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Column: Were the England and Ireland Games Worth It?

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Column: Were the England and Ireland Games Worth It?

USA vs England. Ian Muir photo.

(This is an Opinion Column by Alex Goff)—Was it a waste of time to send the USA Men's 15s team to England and Ireland?

A simple yes-or-no question that begs a less simple follow-up: Why or why not?

Well, here goes:

No, it wasn't a waste of time. Why? That's where there's more to write.

You Don't Know What You Don't Know

My entire career as a rugby journalist and analyst comes down to two major premises: 1) Rugby is supposed to be fun and if we don't make it fun, why bother, and 2) You can't become good until you play somebody better than you and learn from them.

For the Eagles, it's that second thing that's at the crux of the matter. We as a rugby nation cannot expect to hide from the higher tiers and get better. We need to know what it's like to play England, to play Ireland, and, to play one of those teams and turn around and play a similar-quality opponent a few days later.

Every year we need the USA 15s teams, men and women, to play those challenging matches, and to lose, in order to ingrain within the very bones of the players and coaches what it takes to beat such an opponent. 

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Yeah, Well, These Were Lesser Teams They Lost To

This is a line of thinking I find especially distasteful and, more to the point, inaccurate. Dismissing England's team as their C team is just plain wrong, and fails to acknowledge the truth behind how those national teams are put together. Yes, true, England was missing 12 players who were off with the British and Irish Lions. Most of those players were experienced, highly talented, so you'd expect there to be a bit of a dropoff. 

Yes, I get that, and I don't disagree with it. But that doesn't mean it's not England. England put on the best team available, so they were England. No one was talking about the USA team being lesser, and yet the Eagles were missing AJ MacGinty, their best player and possibly the best flyhalf in the Premiership. They were missing Paul Lasike, a center of imposing physicality, a former NFL player, and a full-time pro in the Premiership. They were missing Titi Lamositele, another full-time pro in France. They were missing Will Hooley, another full-time pro and skilled player. And while the players who replaced them had some good moments or even good games, you wonder whether their presence might have made a difference.

Didn't matter to fans, right? The team that wore the USA jerseys was the USA. No excuses.

In addition, it's worth pointing out that these Tier 1 national teams playing during B&I Lions tours often blood some new players. It's funny how often those players end up on the Lions squad four years later. This year, we even saw it happen during the week. Right after playing against the Eagles, England flyhalf Marcus Smith was called up to the Lions. So he went from being a scrub to a British & Irish Lion within a couple of days.

It doesn't work that way. The way it works is that England has 13 Premiership teams (14 for 2021-22) and that means about 400-500 full-time pros, of which about 60% are English. So that's a pool of 250-300 players. You could take player #50 to player #72 and run that squad out and they'd be pretty good—the pool of experienced, talented professional players in England is deep.

Ireland is a little different because they work with a provincial system. Four provincial teams have only 150 or so players available, but the percentage of domestic players in those teams is much higher, giving them over 120 players to choose from. Once again the pool is pretty deep.

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Both Games Are Accurate

The team that outscored England in the second half is the same team that got blown out by Ireland. The team that struggled in the scrum against England is the same team that scrummed quite well against the Irish. The Eagles have good things about them—they tackle relatively well, they work hard, they can run phases, they can put good teams under pressure. And they have some bad things about them—they do not look offensively dangerous or interesting, they are annoyingly inconsistent in the lineout, they are out of position on defense too often.

But all of those things can be studied now, and if the Eagles hadn't played those games, they wouldn't have known in their bones that these problems exist.

So we can get excited about a stirring showing against England, and at the same time acknowledge there's more work to do after the Ireland game.

What We Saw

Here at Goff Rugby Report World Headquarters we have some observations. The lineouts were not great but it's pretty clear they hadn't had enough time to make it work properly. More time on the lineouts—check.

Filling in on defense in the midfield is important.

The USA misses MacGinty. His attacking acumen is really world class and against Ireland MacGinty could have perhaps found a way through the defensive line and created a few opportunities. As it was, the USA scoring opportunities were also all from defensive pressure or from just running enough phases to get a penalty. They didn't create enough, and that's a problem.

We are so very bored with the box kicks, and this is a problem in the game worldwide. But ... if you're going to do a box kick, you need to set it up right, getting a long ruck, blockers, and get the height right. Back when we were working with FloRugby we did a video on this here>> (subscription needed). It says the same thing. You need the right height, the right distance from the offside line, and some other way to make it more difficult to charge the kick down.

The Eagles won't win with slow ponderous ball. Most teams won't, but when you're a Tier 2 nation playing a Tier 1 nation, giving the Tier 1 nation more time to set its defensive line won't help you. The Eagles need to make the ball available quickly and get it moving immediately. They need to work handoffs or offloads in tight. Ruck-ruck-ruck-ruck won't do it. 

And the other part is you can't have static ball. The Eagles have big, strong forwards who are imposing runners, but giving them passes that they have to catch flatfooted isn't going to move the needle. The USA has to play fast, and has to play going forward.

So That's It

These were real England and real Ireland, and they were worth playing even if there were two blowouts (which there weren't), because the players and coaches learned what they had and where they need to be. After the 20 months away from international rugby this was especially important. All those positive things we saw are real, but so are the negatives. Some of those negatives the Eagles and USA coaching staff are very capable of fixing.