Opinion: How the Eagles Can Win
Opinion: How the Eagles Can Win
So the USA Men’s National Team is up against yet another Tier I Nation.
In case you hadn’t noticed, the Eagles have never, ever, beaten a Tier I Nation (for our purposes that would be England, Scotland, France, Ireland, Wales, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, and Samoa - some might argue Fiji is a Tier I Nation, and the Eagles beat them in 1999, but the IRB doesn’t think so, and they are ranked #11, so I’d say no … Italy, also, is borderline and probably ranks as Tier I despite being ranked #14 in the world).
Why the Eagles haven’t toppled one of these top teams is obvious - the top teams, being traditional rugby nations where athletes learn the game at a very early age, and being financially strong, and (in most cases) small enough to be able to concentrate their best players and have them train regularly, all puts the opponents at an advantage.
For years USA players have said they felt they matched up athletically with most teams; it was just the teamwork and rugby IQ aspect that failed them at critical moments.
We’ve seen other factors come into play - dodgy refereeing when the game seemed close; crucial USA mistakes; a little bad luck.
But for me, the number one reason is that the players don’t play together enough - and that means even playing in the same league against each other. Every assembly is a new beginning. Every game, the Eagles have to overcome unfamiliarity.
The thing is, they can overcome it. It takes a huge amount of concentration to remember not only how everyone plays, and how the pattern falls into place, but somehow also to combine that knowledge with a desire to improvise. The reason I say the Eagles can do it is because I started to see shades of that in Atlanta against Uruguay. The Americans got themselves into try-scoring opportunities because they played the way they are supposed to, but they scored because players made instant decisions that worked right for them.
It might have been Mike Petri’s diving tackle to loosen a ball and Seamus Kelly’s decision to pass quickly for Andrew Suniula to score. It might have been Shalom Suniula’s audacious sidestepping, or Petri’s quick tap. It was certainly Samu Manoa not stretching over despite the fact that when he was tackled his face was eyeball-to-whitewash with the tryline - instead he laid the ball back for Eric Fry.
Too often USA players might stretch and drop the ball, might hesitate to make a play, and see the moment lost. It is possible, just possible, that an overall comfort with taking a chance (the rugby blokes call it “backing yourself”), that might make the difference.
Scotland has not picked a particularly weak side (how tired am I of disabusing those who say the Eagles are losing to “Ireland’s C team” or somesuch).
Eleven of the game day squad of 23 for Scotland played in their March 8 19-17 loss to France. Several others have Six Nations experience, too. Yes three Scots make their Scotland debut, but the team as a whole totals 397 caps, with six players 30 or more (Sean Lamont has 86). The USA has 350, with four players 30 or more caps (Todd Clever has 56).
That tells me we’ve got a good matchup of experience here. No debutants for the Eagles, but Shalom Suniula is making his first start at flyhalf. Overall, this is an experienced USA team that has played two intense games at BBVA Compass Stadium, can handle the heat, and won’t be intimidated.
So, with that in mind, the Eagles have to do a few things to win this game:
1. Stay out of the scrum. The USA is scrumming better, but they cannot give referee Pascal Gauzere an excuse to think the Eagle front row should be penalized. It is very easy for a Tier II nation to get a reputation as being under pressure in the scrum, and therefore collapses, loose bindings, etc. get blamed on them. Best bet is to avoid lots of scrums.
You do that by thinking “catch the ball” before anything else, and by being intense but relaxed in the rucks. Fumbling a ball in a ruck that you are winning is like pulling a perfectly toasted piece of bread out of the toaster and then dropping it in the sink.
2. Take a chance. If you are going to blitz, knock him into next week. If you are going to tap and run, take a gap and go - and someone better get on his horse right behind you. If you see green, take it.
3. Do not hesitate in the Green Zone. There’s been a lot of talk about shaking up the offense once the USA gets into the 22. They get close to the line and then bash and bash and don’t score. Well, part of that is they can be too deliberate. Go ahead, bash a couple of times, but do it with a bit of speed. Every half-second you wait to use the ball again helps the defense.
4. Don’t let them get to you. Scotland is actually a very chippy team. I asked Mike Tolkin about that and he nodded, saying “they have to be.” That’s because Scotland is a rugby country that has to battle everyone, always. Well the Eagles were in two games like that against Uruguay. They played, and beat, Georgia in Tbilisi. They can handle chippy.
Is it enough to win? Actually, it is. There are plenty of reasons Scotland should win, and it’s worrying that the USA does not have one of their best players, Samu Manoa, and has a flyhalf making his first start. But overall this is a team that’s seen a lot. Scotland won’t be new. If they can play with the familiarity I think they have, they can finally get that Tier I scalp they have longed for.
USA Lineup: 15 Chris Wyles, 14 Blaine Scully, 13 Seamus Kelly, 12 Andrew Suniula, 11 Luke Hume, 10 Shalom Suniula, 9 Mike Petri, 8 Cam Dolan, 7 Scott LaValla, 6 Todd Clever (c), 5 Hayden Smith, 4 Louis Stanfill, 3 Eric Fry, 2 Phil Thiel, 1 Oliver Kilifi
Reserves: 16 Tom Coolican, 17 Nick Wallace, 18 Titi Lamositele, 19 Tai Tuisamoa, 20 Danny Barrett, 21 Folau Niua, 22 Chad London, 23 Tim Maupin
Scotland Lineup: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Sean Lamont, 12 Duncan Taylor, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 8 Johnnie Beattie, 7 Blair Cowan, 6 Al Strokosch, 5 Jim Hamilton, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Geoff Cross, 2 Scott Lawson, 1 Gordon Reid
Reserves: 16 Pat MacArthur, 17 Alex Allan, 18 Moray Low, 19 Grant Gilchrist, 20 Kieran Low, 21 Grayson Hart, 22 Ruaridh Jackson, 23 Max Evans