Perhaps the distinguishing feature of the Romanian national team is the size of their forward pack. Their entire eight is enormous, and handling them in the scrum will be the main job of USA props Eric Fry and Shawn Pittman.
The two are rooming together, and take their roles as the foundation of the pack seriously. Having played all 160 minutes of the fall tour so far, they have had plenty of time to form a solid partnership.
“Playing together has helped, but what has been most helpful has been all the out-of-game work with the whole tight five,” said former Cal star Eric Fry. In addition, all of the front row players are working together, “critiquing each other and strategizing for games.”
The critique coming out of this past weekend’s game against Tonga was that the team needed to close out the game. Any happiness about an improved performance was tempered by frustration at having lost.
“We are definitely disappointed we lost,” said Pittman. “The whole squad felt very confident that this was a winnable game. It was an improved performance, but we aren't happy just with improvement if it doesn't result in a win.”
So now they need to do that in hostile territory against a Romanian team that is organized and still smarting from a tough home loss to Japan.
The Oaks dominated the scrums against Japan, and will be formidable come pack-down time against the Eagles.
“Babs has done a lot of work with the whole tight five to work together more as a unit,” said Pittman, referring to scrum coach Derek Dowling. “We have been spending a lot of time making sure everyone is comfortable in our setups which in games allows us to focus on getting a good hit off the mark. This puts us in a good pushing position and really allows for an effective chase, and a more stable scrum.”
Added Fry, “we feel like we have been taking a step forward with each game since this summer, but we are nowhere near satisfied, and we think we haven't come close to reaching our potential. Romania has a big pack that works well together, and we are looking forward to the challenge.”
So is that it? Fry and Pittman have to scrum well to play well? There has to be more to it than that. Both players are former back-rowers. Pittman was a No. 8 for the USA U20s, and Fry was also an age-grade Eagle in the back row and played prop, lock and flanker for Cal. Both players are products of the USA high school system – Fry at Jesuit in Sacramento, and Pittman at Chuckanut in northern Washington state.
“We are props and scrummagers first,” said Fry, “but we also pride ourselves on accomplishing a lot of work around the pitch. The immediate goal we are working hard to reach is to create a stable scrum from which to attack. In the long run we want to manipulate the scrum to give our attack an advantage, and to be destructive in defense. Success for a prop is usually earned through a lot of experience, such as live scrums in games when you are tired and facing a professional prop. That is one of the reasons why props aren't at their most potent until much later in their careers than most other positions. That is also part of the reason why our scrums have been improving in the test matches this year.”
Pittman echoed those sentiments.
“The front row as well as the whole pack is working our hardest to build a scrum that this great country can be proud of. We just need time.”
Around the field both have been very effective. Fry has put in some bone-shaking tackles and Pittman is staunch around the pillar position on D. Offensively, both cane run with the ball, although they don’t do it much, in part because of the dynamic running abilities of the likes of Todd Clever.
But the set piece is on their shoulders, and the shoulders of Chris Biller. And this weekend’s game at the Arcul de Triumf stadium in Bucharest will quite possibly hinge on the set piece.