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Tolkin Ponders Slow Eagle Starts

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Tolkin Ponders Slow Eagle Starts

Zack Test looks for some space against Tonga. Colin Watson photo.

The first game after a layoff is always tough; the Eagles just had to do it twice.

The USA Men’s 15s National Team ran out for their first game of the year on July 18 and started off with difficult, falling behind 16-3 to Samoa before coming back to make it a closer game, a 21-16 loss. Basically the same team matched Japan point for point, heading into halftime down 11-9, and eventually winning 23-18.

So it seems clear that with any group it takes a while to get going - about 40 minutes. Take away the first 40 and your Eagles scored 36 points and gave up 18. 

But on Wednesday, Head Coach Mike Tolkin rang the changes again, and the result was the same adjustment. Many of the players who suited up against Tonga had played very little rugby in the previous month or two. And while some of the starters had enjoyed plenty of playing time, not all of them worked well with the changed lineup. The result? Tonga led 16-3 at halftime,, and while they also won the second half, the score was 17-16.

So that makes it pretty clear that it’s taken a while for some players, and some units, to get their sea legs. But, even in the very warm conditions in Toronto on Wednesday; even with the changes in lineup; even with the short turnaround and 2,500 miles to travel; the first half against Tonga was a disappointment.

“This was a team of a lot of guys who haven’t played a lot of rugby,” said Tolkin. “We couldn’t get continuity - we weren’t applying any type of phase play. Any time we did we got points out of it or put pressure on them. But we didn’t have the tactical awareness to take care of the ball.”

After missing two prime scoring opportunities thanks to a muffed lineout and then a kick that missed touch, the Eagles gave up a soft try, and then missed another scoring chance when Brett Thompson broke through but presented the ball poorly and turned the ball over.

“That first try was really irritating,” said Tolkin. “We put them under heavy pressure early and we should have had points - a penalty at least. The next thing you know a little dinky kick and three guys miss tackles they should make. It was really, really irritating.”

Tolkin said his team was in it, and had showed that they as a group had the fortitude to come back in the second half, but missed opportunities and mistakes had put them too far behind.

“We’re finishing the games better because we have a group with great character,” said Tolkin. “They don’t give up. They play complete games. They have a great work ethic. But game one and game three were carbon copies of one another in that there were a whole lot of guys taking the field who hadn’t played rugby in a long time. Several players had not played one game of 15s in the last eight months. Those who have played something like five games. We do have to start better.”

Still, the coaches weren’t easy on the players. They held players accountable for mistakes, missed assignments, and the like - Phil Thiel was subbed off at halftime in part because of a couple of errant lineout throws (he was going to be subbed out at 50 minutes regardless, but the early move sent a message). Some players, fans will see, won’t be playing a heck of a lot as a result of Wednesday.

On Monday, the USA plays Canada in the 5th/6th game of the Pacific Nations Cup at 2pm PT in Burnaby, BC. In that game, the stats indicate perhaps another poor start. While the Eagles’ points-for, points-against in the first half in the last three games is 15-48, Canada’s 1st halves are 31-24. In the second half, the USA is 43-24, and Canada is 13-45. 

And we can harken back to a little over a year ago in Sacramento, when Canada led 28-18 at halftime and lost 38-35. All this to tell you that the USA might have another slow start on Monday, but might have one more comeback in them, too.


Notes: Danny Barrett, who left the Japan game injured, should be healthy to play on Monday. Lou Stanfill hyper-extended his elbow against Tonga, and should be OK to play soon, but maybe not against Canada.