SACRAMENTO, CA – Victories are always a welcome occurrence when it comes to the USA Eagles Men’s National Team, and it was positive to see the United States beat Russia 25-0 last Saturday. AJ MacGinty was brilliant from the tee and put in a solid performance in at #10, Mikey Te’o proved why he is one of the best back three players in the Americas, and the Eagles’ forwards bullied Russia all over the park. The Eagles finally snapped a disappointing three-game losing streak extending back to February 27 and managed to end the Summer Series on a high. Encouragingly, the Eagles provided some inkling views of newfound swagger and confidence that hadn’t been seen before and, best of all, finally showed a willingness to forsake the cautiousness of gameplan-past for a new high-flying, more creative attack.
But…parts of Saturday’s Cold War rematch felt like a hollow victory, lacking the precision and accuracy of a well-rounded performance.
The Eagles put in a massive performance against a quickly rebuilding and revitalized Azzurri and had a slew of positive takeaways to build on going into the Russian game. In the end, though, the Eagles didn’t seem to build on their big performance against Italy. Yes, the score line was a seemingly decisive 25-0 thanks to Mik Te’o brilliant 40 m try and MacGinty’s six penalty goals and a coversion, but the Eagles should have put the Russians to the sword and won by at least double that.
Before I explain where I think the United States needs to improve, here are my positive takeaways from Saturday:
Augspurger, a USA Rugby 7’s convert, made a great case for himself to don the #9 jersey come the fall. There were worries surrounding his ability to carry the high pace he showed against the Italians into the match against Russia, but Augspurger turned out to be a delight to watch. His partnership with out-half AJ MacGinty was nearly seamless over the past two games, and with MacGinty’s time at Connacht both improving his decision-making as well as his speed of play, Augspurger’s 7’s experience has allowed him to keep up with the speed that MacGinty has thus far demanded. Apart from his good performance from the base of the ruck, there were also several times during Saturday’s match where Augspurger provided a vital support link for runners who found themselves in open space. His support gave the Eagles large inroads into the Russian 22 and drew Russian defenders from the wider channels towards the center of the field, opening space for the USA on the outside.
At out-half, MacGinty proved why he is the key to the revitalization of the United States’ attack. As if 20 points from the kicking tee wasn’t enough, the Irish-born #10 was refreshingly confident with ball in hand. We’ve seen his ability to manipulate the direction of the play to play into the end of the United States, but it was his willingness to take on the defense by himself that forced the Russian defense to commit to many defenders to our single ball carrier. McGinty started off the match focusing on passing the ball through to his backs which, as the game rolled on, open opportunities for him to snipe through holes in the unsuspecting Russian defense. Even better, as the Russians caught on to his sniping by reinforcing their defense in the midfield, MacGinty begin swing the ball once again to the wider channels where the opposition was most vulnerable. It’ll be exciting to see how his individual skill as well as his partnership with Nate Augspurger develop come the USA’s high-profile autumn tests.
The United States’ Back Row
Todd Clever, Tony Lamborn, and Cam Dolan all put in very solid matches on Saturday and give us an exciting looking to the future of the USA’s forward attacking ability. Each back rower had at least two 10 m line breaks and each showcased the high-profile attacking mobility of the USA forwards under John Mitchell’s direction. Lamborn strutted his Super Rugby experience through his pace & agility on the ball, providing the Eagles with much-needed attacking “go-forward” in the first 10 minutes of the match. Dolan showed much of the same, although his power and leg drive served him better than his agility. Clever, after his time away from the team (I know it wasn’t his decision), came back and proved why he has earned the title of most capped player in US history. He may not be as fast as he used to, but his ability to be in the right place at the right time is superb.
Here’s what made Saturday so frustrating and where the United States needs to improve:
John Mitchell has moved the United States a step closer to finally beating Tier 1 sides, but the Eagles won’t be able to take that final step if they can’t stop themselves from getting over eager. At times on Saturday, the speed of play looked remarkably similar to southern hemisphere sides, a good sign for the United States moving forward. However, most of these periods of play were ended by poor decisions fueled by impatience and/or overexcitement. Thretton Palamo was in position twice to facilitate an easy try or, at least, a very promising try scoring opportunity, but instead tried to force two passes to the wing over the top of a Russian defender (once in each half) and ended up turning the ball over. Chris Baumann and James King we’re both penalized when they flew into attacking rucks and didn’t support their body weight. Several Eagles found themselves running into space with no support because they were overly keen to keep the high attacking pace, providing the Russians with an easy poaching opportunity. Individually, these mistakes seem rather minor, but in the grand scope of the game, they build up to deter the United States from finding that top class finishing touch.
It’s at unfortunate staple of PRO Rugby that I hope John Mitchell can stamp out of the USA. Knock-ons marred several opportunities that the United States should have capitalized on against the Russians. James Hilterbrand dropped the ball in the try-zone, Cam Dolan lost the ball after getting tackled 5 m from Russia’s try line, AJ MacGinty fumbled the ball in a ruck 10 minutes after halftime that stunted and attacking opportunity, and the list goes on. Ball security is job security, and if the United States can stem the flow of handling errors it will vastly improve the number of points they put on the scoreboard.
Kicking (not from the tee)
The United States, whether it be through Mike Te’o, Will Holder, or anyone else kicking the ball for that matter, needlessly gave away possession several times during Saturday’s match thanks to an imprecise and/or poorly planned kicking game. MacGinty was brilliant from the place kick, but in open phases (against both Italy and Russia) the Eagles struggled to benefit from kicks in many aspects. When returning kicks from deep in their own half, the back three mainly resorted to Garryowen’s instead of long, pressure releasing kicks. These up-and-unders from within their own half were overhead or imprecisely located and ended up changing possession in undesirable areas of the pitch, forcing unwanted stress on the USA’s kick chase. Garryowen’s can be extremely resourceful in the middle and attacking thirds of the pitch, but if they are overhit and/or kicked away from the kick chasers, then they are little to no use. There were also a few times when various Eagles tried to force little grubber kicks through the Russian defense in a panicked, unwarranted fashion, often getting blocked and sent back in the opposite direction. The USA’s kicking strategy needs improvement to stem the flow of unnecessary turnovers.
The USA Eagles are on their way towards an era of newfound success, but if they can’t build from past mistakes they’ll be resigned to the same unfortunate result. Here’s to hoping they find ways to improve!
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