LOS ANGELES, CA – Before we look forward to the match-up this weekend against Japan, we must first look back a few days. We must review and digest the match-up against Scotland and understand why we lost and why that was a winnable game.
Things in Houston started off on a good note, so I will, too. The first kick from Shalom Suniula was good. The kick chase was good and Scotland had to fight for possession. The Eagles looked organized and prepared. Quickly after that, though, the momentum went to Scotland. Old problems surfaced for the Eagles at scrum time, and they struggled to build and maintain pressure on attack as the breakdowns were often sloppy.
Predictably, Scotland’s first points came by capitalizing on a penalty against the Eagles at the first scrum. Not everything was doom and gloom in the scrums: in between doom and gloom, two penalties against Scotland and two charging run from Cam Dolan off the base.
With the second restart, the Eagles applied pressure and ended up with a lineout inside the Scotland 22. The Eagles set piece functioned, but the backline did not seem close to really testing the Scottish defense. The Eagles kept the ball, though, and eventually earned a penalty. They were moving backward, but they had the ball in the Scottish half and Chris Wyles kicked the penalty. 3-3.
That time with ball and field position was rare, though. Soon after the Wyles penalty, after a good decision by Mike Petri to attack weak with captain Todd Clever, the Eagles conceded a penalty, giving up the field position they had just earned. A good decision, a good break, front foot ball. No points, and not even sustained time in Scotland’s half. The penalty at the breakdown was a problem for the Eagles all game. Repeatedly, Petri was struggling to get his hands on the ball cleanly at the base of the ruck.
The nature of the defensive mistakes was a bit of a surprise. Twice in the first quarter of the game the Eagles kicked, Scotland ran at them, and the Eagles were able to make the tackle. That’s good. Unfortunately, the Eagles did not have the necessary numbers to cover the blind side after the breakdown. The first failure left Petri with a tough choice. He chose to slide to the blind side and Greg Laidlaw attacked directly where Petri had been and where he should still have been. Tim Visser then had the easy task of strolling in for the try. 10-3.
From the television broadcast, it is difficult to tell which Eagles were delinquent in getting to cover that channel. It happened twice, though, and should have been two tries. Scotland’s Blair Cowan, winning his first cap, played like the debutant he was and tried to keep the Eagles in it.
Early on, Scotland also looked to attack the channel in between the breakdown and the fly half. Several times there was a hole there and the Eagles needed to scramble to adjust.
The Eagles’ backline defense from the scrum clearly put the priority on stopping narrow attacks first. At least twice, Scotland was able to get on the outside of the Eagles defense, which bent but did not break. This had to be by design and, mostly, worked. The cost was field position. Scotland was able to manage field position better than the Eagles all night.
Several times, the pressure from the scrum led to problems. For example, the Eagles had the feed, but Petri and Cam Dolan needed to work to retain possession. Lou Stanfill stepped in at scrum half and threw a tough pass that resulted in a knock on. Instead of getting out of their own half via Shalom Suniula’s or Chris Wyle’s boot, the Eagles had to pack down for a Scotland scrum.
At 24:30 in the first half, Scotland was awarded a five meter scrum. At 30:00, they were awarded a penalty try from a scrum. Spending 5:30 scrummaging is a killer for the Eagles. On the plus side–yes, I am going to find a positive from a situation which resulted in a penalty try–the Eagles pack seemed a bit savier than they were against Uruguay. At this point, Phil Thiel was injured, so Tom Coolican was on.
On the first engagement, Eric Fry conceded a penalty. The ball was taken out by Scotland and knocked on. The next scrum seemed to wheel and then Scotland was held up in goal. On the next engagement, the scrum collapsed before the ball was put in. Reset. Then a free kick to Scotland for an early push. Then the penalty and yellow card to Olive Kilfii for “too many infringements.” It seemed the Eagles tried to cheat, to wheel, to push early, and then a different kind of cheating. That seems an improvement from simply walking backward. Am I squinting too hard to find reasons to be optimistic? 17-3.
When the US was in the Scotland half, the attack looked mostly dull. The US won the ball back from the restart after the penalty try, thanks in part to Blaine Scully’s chase. Nothing was happening so Suniula put in a grubber. Seamus Kelly led the counter ruck that won the ball back from Scotland. Clever seemed to have scored. The referee disagreed and awarded the penalty to Scotland for the double movement.
A good stretch of pressure. No points.
Not too long after that, Stuart Hogg dropped an up-and-under which gave the Eagles an attacking scrum from around the Scotland 22. This time, Dolan was able to pick and charge. Front foot ball inside the 22! But the Eagles couldn’t control the breakdown, the ball went loose, Scotland put some pressure on and won the penalty.
A good attacking scrum. No points.
Shortly before the half ended, the Eagles had a lineout near midfield. The ball from the jumper to Petri was tough to handle, in part because of Scotland pressure. Petri then put up a pretty mediocre box kick, and the Eagles commit another penalty shortly after.
Another chance to spend time in Scotland’s half with no results.
More than ten minutes into the second half and the score was still 17-3, and the Eagles had avoided major mistakes. Then Scotland had a lineout inside the Eagles 22. Dolan to the rescue with a steal. The Eagles must have an exit strategy for this situation. Stanfill carries the ball into contact tight and the ruck is set. Somehow, I find myself actually rooting for a Petri box kick. Instead, Petri’s pass put Wyles under pressure and he couldn’t get the kick away. The Eagles secure the ball again though. Now he will go for the box kick? No. A pass to Clever in the try zone. Attacking scrum Scotland.
The failure to execute after initialing spoiling Scotland’s attacking opportunity is killer. Somehow, the Eagles get the penalty at the scrum. Phew.
Another passage that captured the Eagles struggles on attack was when Scotland was pinged for an early push at a scrum and the Eagles had a free kick at the Scotland 22. Dolan taps and goes. Good decision; good opportunity. Then the ball is sloppy at the base of the ruck. My notes at that point are simply, “F*CK!!!” so I don’t remember exactly how the Eagles’ attack ended. The Eagles are, essentially, gifted a great attacking platform and they end up putting no real pressure on the Scottish defense and getting no points.
At the 66’, Suniula tries a cross field kick to Scully. Not a bad tactic. However, when Scully commits to the ball in the air and comes away with nothing, and Hogg catches and lands cleanly, the Eagles are in trouble and no one catches Hogg before he crosses for the try. At 24-6, the game is over then. I watched that try several times. Suniula kicks…and then just watches the kick. Luke Hume, on the opposite wing, starts to retreat straight back. Wyles is up in the line also trying to attack. Hume is fast. If he retreats toward the middle of the field in earnest to cover the hole Wyles left–and there is no way he would be in the next three phases even if the Eagles win the ball–he can catch Hogg before he scores. If Suniula retreats instead of watching the kick, he could catch Hogg. If Suniula is going to play 10, he is going to kick more of those. He needs to be ready for what happens if Scully can’t win that ball. Surely they worked on that in training. Right?
The last fourteen minutes were a bit of a shambles. On the plus side, the Eagles kept trying. On the negative side, Wyles looked bamboozled to be standing at first receiver, and at one breakdown, it looked like Suniula forgot he was supposed to be the scrum half.
The most notable thing for me about the end of the match was Brian Hightower trying to talk about the All Blacks coming to Soldier Field on November 1. He seemed so saddened by what it will look like to watch the Eagles he was watching in Houston try to match up against the All Blacks. He didn’t seem to know what to say.
Seamus Kelly was my Man of the Match. He tackled, ran for some hard yards, rucked, and counter-rucked. He played like a guy who really wants to win.
That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@:RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.