HARRISON, NEW JERSEY — Before Ireland waltzed passed the United States in Saturday’s test match at Red Bull Arena I wrote that the Eagles had a great opportunity to beat a Tier 1 side. The on-paper potential of the players head coach John Mitchell had selected in his starting 23-man roster had me believing, or at the least looking forward to a close contest. Even after managing to sit through the 19-55 defeat, I refuse to say that the United States weren’t capable of pulling off the upset.
Despite my pre-match optimism, the Eagles on-field performance was far from the positive potential outlook I put forth in previewing Saturday’s contest. In all honesty, I wasn’t so much disappointed with the United States losing considering the sheer caliber of talent Ireland put on display. What did bother me was the Eagles’ lack of precision in aspects of the match where I’ve seen them excel in the past.
There were three main areas of the match that contributed to Saturday’s trouncing that are fixable, three things that will prove important come the test against Georgia and the upcoming World Cup qualifying series against Canada.
Outside of the first 15 minutes of the match, the United States’ tackling, especially on the wings, was spotty at best. Yes, players like Ireland’s Garry Ringrose and Keith Earls were shifty and in top form, but the Eagles let players duck under attempted tackles or wriggle out of tacklers’ arms not once, but several times. I know the Eagles can put in good tackles; they’ve shown that acuity since the Pacific Nations Cup days and against Russia, Italy, and ARC opponents in recent years. However, it was hard to watch at times on Saturday because tackles were being missed when they simply shouldn’t have been. At least three of Ireland’s tries could have been prevented had a tackle been made. The American defense was shaky as it slid towards the wing, opening gaps between the defenders for the Irish to run through. In the cases that Ireland did get through, the USA’s last defender’s efforts were often shrugged aside. This is definitely an area the USA can improve on and they will have to do so if they want to compete with better sides.
9-10 Partnership & Dynamism
Nate Augspurger and AJ MacGinty are integral characters when it comes to the USA’s attacking structure and ability. Both have helped head coach John Mitchell revamp the Eagles attack with quick recycling, high-efficiency phase play that has given the Americans more attacking opportunities than the older forward-centric attacking play we saw with Mike Tolkin. Saturday’s game, however, was a blend of grays when it came to ball-in-hand creativity: uniform and boring. With a young team on the other side of the ball the USA failed to take advantage of the width of the field and stretch the Irish defense.
The Eagles added a pair of second half tries, but a clinical @IrishRugby side was too potent for USA.
Full Time: Ireland 55 – 19 USA pic.twitter.com/KFbHsKJlFu
— USA Rugby (@USARugby) June 10, 2017
Getting the ball wide quickly would have opened up spaces for forwards like Nick Civetta and Nate Brakeley (or any other forwards for that matter) to exploit around the edges of the breakdown and spaces in the midfield for the backs to run through. Augspurger was not impressive and didn’t add much life to the attack. He was slow to the breakdown for much of the first half and wasn’t recycling the ball quickly at all when he was timely, allowing the Irish defense to regain their shape. MacGinty wasn’t able to do much other than move the ball on to Marcel Bosche at inside-center because he was either too close to the breakdown to have time to pass or was closed down by at least two defenders when he was in perfect position because the defense was already set. When the backs did get the ball the call was often just playing through the hands without much more creativity than dummy runners. The lack of pace and subsequent creativity in the attack shut down the opportunities the Eagles had in the Irish half that could have been turned into points.
Taking the Ball into Contact
The Crusaders, Highlanders, and Hurricanes of Super Rugby make avoiding contact look easy. That being said, the ability for teams to effectively move the ball on and avoid contact is a skill that needs to be properly harnessed before implementation. Whether it’s an offload off the floor, a quick pass in the middle of a tackle, a short inside pass directly before contact, or a last-second chip kick attempt, the ball handler and receiver must both be ready to improvise in the moment and be clinical with the execution of both the pass/kick and the reception. During Saturday’s match, there were several times that the Eagles tried to force continuity by making a last ditch effort at an offload, mostly to no avail.
In the first half Marcel Bosche tried to offload during contact 30 m from Ireland’s try line, but the offload was well behind the oncoming runner and the USA turned the ball over. At the end of the first half a small chip kick by Ben Cima was made despite a lack of support from his teammates for a kick chase. The kick sailed more than anticipated, landing in Irish hands. A few minutes into the second half, a pop pass off the floor from Tony Lamborn to David Tameilau ended a promising attacking opportunity when United States desperately needed a try. Although these are just three examples, there are several other instances where the Eagles should have taken the ball into contact rather than look for the offload. Honestly, there is nothing wrong with taking the ball into a tackle in order to preserve possession, especially in the attacking third. When the Eagles had the ball in hand and strung a few phases together they slowly but surly moved the ball down field into scoring territory. Their focus has to be more on maintaining possession than finding the offload.
I don’t doubt that the Eagles can bounce back against Georgia. Just like I said before the Ireland match, the USA definitely has the tools and skill to pull off an impressive victory. This time it just depends on whether or not the Eagles can accurately manage the basics (like tackling and ballhandling) while trying to execute more complicated skills like attacking efficiency and pace.
Hopefully we will see the United States at their full potential soon enough.
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