Today we write in RUGBYMag.com about managing expectations for the USA 7s team. (See here)
But, the players have to take ownership of their performances now. With some turnover, new and returning players alike have need to improve their play to help the Eagles start well in the Gold Coast 7s.
No Andrew Durutalo, who is a block of cement and uses his size to power through defenses and play physical defense (at his best). The guy who has to do that now is Patrick Blair. Blair is not as powerful as Durutalo, yet, but he has some good ball skills and a nifty dummy, so he brings something new to the team, too. Overall, though, Blair will have to make tackles (so many tackles) and win rucks.
No Colin Hawley. Hawley could win balls in the air, pass, tackle, make runs, and switch from prop to wing to hooker to center all in one game. There is no one to replace him, but what Miles Craigwell brings in his stead is a little bit of fear (for the other guys). Opponents respected Hawley, but the slightly unpredictable Craigwell, which his enormous shoulders and football history, draws players’ attention.
Craigwell does not go into the air much, but he has a good turn off pace, hits very hard, and can play as a forward or a back. He is also playing with a lot more confidence than last time. That’s what playing time does for you.
No Shalom Suniula or Luke Hume. I think that they will miss Suniula’s goofy sidestep and his unflappable nature. Hume was always a high risk, high reward player. He could electrify the team, or give them a nasty shock.
In their place is Tai Enosa, who is faster, and has an even goofier sidestep, and could well be a game-changer. It’s a different dynamic with basically two halfbacks and hope Steve Tomasin can fill in if needed.
No Maka Unufe. Like Hawley, Unufe was terrific in the air, speedy, and versatile. At his best he was really speedy. In his place is … Ryan Matyas. Matyas is not Maka Unufe. He’s not blinding pace. He’s not like a wide receiver in the air. He’s not a forward (yet). But what the Arizona Wildcat is is a ballplayer. He has strong ball skills, can kick well, and has a good eye for the game. It’s a completely different set of abilities than those of Unufe, but they are the ones that are needed.
The guys who are returning to the USA team return with some expectations, too.
Nick Edwards. Matt Hawkins sent Edwards to the gathering of captains on the Gold Coast in Australia. That’s a clear message he wants Edwards to be more of a leader. Edwards led the team in tries last year, but his biggest plays have been little moments of unselfishness or defense – he will need to provide more of those, especially if Hawkins makes him a center. He simple has to pass more.
Jack Halalilo. A big, powerful forward with a surprising turn of pace, Halalilo could well be a player who gets more playing time as Matt Hawkins dials back his minutes. What he does with those minutes could be crucial.
Matt Hawkins. I figure he will play less and less and be the coach more and more. But as a player he has to then be a massive impact player. That could be tough.
Carlin Isles. Let’s see more of him. Let’s not put him under pressure to score a try in two minutes of game time. Let’s figure out how to avoid running him out of space and then giving him a hospital pass. The Eagles learned that he’s awesome at not only chasing down kicks, but picking up the ball and scoring tries. Everyone knows he does that now. What if he has learned to kick for himself ….!!
Folau Niua. He is a very strong player, and is playing healthy for the first time in a long while. We will see, and will need to see, Niua turn on the jets a bit more. He can break the line himself, and then offload. Do that once or twice, you make the defense respect you, and then you can pass or delay, tempting a blitzer.
Zack Test. The best player on the USA team, Test has become a leader by taking some risks, and taking charge of the game at times. He makes fewer errors of prudence on offense, and he defends way, way better than he used to. He can kick now, too. We just need to see more of the same.
Brett Thompson. All those tries are great, and he’s an imposing figure, but we need precision from Thompson. He will get a lot more playing time, and with that comes fatigue, pain, and the struggle. In those difficult moments, Thompson needs to execute – make the tackle, win the lineout, not drop the ball. It’s a lot hard than it sounds.
And that’s the message overall. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, or seems. Reloading and coming back out when there are almost no players waiting in the wings, is really tough. The players do have a responsibility to play better, not drop the ball, not miss tackles, and play as hard as possible. But it won’t be perfect. It never is.