TORONTO, CANADA – The USA Eagles endured a miserable afternoon against Tonga to conclude the group stage of the Pacific Nations Cup, losing 33-19. The US played far worse than the scoreline suggests. Though the hot afternoon clearly took its toll on players, several Eagles simply did not look up to the challenge of playing international rugby.
The USA’s film staff will have to avert their eyes from the Tongans’ first try. In the fourth minute, Tonga gathered possession from an aimless kick (a recurring feature in the match). Winger Fetu’u Vanikolo managed to scoop up a chip ahead from his fly-half, and was off to the races. Both Toby L’Estrange and Troy Hall simply slid off the Tongan, and he cantered forty meters for the opening score.
The Eagles were beset by ill discipline in open play and the recurrence of their setpiece difficulties. Tonga’s scrum dominated the first half, though the US stabilized after the second-half introduction of Eric Fry. Tongan fly-half Kurt Morath was on the money with his kicking game, and converted four penalties in the match.
Mike Tolkin introduced several sevens stars into the equation for this match, and the lack of a clinical edge showed. Though the Eagles’ sevens players are all exceptional athletes, many simple mistakes were made. Line breaks were relatively frequent, but missed tackles, defensive assignments, and careless knock-ons plagued the Eagles. One particular farcical sequence saw a disrupted lineout simply knocked into touch by the wing. Though sevens requires raw speed and power, ball retention and successful tackling are far more important in the fifteens game. Until now, the success of the Eagles’ sevens program provided unquestioned benefits to the fifteens side. While nothing can take away from the fantastic job done by Mike Friday and his charges, both versions of the game are reaching such levels of specialization that the Eagles may soon need to stop cross-pollinating quite so frequently.
The Tongans entered the break ahead 16-3 on the back of three Morath penalties and the Vanikolo try. The match resumed when Cam Dolan lost possession inside the Eagles’ twenty-two off the kickoff, and Tonga attacked with a will. The Americans managed to clear their lines on that occasion, yet the second try of the match was not long in coming. Jack Ram gathered a messy lineout and shrugged off two more US tacklers before finding Telusa Veaniu running a beautiful support line. In the 61st minute, further disaster struck for the Eagles. After failing to clear their lines, Tonga stretched out the clearly tiring US defense and ran in a simple try on the wing, the second of the match for Vanikolo. The Eagles substitutes made the scoreline look respectable with two tries in the final ten minutes. Their successes could not obscure the fact that the US had been thoroughly dominated almost the entire match.
Many American supporters and pundits expressed consternation at the lack of quality play from the Eagles. It is important to keep some perspective before rendering a sweeping programmatic judgment. Of the starters, Scott Lavalla is possibly the only man who will be in the team for the first World Cup match. The 3 matches in 9 days and hours traveling can’t be dismissed. Tonga has traditionally given the US difficulty, and the Eagles’ improvements against Japan and Samoa cannot be discounted. If Tolkin returns to his “best” fifteen against Canada on Tuesday and the Eagles fall short, we may have more grounds for judging a poor loss.
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