CAPE TOWN, S.A. – There is a story about Moses and Jesus playing golf. Moses hits a nice tee-shot into the middle of the fairway and turns around satisfied with his effort. Jesus steps up and smashes his ball into the bushes Moses starts laughing. Jesus closes his eyes and the ball rolls down out of the bushes into the small stream nearby, where a fish catches it in its mouth and swims to near the green. From there a squirrel comes along takes the ball and places it into the hole. Jesus turns around smiling. Moses replies “You want to play golf, or you want to **** about?”
Why this story? Simple. The U.S.A Eagles vs New Zealand All Blacks game was a masterful piece of marketing! It filled an American Football stadium and took rugby union to whole new marketing heights. The rugby audiences of America got to see the mighty All Blacks in all their awe-inspiring brilliance. Oh yes, and did I mention the U.S Eagles got completely and utterly destroyed! Not beaten. Embarrassed! This experiment worked beautifully in every way, except the one that should have mattered, the rugby. Anybody worked out who Jesus is in this little story yet?
I am a rugby coach, I am not going to focus on the specific names selected, some will argue that there was favouritism in regards to coaches picking their own players (Seattle Saracens and the distinct New York connection). I really am not bothered about the specific selected players, they were selected to do a job they did not, as I am about to explain.
The problems, unfortunately, did not start with the players. I have been asked countless times when a team is doing poorly whether it is the players or the coaches’ fault? My answer is simple if the strategy and tactics are poor or non-existent then it is the coaches’ fault, they have to pick a side to play a way they design. If the on field decision-making and efforts are poor then it is the players’ fault. Yes there is an argument that the coach must mentally prepare players, but a coach is not needed for you to make a simple tackle, the fact you are wearing an international jersey should do that.
On the basis that the aim of the game is to score tries we shall start with the Eagles attempts at attack. The All Blacks were a model in the simplicities of attack, using all the simple attacking strands of rugby they were able to construct simple and devastating tries, oh yes that and the horrendous defence by the Eagles, but more of that later. The Eagles? They were just simple. They went left to right and then right to left, almost expecting that space would open up because they had been taught that if you hold the ball and keep stretching the defence it will. Except this is international rugby. Nobody ran an inside line, nobody truly ran with purpose into space, only into swarming black-shirted bodies. The All Blacks call their defence the Black Plague and rightly so, the Eagles were choked. They were linear and basic, Mike Petri was not the buzzing presence around the base of the ruck that his college coach Dom Farrell would have you believe he is. Adam Siddall seemed content to ship the ball out to his big centres hoping they would make some hard yards up the middle (running into SBW). The forwards ran with directness but they cannot be expected to score tries, more lay a platform. The coaches had clearly not worked out any specific strategy to hoodwink or place the All Blacks in compromising decision-making positions. There was not even an original set play that maybe, by some miracle, would have bagged them a try. This was high school stuff (in fact in some countries it’s pre-school), pass the ball from one side to the other and when you get stuck smash it up and ruck, and hope they get tired or leave a gap. This is the All Blacks Messrs Tolkin and Osborne, good luck with that!
Now for defence, the simplest concept to approach because ultimately it boils down to two things, blitz off the gain line as a line and smash your opponent. This Eagles side seemed content to let Israel Dagg wander through their line at will to set up tries and score his try (passing three alleged tacklers). Corey Jane breezed through for his tries (again with three tacklers scrambling in his slipstream). Patrick Tuipolutu strolled past some lost Eagles for his. Sam Cane managed to go through three men who were tight and aware of the danger to score his. And the crowning glory was Ryan Crotty’s meandering run to set up Sonny Bill Williams for his first try on his return to the All Blacks. The cardinal sin for any rugby player is not making your tackles, and for this the Eagles players should be deeply embarrassed. Their defensive lift was poor and unorganized, with individual tacklers flying out of the line, or huge doglegs out wide allowing the All Blacks to exploit the space.
The scrum got annihilated. A clear case is Julian Savea’s first try. There was no rhythm, no cadence in the shove, everybody pushing independently against an opposition that drove in sync as a team. This is not even a case of bad selection in the front row (although believe me I’m not discounting that as an argument), this was a case of a scrum that did not believe they could win, this was a case of a scrum that if they had been coached what to do, had clearly forgotten it.
A professional game of rugby is still a professional game of rugby no matter what marketing tools are used. The Eagles were made to look like schoolboys. I have said I do not believe it is entirely the players’ fault. Of course a large amount of the blame has to fall at their feet. But the lack of direction in attack, the shocking organization in defence and the agony that was their scrum showed a serious problem with their coaching staff. Mike Tolkin may well be a very good coach, he was certainly an exceptional high school coach, but that does not mean you are allowed to walk into a national side, no matter how amateurish they may be. It may not meet with approval but to truly professionalize the game at the level the Eagles are at a professional coaching staff is required, coaches that have coached in the Super 15, Premiership, Top 14 or Pro12. This current staff is simply not good enough. This is exarcebated by the huge lack of talent scouts within the U.S, nobody is out in Colorado or Texas looking for the next great star, they rely on going to Cal, LIFE, Kutztown, NYAC and Old Blue matches. That is not an acceptable way to prepare or recruit for an international side. The only bright spots were Blaine Scully and Samu Manoa (Professionals!)
I am sorry America, but its going to be a long time before you can even claim you compete with the big teams if the current systems are allowed to continue. Stop messing about with everything else and worry about the rugby.