The Eagles famously played some fantastically stout, inspired defense against the Irish at the 2011 Rugby World Cup on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. If the Eagles are to beat Ireland for the first time ever Saturday at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston in front of what’s expected to be a sellout crowd, defense will again have to be a highlight.
“Defense has got to be the cornerstone of our rugby. Great teams are built on great defenses and that’s not something we’re going to let slide,” lock Louis Stanfill said.
“The only way you’re going to stay with these tier one sides is if you match them physically to start with, so that’s been a big focus for us throughout the week, making sure we come out of the sheds ready to go, come off the lines,” added flyhalf Toby L’Estrange.
“Once we do that, once we’ve earned that right to use the width and use our pace out wide, I think we’ll do well.”
Interestingly, the head coaches of Saturday’s match were their teams’ defensive gurus during the last meeting. Ireland interim head coach Les Kiss was the defensive coach for Ireland in 2011, and USA head coach Mike Tolkin was in the same role.
So defensive patterns are the one carry over from 2011 for both teams. Ireland’s squad is distinctly different than it was in New Zealand, and there are plenty of changes to the USA roster, too. But the defensive coaches are still on staff.
In 2011, the Eagles gambled a bit with their line speed, putting outside backs into passing lanes to either discourage passes or pick them off. Most of the game it prevented the Irish from playing with much width, and at the end of the game it produced Paul Emerick’s try. Will they be as daring Saturday? We’ll have to wait and see.
But, says Tolkin, there’s at least one thing you can always count on when you face the Irish.
“You always know what you get from the Irish – it’s coming at you tough,” he said.
“We know that, in Ireland, our defensive shape is going to be important. We’re working harder to get that shape quicker. We’ll be facing a faster attack, obviously, [than we did against Canada].
Going in the Eagles’ favor will be the likely athleticism of the back row, and the pack in general. If the back row consists of Todd Clever, Samuela Manoa and Scott LaValla, as is expected, the Eagles will be fielding one of their toughest, biggest, most athletic back rows ever. All three players will have had significant professional experience in the back row in the world’s best leagues.
The USA will be athletic throughout the pack, as both props – Eric Fry and Shawn Pittman – have played plenty of back and second row in their days, and lock Stanfill is maybe a more natural flanker.
So the Eagles forwards have size, athleticism and experience, which could have been said about the 2011 pack.