like Danny Barrett in support.
Then you saw what 7s does for a 15s player. Barrett was tackled, but the Eagles won that ruck, thanks to … their flyhalf. That’s right, Shalom Suniula, a longtime USA 7s player, won that ruck all by himself. Then Suniula stepped in as scrumhalf on the next phase. One more phase after that and it was long pass to Folau Niua, long pass to Brett Thompson, and it was a try.
In the end, not only were the Eagles able to eradicate the 17-point deficit, they did it in 24 minutes.
Of course, that meant it wasn’t over. They had to hold on for another ten minutes or so. And it was a close-run thing. For six minutes, they were essentially on the front foot, mostly in the Canadian half. You would perhaps have liked to have seen a drop goal attempt, but eventually they did get a penalty on the right side at the 22-meter line. They took a lineout and maul, and drove 15 meters, and it would have been nice to see Samu Manoa just run around the weak side, but they were eventually stopped.
Now with two minutes to go, it seemed like the USA could close it out. They defended pretty well, trying to bottle up Canada, but then just as time was up, they opened the door one more time.
Harry Jones cut through and seemed away. He linked with Hirayama and Thompson, having moved to the right wing, was the only guy left. He made the tackle. The next guy there was Scott LaValla who did everything he could to make sure that ball didn’t come out. Most of it was illegal, and he got yellow-carded for his trouble.
Now Canada could have kicked for points and tied the game, but, to their everlasting credit, they went for the try and the win. They almost got there, partly by telling the ref they wanted a scrum, and then were told they didn’t have time for a scrum,and tapped instead
There followed a four-minute sequence interrupted by a penalty for a late tackle by Samu Manoa (one that left Ciaran Hearn curled up in a little ball.
During those four minutes, the Eagles made 17 tackles and one ball-rip by Scully that turned the ball over and ended the match.
Of those 17 tackles, Titi Lamositele made four of them, and Scully made one that saved a try for sure.
So was it the greatest comeback ever for the USA? Quite possibly, but in a way it didn’t seem like a comeback. They had plenty of time, and didn’t really need to change anything tactically or strategically; they just needed to stop making stupid mistakes.
It’s a lesson in how much time there really is in a rugby game. You can score in seconds if you have your attack right, and maybe, now, having scored four tries in two straight games, they have shown they do.
One last note - was there a debut as special as Brett Thompson’s? Certainly Dan Lyle’s Man of the Match award in his debut in 1994, or Jone Naqica scoring two tries on debut in a loss to England in 2001 were impressive. But in the space of a few minutes, he scored the winning try, and then made a tackle to stop what would have been the losing try. You could do worse.