Eagle Eye is an opinion column on USA national teams by Alex Goff. Follow Alex on Twitter @GoffonRugby
By saying that the New Zealand Maori are a 2nd team from New Zealand, you can fall victim to thinking 2nd means 2nd-rate.
That’s certainly not the case. Rugby has always been about getting you best 15 on the field and not making excuses. The fact that there is a large squad of New Zealanders playing for the All Blacks playing four matches this month shouldn’t make you think that the squad of Maori, who play full-time in the most rugby-mad country in the world, are anything less than excellent.
The Maori, for their part, have a rich tradition of beating national teams and impressive all-star teams. Since 2005 they have beaten the British & Irish Lions, Fiji (twice), the USA, Canada (three times), Australia A, Japan, Samoa, Tonga, England, Ireland, and an RFU Championship all-star XV.
In the ten years before that, the Maori were 26-4, although it should have been 27-3 (they were leading Australia with time essentially up and had the ball. The referee called “ball’s out” in a misguided attempt to somehow narrate legality in the game. Because of the heads up, Stephen Larkham got a jump on the ball and his interception try was the difference).
You get the point? This isn’t a team of retreads. It’s a team with a proud heritage that beats really, really good teams, consistently.
The USA will face the Maori Saturday night at PPL Park in Chester, Pa., and they will face a huge challenge, or, to be more accurate, a series of challenges:
1. It’s a sellout. Anecdotal evidence suggests standing room only tickets are being scalped for well above their face value. This is unprecedented in American rugby. This could be good news for the USA, because they will play in front of just under 19,000 fans. However, how many of us believe these are all USA fans buying the tickets.
It’s likely that a large proportion of ticket-holders are New Zealander ex-pats, starved of a live performance by their national team (the full All Blacks haven’t played in the USA for 100 years), are flooding in to see the Maori. This means that a vocal chunk of the fans will be against the USA.
2. The Eagles are without some key players. USA nay-sayers are often quick to point out when a pro national team is without some stars, but they overlook the fact that the USA, with less depth, often has to play without some important players. The USA lineup for Saturday is a good one, but Chris Wyles, Samu Manoa, Brian Doyle, Lou Stanfill, Taku Ngwneya, and Blaine Scully are all absent (true, Ngwenya was just not picked, but still). That’s a whole lot of experience, skill, power and speed to be without.
3. The Maori know each other fairly well and are implementing a successful game plan, while the USA team has some new faces, and the team is in the middle of implementing a changed game plan with a new coaching staff.
How can these obstacles be overcome? First off, the Eagles have to punch the Maori in the mouth. OK, not literally, but the USA players need to be aggressive, very aggressive. They need to make every point of contact exceedingly unpleasant for the tourists. This will do two things – set the Maori on their heels for a moment, and get the crowd behind them.
Second, they have to get the referee on their side. The good news is, Federico Anselmu isn’t refereeing this game. Anselmi reffed the Maori v. Canada game, and he let some things go for the tourists in that match, and has demonstrated himself to be not a friend of the USA in previous encounters. Canadian Chris Assmus has this game. Now, what the USA has to do is ruck with perfection and power, forcing the Maori to come in from the side (they scored a try doing that) or to flop on the ball.
Then, if Assmus penalizes that, the Eagles have to make it count with penalties. Kick a few over the posts, and the game changes.
Third, make the later penalties turn into tries. That means there has to be patience coupled with desire, smart body position coupled with skills and intelligence.
Fourth. No turnovers. The Maori will want to get turnover ball and send it wide as quickly as possible – watch out Seamus Kelly, Luke Hume and Tim Maupin, as well as Peter Dahl and Todd Clever. Those guys have to be ready, and the backs have to stay to their assignments and can get sucked in.
But … even better would be, no turnovers at all.
It is actually possible for the USA to win this game. They do have some exciting players, and have shown signs that they might be putting together an improved approach. But it’s going to be very difficult. What I do think is a more reachable goal is to play, and play hard. Give the fans something to yell about. Give those Kiwi fans a reason to cringe.
If this is a game; if it’s entertaining, and competitive; if referee Assmus lets the game flow and play advantage smartly; if the referee decides against sucking up to the establishment by battering the hosts with his whistle; if both teams score some nice tries and the new rugby fans on Fox Soccer Plus like what they see, then this will be a great day.
Chris Assmus has to do his part by letting the game move. The Maori have to do their part by not killing the ball and playing rugby. And the USA have to do their part, by bringing a power and a precision the fans really, really want to see.