On first word that the USA Women lost 26-23 to South Africa during yesterday’s Nations Cup match, shock prevailed. The Springboks had been crushed by England and Canada in the team’s previous two matches, and so the expectation was that the Eagles would be enjoying their first win of the tournament during the third round.
But that wasn’t the case. The USA started a young, inexperienced team – 10 players of which earned their first caps this week – in lieu of a stronger lineup that could have better guaranteed a victory. It was important to USA coach Pete Steinberg that his new athletes bank some international playing time, especially since the final game on Saturday will feature more veteran players.
Steinberg was treated to some bright performances from Kaelene Lundstrum, a fast, athletic wing, who was difficult to contain and scored a try; Carrie White, who stepped up at scrumhalf; and Laura Miller, a dynamic, young flanker, who just needs some more international experience.
“We actually played well and controlled the game in terms of territory and possession,” Steinberg said. “But we made some mistakes, turned the ball over on their tryline, and missed opportunities to score. Our kick-and-chase game was ineffective as well, and they punished us on turnover ball.”
Some miscommunications on defense allowed South Africa to counterattack strongly off of kicks that didn’t reach touch and move turnover ball quickly into space.
“There were a couple of players who didn’t follow our approach on defense,” Steinberg assessed. “We run a vertical defense, but we had some players drifting across the field. It’s a learning experience for those players, because when they’re in this type of environment, they revert to what they’ve been doing at their clubs. So we try to give them video feedback, so they realize what’s expected of them.”
Fitness expectations will have to be diffused as well. “As the tournament goes on, it’s obvious that we’re not fit enough,” Steinberg said. “Only against England were we able to express ourselves athletically. Then again, half of the team was selected six weeks ago; it’s a transition year for the program.”
South Africa spent 40 hours en route to Canada and didn’t acclimatize fully until their match against the USA.
“They probably played their best game yesterday,” Steinberg said. “They’ve been improving a lot throughout the tournament and were able to exploit us. That was kind of the deal with South Africa – they did enough to beat us.”
The loss marks the second match in which the Eagles let the win slip from their grasps on the last play of the game.
“It’s difficult for the players to know that we could be 2-1 with no change in performance,” Steinberg said. “It’s hard for the team to put in the work, play well, and be 0-3.”
It’s difficult alleviating the sting of closing-second losses, but Steinberg’s doing his best to focus the squad on the long-term goals of progressing toward 2014, while also playing their best game of the tournament on Saturday.
Expect a more experienced lineup for Saturday, as the Eagles take on South Africa once again for third place.