Up 12-11 with very little time left, the USA U20s put away Tonga 22-11, scoring two tries and turning more than a few heads at the Junior World Rugby Trophy.
For a team that finished 7th out of 8 in 2011, this result was a huge step forward. Head Coach Scott Lawrence was pleased, but also not surprised. He had spent a year working on developing this team and his approach, with such a performance in mind.
“It was a good way to finish,” Lawrence told RUGBYMag.com. “Overall, though, we weren’t as precise as we wanted to be. But these are the heart attack kids, and they are finding a way to win games.”
Key in the match against Tonga, Lawrence wanted his players to handle the physicality, and be aware that they couldn’t let the borderline (or over the border) hits bother them. Tonga ended up slammed with yellow cards (and the USA got one, as well), and the USA kept playing rugby.
“We talked to the guys about keeping their discipline and driving up the phase count,” said Lawrence. “We made some tactical changes that were installed to help us avoid those double tackles, which I think helped.”
Those double tackles were brutal, and often the second Tongan tackler came in forearm first. Lawrence didn’t want his players hurt, or to retaliate, and for the most part that plan worked.
“I think we just knew if we kept on the pressure there would be opportunities, and there would be penalties,” Lawrence said. “Madison [Hughes] did well. That was a big thing, our kicking game both from the hand and the tee. But at the same time, Tonga’s one try came from when we didn’t exit the red zone effectively. That’s something we need to focus on doing well.”
The ability of Hughes to punish Tonga penalties with three points was a crucial part of the game, certainly. Once penalties start costing points, teams are less likely to keep doing it. And if they do keep doing it, they end up seeing a card.
“Once we got into their end we wanted to stay in the middle of the field and apply pressure,” explained Lawrence, hinting strongly that they knew the penalties would be there, and being in the middle of the field would make the kicks easier.
Looking ahead to Friday, the USA plays Chile, which torched Russia 53-19. Lawrence says this will be another tough game, and another game that challenges the USA’s dedication.
“South American teams are all very good at the age-grade level,” said Lawrence. “Uruguay has won this competition before. Chile beat the Argentina U19s. They are going to be a physical group. Set piece is going to be a strength to them and they will be tough in the contact area.”
Certainly the USA front row, which performed well Monday (although the entire pack will recognize they need to improve their lineouts).
“The front row was an important part of the game,” said the coach. “We had ascendancy in the scrum and the lineout, although the throwing wasn’t quite there. But really, about 90% of our focus is on doing the things we need to do right. We talk about our journey, which is nothing to do with the opposition. We know we need to stay on the right patch, no matter who we play.”
Junior World Rugby Trophy - USA U20s v Tonga
Action from the USA U20s v. Tonga U20s in the first round of the Junior World Rugby Trophy Monday, June 18, 2012 in Salt Lake City. Photos by P. Crane. The USA won 22-11.