PHILADELPHIA, PA – After two tournaments, the 3rd place standing seems exactly where USA deserve to be. Only Fiji and South Africa had squads that seemed better than USA, in terms of skill and athleticism.
At halftime of the match against France in Dubai, Mike Friday said, “We get the ball, we score.” And he was right. If the USA started with clean possession, the French could not stop them from scoring. Against England, Friday said something at halftime that sounded like, “When we control the ball, they can’t live with us.”
Heading into Wellington, the USA has every right to be confident. Karl Te Nana noted, “There is nothing more dangerous than a confident American.” Still, there is a big difference between being a squad full of danger and potential and being a squad that wins.
The Squad for Wellington and Sydney
Schedule for Pool Play
Wellington is 18 hours ahead, so the midday Saturday start in New Zeland equals a Friday evening start on the east coast.
5:52pm EST USA v Samoa
8:54pm EST USA v England
11:54pm EST USA v France
The Squad in Detail
Danny Barrett returning is good news, especially with Garrett Bender missing with an injury. Martin Iosefe is also listed as unavailable due to injury. Make Unufe was originally included in the squad, but withdrew because of a family matter. Brett Thompson was brought in to replace Unufe. While there is some overlap, Unufe and Thompson do not perform particularly similar roles on the pitch, so that switch is an interesting one. It is Unufe’s work on defense, often in the midfield, that might be missed in Wellington.
Thretton Palamo is perhaps the player who can best fill Unufe’s role. When I talked to Friday last spring – after Palamo had been part of the winning squad in London – he mentioned that Palamo’s playing time had to be managed because of fitness. Palamo is now pushing for a spot for the Olympics, so we’ll see if he is fit enough to get more minutes and if he impresses with more game time. Ben Pinkelman has made it clear that he has the athleticism to compete at a high level. The next step of his development is in decision making. Even if he doesn’t see any action in Wellington, traveling and training with this group has to help.
Kevin Swiryn and Will Holder both made the most of their chances in Dubai and Cape Town. Holder is running smart lines in support and winning restarts. Swiryn has exploited the fear of Carlin Isles and Perry Baker and set up and scored some obscenely simply tries. He might not have feet as quick as Unufe, but he has enough pace and smarts to create and then finish 2-on-1s with Baker or Isles outside of him.
Friday is also using Baker and Isles in ways well beyond just sticking them out wide and hoping the ball gets there. Baker is being used to chase and contest restarts and is handling the ball more than last year in attack. Isles, meanwhile, has become a really astute defender. He is not the best head-on tackler, but he is canny and persistent. There is more to defending than tackling.
Madison Hughes continues to grow into one of the most valuable players in the series. The conversion he made to defeat New Zealand in Dubai captures that brilliantly. He is benefitting, though, from the strength of the squad around him. For example, when the USA runs a set play from a penalty tap, it starts with Hughes, but quickly goes to Folau Niua who becomes the main decision-maker. Niua seems to be playing smarter every tournament.
If they are so good, are they going to win every match?
Unlikely. For one thing, South Africa, Fiji, and New Zealand (now) have personnel to at least match the Eagles. And every side has their own excellent players. The USA needs to get clean ball and tackle well in order to win any match. The loss to Kenya in Cape Town was an example of how a good side looks bad with some poor execution. The first try for Kenya came from a stolen lineout, and none of the restarts was handled well by the USA.
Potential concerns: Who is going to clean up sloppy possession into clean possession? Who is going to win restarts (receiving)? Who is going to challenge restarts (kicking)?
It is tempting to say the answer to all of that is Barrett. That is too much for one player, though. The squad contains different players who can answer those questions, but it is a matter of who is going to fill what role this weekend. Zack Test and Holder can also win restarts cleanly in the air. Thompson can challenge restarts, though sometimes he seems tentative. Matai Leuta seems to have the physical skills necessary to clean up sloppy possession, but maybe not the mindset. He and Test are so dangerous, it is hard to blame them for wanting to do more than just charge straight ahead.
The USA is vulnerable when they don’t handle restarts well and when they don’t tackle well. Another factor that is partially out of their control is penalties. Test, in particular, is aggressive at the breakdown in defense. That either leads to a turnover or a penalty. When the penalties go against Test and the team is marching backward, the pressure mounts.
“We Get the Ball, We Score”
A look at why Friday can say this against most opposition.
Here, Unufe and Baker are together in the middle of the field. Unufe is just inside Baker. The idea is to give Baker lots of space to work with. And it works. The outside defender has to be worried about Baker going around him, which gives Baker the chance to zip past him on the inside and score a try.
Clean lineout ball off the top to Niua; Niua to Hughes; Hughes to Baker; try.
With clean ball and good passing, everything is simple.
Below, Test gets the ball on the left touch line and is well covered. He is able to win the tackle and provide a good, forward-moving platform.
Bender is there quickly to “ruck” and Hughes is there immediately to move the ball through the hands to the right.
When Leuta gets the ball, the defensive line is relatively well organized. However, there is clearly concern about Baker out wide. (Not seen in the first picture below.)
Leuta steps back to the inside…
… beats the defender in front of him, forcing the defender further inside, who had been covering the space in front of Unufe, to scramble across to make the tackle.
That leaves Unufe free and clear to receive the offload from Leuta.
And Unufe has the burst and pace to get through to the try line cleanly.
Nothing too complicated, but everything done right. Leuta steps well and excels at drawing a defender into contact while keeping his arms free. In attack, they can score against anyone.
Against the best sides, it is the defense that causes worries. In Dubai, they defeated South Africa in the Cup Quarterfinals. Here is an example of the execution USA needs to defeat the best.
South Africa get the ball out wide. Leuta moves across to push the ball carrier toward the touch line.
Recognizing he isn’t going to beat Leuta to the try line, he passes the ball back inside.
Niua is the defender who has to make this tackle, and he does.
That is a fantastic tackle that gives the rest of the defense an opportunity to get set and keep fighting. Unfortunately, South Africa did end up scoring on this possession. However, if the USA can tackle well in 1-on-1 situations like this, they have a good chance against anyone.
In defense, Friday has mentioned the “chop tackle” several times during his halftime talks. This isn’t just a matter of making a tackle, but of taking the ball carrier to the ground quickly so he can’t offload or drag in another defender.
Outcome in Wellington
The USA will advance to the Cup Quarterfinals by beating Samoa and France. Winning the pool by beating England is more likely than not. One way or another, this should be another top 6 finish for the Eagles.
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