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Are the Eagles in Crisis?

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Are the Eagles in Crisis?

Photo USA Rugby.

(This is an Opinion Column by Alex Goff)—There are some parallels between 2022 and 2002.

In 2002 the USA had high hopes in World Cup qualifying and fell short. The Eagles entered into a must-win game against Chile where a victory would put them into the Big Dance and ... lost. The consensus at the time was that there needed to be an overhaul of the USA setup, including some (but not all) of the players. 

What happened then was that the Head Coach, Tom Billups, took the heart the criticism about the USA's lack of offense and hired an attack coach, Brett Taylor, who revolutionized the USA approach to scoring tries. Billups emphasized fitness more heavily, dropped some players, and threw himself into a place to find success in 2003. 

And what happened? The Eagles hammered Spain in a two-game repechage series, and ended 2003 as the team's most successful year to date. They went 7-6, beating Japan in the World Cup and almost beating Fiji (they lost by a point). Wins and points scored were way, way more than any other year.

So now to 2022. There are some aspects of the two years that have no commonality. In 2002 Billups was in his first full year of coaching the team and was dealing with some major lineup changes. In 2022 Gary Gold is in his fifth season of coaching the team (although 2020 was a bit of a bust). During that time he has had a relatively settled group, although the Eagles continue to be plagued by player availability issues. 

Even so, a surprising loss to Chile funnels the Eagles into one more tournament in which they either win or stay home during the 2023 Rugby World Cup.



Not quite yet. Urgency? You bet.

While Billups had about seven months to rebound from the losses to Chile and Uruguay that put the Eagles in the 2003 RWC Repechage, Gold has only half that time. So any changes will have to be carefully executed considering there's not much time to put them together. What we don't recommend is a major panic—don't fire Gold even if you could (and you can't); don't drop most of the players; don't ditch the entire coaching staff.

Instead, let's consider this:

1. The Final Qualifying Tournament is Winnable. The final tournament lineup is going to be Kenya, Portugal, USA, and, most likely, Hong Kong. Hong Kong will be playing Tonga this coming weekend to decide who is the final Asia/Pacific qualifier. Tonga is a heavy favorite in that game. This is really good news for the Eagles because they haven't beaten Tonga since 1999. Kenya is eminently beatable in 15s, and so is Hong Kong. Portugal? Portugal is a lot like Chile—physical, can kick, assembles regularly, and has nothing to lose. They cannot be taken lightly, but they can be beaten.

2. Emphasize Fitness. I know this can be a knee-jerk reaction and I tend to avoid saying stuff like "they gotta be fitter." But the USA team that I have watched this summer did not finish well at all. Leading 22-14 in Santiago, they gave up a try that made the series effectively tied. In Glendale, they led 19-7 and 26-14. You would think, playing at home, with a World Cup place on the line, they could close out a 26-14 lead.

3. Repair Discipline. I have observed this in the Eagles team for a few years now. There are some players who get caught up in the niggly stuff, the trash talking in the ruck, and the perceived injustices of a referee's call and let that get to them. In the first Chile game, when Nate Augspurger was penalized for not rolling away, I saw it again. Augspurger was unlucky, but as he tried to get out of the ruck the ball squirted under his feet. He accidentally kicked the ball away. Sorry, so sad, it's a penalty. The body language of the USA team changed after that. Rather than just forgetting the call and getting down to business, they seemed to let it stay in their heads.

Penalties in the Glendale game were silly or unnecessary. I don't like singling players out for one play when there were other mistakes at other times that also hurt a team, but Chance Wenglewski's neck roll penalty was supremely unnecessary, for two reasons: #1 Wenglewski's job is to get the Chilean player's hands off the ball, and there are legal techniques to doing that—neck-rolling a guy won't stop him from grabbing the ball; #2 not Wenglewski's fault—he was the only guy there. No one else came to help him out.

The irony is, if Wenglewski had allowed the Chilean forward to jackle the ball, the USA would have received a penalty, because an offside Chilean player impeded the Eagle support. 

4. Be Smart Late in the Game. You have to be relaxed and confident. Playing in a frantic way late in a close game doesn't help. Trying that last wild offload when, really, all you need to do is keep the ball, puts you under pressure. That's what happened in the buildup to the scrum where the USA was penalized and Chile scored the winning points. That entire sequence the Eagles were playing as if they were behind. Eventually they were right.

5. Find a Way to score tries in open play. I am just not seeing too many tries scored by the USA in open play. Off penalties that lead to lineouts, sure. Off scrums, sure. But working a specific plan of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd phase to create some space? No, not seeing much of that. They have the players to accomplish this.

6. Coaches Have Work To Do. It all comes down, now, to a three-game tournament in November. Rumors are that it will be in Dubai, which means the domestic USA players will need to manage the time zone adjustment properly. The coaches will need a plan for that, and the weather, and the players. They need to weed out the players who can't keep their composure. They need to come up with a better plan to close out games than the Eagles have right now. They need to fix the kick chase, or not kick so much. And they need ... to not panic.

Because panicking just makes it worse.