Eagle Eye is an opinion column by Alex Goff. Follow Alex on Twitter @goffonrugby
The Eagle men, the fans, and USA Rugby gave us what we wanted Saturday.
OK, no, there wasn’t a victory for the home team, but all the other elements were there for a special night – a vocal, sellout crowd that (a big surprise to this writer) was hugely pro-USA, a team that played its guts out for 80 minutes, a competitive, entertaining match, and a couple of breakout performances.
Yes, the USA is now on an eight-game losing streak, but fans would be justified in feeling a lot more confident going into the final two matches of the year. This was not the team that looked completely at seas against Tonga or unable to score against Canada or, really, anybody.
The Eagles checked a few boxes on their to-do list.
Running hard. No more static runs. We saw forwards running onto gaps rather than getting passes flat-footed. We saw backs, especially Andrew Suniula, challenging tacklers. We also saw way, way too many slow pick-and-jam sequences, which served to deny the USA backs the chance to score close-in.
The Mongrel. That’s the term Mike Tolkin uses when he wants players to battle and be tougher. Certainly we saw that, with some of the new faces (Tai Tiosamoa?) helping lead the way. What this does is make players think twice about tackling you; it forces more players to deal with you at the ruck. It makes them work harder to score.
Certainly the Maori had to work harder to score.
Confidence. Toby L’Estrange looked so much more comfortable directing the offense, and it made things move a little bit better. Unfortunately, he's out injured, but in a way it seems the whole confidence thing is leaking through the team. The players saw a lot of teammates make drastic improvements, and that's good. The coaches, even, seem more confident now. Who would have thought that Graham Harriman and Tai Tuisamoa would challenge for player of the game?
Goalkicking. Adam Siddall didn’t have any enormously hard kicks, but they weren’t easy, either, and he kept making them. Siddall wasn’t just a sit-back fullback, either. He got involved and made some key tackles.
Offloads. Yes, an offload off the ground or out of contact can be risky, but when the USA team made these types of offloads, they kept the run going and the Maori defense backpedaling. This is how the USA should play.
More Confidence. Pretend it’s two weeks ago, and you set up this scenario: The USA will play the New Zealand Maori without Scott LaValla, Samu Manoa, Lou Stanfill, Brian Doyle, Taku Ngwenya, Chris Wyles, or Blaine Scully. The starting locks will be Tai Tuisamoa and Graham Harriman. The guy calling the lineouts will be Cam Dolan. Tim Maupin will start at wing. How would you have predicted the game would go? At RUGBYMag we expected it to be a rout, frankly, and it didn’t happen. The USA lost by 10, and it was closer than that. If they can do that without some key players, don’t you think that instills confidence in the rest of the team?
But there are some things to work on:
Pick-and-jam. It’s a good move, especially when done quickly. But when we wait an age to pick and go forward, only to wait an age to do the same thing, it doesn’t produce good offense.
The box kick. To work it has to have a good chase, and is kicking to a team like the Maori a smart move?
Get those hands off the ball. The Maori killed the ball, as does everyone. The USA did a passable job holding the New Zealanders accountable, both in terms of making them pay physically, and getting the ref to notice. But there was at least one occasion where a Kiwi hand tying up the ball on the ground resulted in a holding-on penalty against the USA.
Get the backs involved. In the Green Zone (inside the opposition’s 22) the backs didn’t get the ball more than a couple of times. They need it.
Time will tell. Three or four times the Eagles had a support runner, usually a forward but sometimes the weakside wing, coming up hard to get a pass. Sometimes the passer was a little too late and held onto the ball. One time the runner dropped it. This is all timing. It’s all done at a frenetic pace, and if the passer can make that decision a teensy bit faster, suddenly the Eagles are past the gain line.
Make the try-scoring opportunities count. Body position has to be better, and the other forwards have to drive the ballcarrier over. P.S. the obstruction call that stopped Cam Dolan’s try was not a penalty – if it was anything, it was a penalty against the Maori for trying to tackle Seamus Kelly when he didn’t have the ball. Kelly was outside Dolan. Dolan caught the ball, and a Maori tackler tried to pinch in to tackle Dolan and ran into Kelly. That happens all the time.
Defend the switch move. The Maori burned the USA a few times in a scissor move, and they did it because Toby L’Estrange pinched out to get the flyhalf, and no one filled the gap. On one try, you can see the chasers either too slow to get to that gap, or hesitating … this is an assignment issue.
Is all of this enough to do the job against a Georgia team that remains very difficult to beat a home?
Yes, it could be.