TOKYO, JAPAN – On Sunday, the USA Eagles will be facing off against Team Japan in Tokyo. RWU put Matt Hawkins, captain of the U.S. Eagles 7s Team & Bruce McLane, who along with Team USA Defensive Coach Mike Tolkin, coaches perennial power houses NYAC and NYC’s Xavier High School.
RWU: Between the two of you, you know as much as anyone in the U.S. about rugby, so we wanted to get your thoughts about the Eagles vs the Cherry Blossoms.
MH: Sounds good.
BM: Wakata… Okay.
RWU: Nice… Coach, the obvious misconception about Japanese rugby is their lack of height. That may be true for some of their professional league teams but, it’s not really so with the National Team…
BM: That’s right… They have more ex-pats playing with them now. Both locks are 6’5″ and their flyhalf is a big Kiwi. James Arlidge from Hamilton, NZ. He’s a goal kicker who can also score tries.
MH: James Arlidge from Hamilton, NZ. He’s a goal kicker who can also score tries.
BM: Right. Head Coach John Kirwan, the fellow All Blacks star, likes him. He’s a goal kicker who can also score tries. But Japan’s back row is short. The USA will need to cut them off and defend lineouts well – as they had vs Canada.
RWU: Matt, you’ve found yourself at flyhalf in 15s. What is your preferred position in 15s?
MH: I have found myself at flyhalf from time to time, but I would say I am best suited for the back row.
RWU: After watching the two matches vs the Canadians, what can the backs do differently against Japan?
MH:I think they need go forward ball, but patience is key… And a steady build up. On the front foot, not stagnant or negative ball.
BM: Out wide, Webb, Endo and Usuzuki will cause problems if given room . Fullback Webb has a strong kicking game. The three of them have 42 tries in a combined 65 test matches. Centers Nicholas and Taira are solid defenders and can hurt you with line breaks. They also have scored at a good pace.
RWU: Matt, how do the Eagles counter what Coach just talked about?
MH: The whole team needs to get on the same page. Defense these days is a team effort and unfortunately for us I don’t think we have seen a team effort from the Eagles yet, but hopefully Japan is where it all comes together.
BM: On attack they need discipline and must chase breaks to finish opportunities. They had those opportunities versus Canada.
RWU: Coach, what about the Japanese forwards?
BM: Takashi Kikutani is their captain and blind side flanker. He is sturdy and a scoring threat. Kolinashi Holani is a horse at 8 and also gives try scoring punch. Michael Leitch is the 7 and he is quick and tough over the ball.
RWU: There has been a lot of heat on the USA’s kicking game, especially Nese Malifa. Is Nese the type to hear criticism from the fans and media?
MH: I don’t think he lets it get to him. I think as a player you realize you are given the opportunity or duties because the coaching staff believe you are the person to handle what comes with it and I do believe that Nese is that person.
RWU: If you were his captain, what would you do for him right now?
MH: I think just keeping him calm and present in the moment. But he has a really level-head, so it wouldn’t be too hard. I might ask him to focus a little more on his kicking than all the pranks he pulls on his teammates.
RWU: Ha! We’re always up for some good pranks… Coach, what is the key to the match?
BM: Whether the USA back row can outplay the Japanese back row in contact and the Eagles must play better defense when and if they turn the ball over.
RWU: How about a prediction?
MH: That’s a tough one. Japan has a great coach and a really great program that they have been building now for a few years and I think unfortunately we have been a little stop start. I look forward to watching the game and I will be screaming for the USA!!
RWU: Coach. Prediction?
BM: 27-26 Eagles. I said it on my show and I’ll say it here.
RWU: Thank you, gentlemen.
MH: My pleasure.
BM: You’re welcome.
John Kirwan, the All Blacks great is now the Head Coach of Team Japan. Here he is recalling the game’s dirtiest player: