Victory over Russia is the all encompassing thought for the USA rugby team, and the players should be forgiven for feeling impatient.
After all, Sunday evening they were flush with confidence after corralling Ireland in a competitive game. They hadn't felt Monday's aches yet.
This team needs to take care of in order to win, and what the coach's picks do to help that:
Now, after their one day of full-on training, Head Coach Eddie O'Sullivan has named his team to accomplish the #1 task of 2011. Here's what they need to take care of and what the players can do to help:
1. Watch that long-range attack. During the Churchill Cup in June, when the USA won 32-25, Russia made several long-range runs. Some desperate cover tackling by the Eagles prevented some tries, but the runs still put the USA under pressure. Better than stopping the attack after 70 meters is to stop it after five.
To do that they need to exert pressure in defense, and that’s where the experience of playing Ireland will help. Andrew Suniula, Paul Emerick, and wings Taku Ngwenya and James Paterson will all be expected to keep the Russians pinned in their end.
2. Secure that lineout. The USA lineout wasn’t super against Ireland, which has impressive lineout personnel. But overall the Eagles can bring all sorts of weapons to this part of the game. They have four excellent lineout jumpers in Hayden Smith, John van der Giessen, Todd Clever and Lou Stanfill (and Scott LaValla on the bench), and if they can get the calls and timing right, they should be able to use this platform to cause Russia problems.
3. Hold firm in the scrum. The Eagle scrum was under immense pressure against Ireland, but it’s not clear if O’Sullivan’s selections will rectify this. Against Russia in June, Mate Moeakiola had a tough time up front, and that put pressure also on hooker Chris Biller.
We’ll see how they handle Russia’s scrum engagement, but whatever happens, they have to do enough to get some go-forward from their own scrum ball.
4. Goalkicking. Chris Wyles is expected to kick the goals. Ideally for the USA, he gets two early penalty chances, knocks them both over, and the Eagles are on their way. But it’s the same story – if the Eagles can’t punish penalties with points, then their opponents have some free rein to infringe even more.
5. Run from anywhere. O’Sullivan picked Moeakiola and Biller, both strong runners with the ball. He also wants Clever and Nic Johnson to get going with the rock. Against Russia this past spring, Moeakiola and Biller ran the ball extensively. We expect the same, but also we expect their presence to be remembered by the Russians, and perhaps then to be able to serve as a decoy.
If they are decoys, then the Americans could finally link some effective attacks in the backs.
6. Use the talent they have. The United States goes into this match with a truly outstanding back three. Add in outside center Paul Emerick, and you’ve got four outside backs who need the ball and need space. Let’s get the ball to Taku Ngwenya and James Paterson early. Let’s bring Wyles into the line. Let’s not only use these guys early, but keep using them to stretch the Russian defense.
7. Stay patient. The last two times the USA has played Russia, the game has been very close halfway through. In 2010, Russia led 15-14. In 2011, the teams changed ends tied 8-8. Both times, the Eagles kept doing the things they needed to do, and they brought in subs at key moments and saw them contribute. In each game, a sub scored a key late try.
Do the Eagles have the personnel to accomplish all this? Well the front row is an offensive front row, not a scrum front row. Scrum time is still going to be a difficult time.
But offensively the forward pack is formidable, and can probably test the Russian defense in tight and then punish them out wide. Defensively, they have some different looks to give Russia, and that could work to the USA’s advantage as well.
The Eagles have to play well, obviously, and have the ability to beat Russia even if they don’t play their best. But a strong scrum, outstanding lineout, and some dependable goalkicking will make it all so much easier.