If there’s one thing to be said about the USA vs. South Africa game, it’s that it was entertaining. The opening five minutes of the match were spent inside the Boks’ 22 meter, but that dominance was never fully exploited as the Eagles were constantly challenged by an adventurous and opportunistic opponent, who scored a show-stopper with only minutes remaining.
But those spikes in action weren’t enough to beat a comparatively sounder USA, as the hosts banked a 35-22 victory during the first round of the Nations Cup in Greeley, Colo.
The USA won because they have – and executed – better foundations; South Africa made it interesting because they’re fiery and cashed in on some risk-taking. When the Eagles were at their best, try scorers like Hope Rogers and Ashley Kmiecik were finishing off quick phases and series of good ball-retention. The defense was suffocating their opponents and forcing turnovers, power forwards sucked in three defenders to the tackle, and ballcarriers were linking up with support. South Africa was at their best in the midst of chaos. They had an uncanny ability of ripping the ball out of contact and keeping the ball alive at all costs – whether it was hot-potato passing or a dangerous kick-and-chase game that the USA couldn’t quite match.
With the majority of possession, the USA backline had time to express itself, unlike the matches against France. Yes, some of that opportunity rose from more ball-in-hand, but flyhalves Sadie Anderson and Kimber Rozier was also keen to move the ball wide. USA 7s professionals Emilie Bydwell and Christy Ringgenberg joined the backline at outside center and fullback, respectively, and improved the flow. Bydwell took a nice under line off Kmiecik to score a first-half try, and contributed some jarring tackles to the highlight reel. Ringgenberg was tested often, as South Africa continually kicked to space. She needed some more help in the backfield, and although she made a couple of nice breaks up the sideline during counterattacks, they ended up in touch. While certainly not a polished performance, tonight’s line shows potential.
As for the forwards, Steinberg had been relatively pleased with their performance after France – they did well in the scrum, consistently made hard yards around the breakdown, and were a constant source for stability. That said, last month’s lineouts – especially the throw-ins – struggled. Tonight, they were spot-on, which was a huge improvement. The set piece evolved without error – save one not-straight throw-in – and was the best attacking platform for the USA.
The USA made their mistakes, too, whether it was a poorly communicated kick out the back or a desperate pass chucked in the midst of messy play, but the Eagles often regained possession via an oppressive defense. Once the Eagles could stop the forward momentum of thumpers like prop Portia Jonga (the epitome of South Africa verve, bouncing off lowered shoulders and taking a quick free kick off a scrum), stifling tackles from players like captain Shaina Turley (who also scored), Jill Potter and Bydwell sent South Africa retreating and eventually handing over possession.
Kate Daley was also put into a difficult position. Typically a back row, she played scrumhalf for about three-quarters of the match. While she certainly brought some new elements to the table – she was great on defensive scrums, brought nice physicality and size to the position, and is essentially a fourth back row on the field – she doesn’t have a consistent scrumhalf pass, something that Steinberg had said was an improvement point for halfbacks who played against France, and that challenged the USA’s ability to maintain fast, continuous drives.
Anderson and inside center Sylvia Braaten were often seen reining in momentum-halting passes. Daley also takes away the box kick option, although Anderson and Rozier more than made up for that.
One resists criticizing Daley, though. Playing a radically different position on the international stage is a difficult experience to imagine. It does make one question the depth and quality of scrumhalves available.
The other area of concern is rooted in the defense. As mentioned, South Africa’s Zenay Jordaan had a knack for splitting the USA defense. She not only had a nasty step, but she aptly took advantage of any hesitation in coverage or a gap that emerged from a staggered approach. Her beauty of a try began from deep in South Africa’s end. The USA was properly covered and should have been coming up hard, but the defense allowed her to drift across the field, and just before the trailing Potter could lurch into the tackle, she slipped between defenders and was off. Jordaan kicked ahead of her remaining defender, and right as Megan Bonny was about to fall on the ball on the tryline, Jordaan kicked it out of her grasp into the try zone. Just before the ball rolled dead, the flyhalf made the final dive for an impressive and athletic try.
But it wasn’t just Jordaan who caused problems. The USA was vulnerable elsewhere, out wide, for instance. A couple of times Cavanaugh left her defensive assignment uncovered – once that led to a try in the corner (and she was lucky to not be penalized for the collar tackle) and another time in an attempt to intercept a pass, which led to a long breakaway. Cavanaugh is fantastic on offense – she dragged her opposite to meters of the tryline before smartly offloading to a barreling Braaten for a try – but could trust her inside defense more.
It was a good start for the USA, but it was a performance that could have only happened against South Africa. England and Canada – who played a riveting match that ended 29-25 in Canada’s favor – will ask much more of the USA defense and demand a more unified game.
The USA plays Canada this Saturday, August 3. Stay tuned for player and coach feedback.