PHILADELPHIA, PA – First, a piece of good news from the second leg of the USA Rugby World Cup Qualifier against Uruguay: It took Mike Petri an entire 39 minutes to attempt a box kick. I say attempt because it was charged down. A lot in that first half was tough to watch, but at least we were spared the poor box kicks.
Petri was one of the selections that displeased fans most. Eric Fry was another.
“Hey, I know–let’s get trounced in the scrum in the first game, then select the same front row for the second game and see what happens!”
I tried hard not to overreact about Fry, especially when things went wrong at scrum time. In my attempt to be a thoughtful fan and not just one fueled by either elation or anger, I watched the game again to try and determine if Fry should have been allowed on the field.
Fry is a guy that is easy to curse but also hard to really hate. Fry has done the things an American should do: He went to Cal-Berkeley for college rugby, went to New Zealand, went to England. He seems to be working hard and I am on his side. Until scrum time.
His scrummaging is still awful. He’s worked hard and gotten better. Fantastic! He still doesn’t scrummage well. Therefore, his play in the loose must be valuable enough to offset the definite loss he provides at scrum time.
By my count, there were sixteen scrums while Fry was on the field. In the first half, there were four penalties against the Eagles’ scrum. Of the three USA attacking scrums in the first half, one Cam Dolan was able to pick going backwards. One was in the process of being stolen by Uruguay when there was a penalty against the USA. One resulted in a penalty to the US, though I am not sure the precise nature of the offense. In the entire game, the US had one attacking scrum that didn’t go backwards while Fry was on the field. From that solid scrum, Cam Dolan picking and flattened the Uruguay 10. It was great front foot ball.
The rest of the time, Dolan had to scramble to secure that ball from the scrum and work to halt the backwards momentum started by the scrum. The loss of those attacking opportunities hurt. The US did not run a single set piece move from a scrum.
The most damaging scrum was the one following the yellow card to Nick Wallace. The scrum turned–with Fry giving ground–to allow the Uruguayans easy access to the strong side of the field with the US down to thirteen men. The result was a try.
Is there a better tighthead scrummager in the USA? A guy who could do nothing more than walk from scrum to scrum and help provide clean attacking ball? A lot of us think there must be.
If we look closely at Saturday, we can see value added by Fry in the loose. He participated in a lot of rucks. A few times, he made it to two consecutive rucks. I didn’t see him miss a tackle, and he was able to put himself in a position to be useful defensively as part of an organized defensive line. That is good stuff.
Carrying the ball, Fry picked twice from the base of the ruck. The first time, he got over the gain line and the second time he scored. He received two passes, one from Mike Petri and one from Scott LaValla. On those two carries, he got over the gain line once. Still, when Eric Fry is on the field with Samu Manoa, Todd Clever, Scott Lavalla, Cam Dolan, and Phil Thiel, he should almost never carry the ball. The value he added as a ball carrier on Saturday is pretty much the most he could or should ever add.
Because of fitness and work rate, I am willing to bet his value in open play is greater than pretty much any other healthy tighthead the USA could field right now. But…Uruguay did not seem likely to win through a skillful attack that required a mobile, defensive prop. Their chance came through the scrum and Fry helped give them that chance.
All of this leaves me confused about Fry. Which is more positive than I was before I watched the game again. After all, ambivalence is more positive than gurgling bile.
In the fly-half position, things are less murky. In the two games against Uruguay, Toby L’Estrange added nothing kicking from hand for territory. Folau Niua and Chris Wyles and Petri handled those kicks. He added nothing from restarts since Niua and Wyles handled those. He added nothing from the tee. Guess who handled those kicks? These are the areas that fly-halves often contribute. Since he contributed nothing there, he needs to contribute a whole lot in other places in order to be a justified selection.
It seems there would be little to lose on attack with mixing up the backline in all kinds of funky ways. The plan for the Eagles on Saturday seemed to run a switch at every chance. That’s not a complicated pattern of attack and distribution. Shalom Suniula could do that. Plus, that try he scored showed he can step–or bring in Zack Pangelinan. Could he be worse?
Mike Tolkin has just over two months now to imagine a lineup that can play better than the Eagles played for 140 minutes against Uruguay. Here is hoping his analysis pushes the Eagles ahead in attack. And here is hoping Shawn Pittman and Adam Siddall have clear heads.
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