(Photos Allan Hamilton)
Arriving in Adelaide the USA 7s team has to be frustrated. At present they are in a sort of limbo, generally beating the teams you’d expect them to beat, and not beating the teams you’d hope they’d beat.
What that has meant is a record over the past three tournaments of 9 wins and 8 losses, but no IRB points, not upsets of teams like England or Samoa, and, finally, in Hong Kong, a loss against Japan.
That loss was due in part to matchups. Al Caravelli ran out a team that was big and physical, and then watched them try to play Japan’s more shifty, open-running game. Still, the Eagles had a clear chance to win that game – a pass to an open man with a big hole through which to run. Young Taylor Mokate dropped the pass.
Asked what was going through his mind by his coach, Mokate was refreshingly honest, prompting anyone to think “yeah, I’ve been there.”
He said, “I was thinking I was going to score the try, win the game, and be the hero.” What he should have been thinking was, catch the ball.
But the USA lost that game for other reasons, too. Shalom Suniula ran into Japan three players with no support nearby, giving the ball to Japan (they didn’t score, but then neither did the USA). A player was offside on a 22 dropout. Todd Clever was slow getting the ball out from a ruck (he wasn’t thinking pass, he was thinking fend and run) and the resulting turnover led to a try. Suniula and Justin Boyd don’t connect on a fancy passing movement. The Eagles are called for foot up in the scrum, leading directly to a try.
Almost any one of those things, had they not happened, could have resulted in a win for the USA.
Caravelli doesn’t want his players thinking about where they will finish in Adelaide, or how many points they need to accumulate in the HSBC Sevens World Series (with 6, the USA is ranked 13th, on the outside looking in with regards to core status).
What he wants his players to think about is: catch the pass. Make the pass. Link with your group of three.
“We should have finished the game out early,” Caravelli told RUGBYMag.com. “We should have been up 22 or 26 nil. We were the better team. But we have to learn from it. What Taylor did, I can give you a long list of people who’ve done it on an international stage. Taylor also did a lot of good stuff and could be starting. What I want him and all the other players to do is stop thinking about IRB points or any of that other stuff, and instead be in the moment, see what's in front of you, and execute with the proper technique. We do that, all the rest will come.”
Caravelli said the team is making improvements – handling errors were way down from Las Vegas, their tackle rate is now 79.8%; Caravelli wants 85% for Adelaide – but not quickly enough.
They need to be better offloading from the ground. They may be the best rucking team on the circuit, but that doesn’t mean you go into a crowd of tacklers with no one with you. The addition of Clever may be a shot in the arm, but any addition means a team has to adjust – adjust to a player’s quirks, his strengths and weaknesses – and as usual the Eagles are playing catchup on that front.
All of that can come together in Adelaide. It’s happened before, when the USA has been sort of OK and suddenly starts playing much better. If it happens this weekend it will be against the odds considering they are in far and away the toughest pool, with Fiji, Australia and Tonga. Still, the Eagles have beaten all of these teams (Fiji most recently in 2009 in Wellington, 15-10, Australia most recently in George in 2008 28-26, and Tonga most recently this past weekend, 26-21 in OT). Is it too much to to think they might win two of those games?
Notes: Zack Test is really coming into his own. He is more physical, and getting even better on the kickoffs. His 17 tries in the IRB Sevens World Series season ties him with four others for 7th on the circuit. His six tries in Hong Kong was the most by anyone who played only five games. Second on the team in tries is Paul Emerick, with 11, followed by Roland Suniula and Matt Hawkins, both with nine.