Sobered somewhat by their 57-9 loss to the Argentina U18s, Salty Thompson's High School All Americans prepare to retool for a second go-around on Saturday.
"I think the guys just realized what the challenges are," said Thompson, whose team went 1-1 against the Cordoba Academy before taking on los Pumitas. "I think if you look at the principles of play, I think possession-wise we've been pretty good at getting the ball."
The HSAA team dominated the scrum, and would have done more so had they not been playing U19 scrum rules, which limit the shove to a meter-and-a-half. Overall the HSAA lineout has been good, but it's the scrum that was a positive.
"The bad news was, Argentina didn't make that many errors so we didn't have that many scrums," said Thompson.
And on the Argentina side, their lineout-and-maul "was a big problem for us," said the coach. "We struggled to sack it."
The coaches ran the players through a serious session on maul defense on Thursday, showing the players how they can commit one player to sack the jumper once he lands with the ball. Last year against Uruguay, those adjustments helped turn a loss into a win. This time? Well the deficit to overcome is large.
"Argentina are pretty gifted," said Thompson. "If we stop their maul they will adjust and try to strike us somewhere else. But they were mauling pretty much at will. We also mauled on them."
Thompson said he felt the HSAA team was competitive, and perhaps more competitive than the score indicates. The game did not end on a high.
"The last 12 minutes was probably a 20-point giveaway," said Thompson. "We defended well but we began to crack at the seams. When you have to defend for so many minutes, we started to fall off tackles we made for the first 60 minutes or so."
It's worth noting that the Argentina team was somewhat older, overall, than the American team. The Argentina U18s contained almost all 17- and 18-year-olds and the HSAA squad averages 17 years, four months.
"They've got some outstanding talent coming up," said Thompson. "And I think we do, as well."
For the players, the errors and the maul defense stuck in their minds, especially among the forwards.
"I think we were a bit naive after the Cordoba game," said flanker Malcolm May. "We really brought it to [Cordoba] physically and we thought this game would be something like that. They dominated us in those lineouts and mauls. Their game plan was was pretty simple - kick the ball and maul it 20 meters on us. But we worked pretty hard on dealing with it in practice."
If the HSAA team fixes the maul defense, said May, "that's 20 points off the table. In high school rugby in America you really don't see mauling at all, so it's definitely something new for a lot of us."
The Thursday session, then, was a big one. The backs worked hard on taking time and space away on defense under the watchful eye of Michael Engelbrecht, and Thompson and Paul Barford worked with the forwards on defending the maul and, critically, not letting the maul get started.
If they can make that work, then perhaps they see a little bit more ball.