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In 2004, the USA almost beat France, losing 39-31. Playing one of the best teams in the world, the USA scored five tries. After that game, wing David Fee told me way, way back then (has it really been seven years?) that the backs hardly ran a set play all day.
They had, by then, been under the tutelage of backs coach Brett Taylor for over a year, and were working together well. They had the basics of good backline play down and Taylor, whose first tenet of backline play was to get the ball out of the ruck in less than two seconds, wasn’t invested in making them run set plays.
He wanted them to run hard from depth, keep the ball moving, use their passing to keep the defense guessing, read the matchups, and play rugby.
A year before that game, I remember watching the USA in another match. This time, it was their forward running upfield; each player taking contact, staying on his feet, and allowing another to simply rip the ball away and run further. It was basic, animalistic rugby at its most simple. Rip and run. But it worked.
They forwards all ran hard into contact, and all had support runners right behind them.
These were basic approaches to rugby. You run from depth not because you catch the ball back there and get a run at the defense, but because when you catch that pass sent flat from your teammate, you are running flat out and the defender has almost no time to react to you.
You come from depth because you can then adjust your run to ruck over, or cut inside for a switch pass.
If you are taking a one-off pass from the scrumhalf off the ruck, you should be moving forward, ideally at pace, when you catch it.
I am not seeing this USA team do much of that. I see players having to catch the ball flat-footed. I see no desire to use the most basic of moves (the loop, the switch), which have a time-honored ability to break defenses. The Eagles don’t do switches the way players all over the country practice them on the training ground. There’s no sleight of hand transfer of the ball in a blur of bodies. It’s a lazy pass to a guy coming from the other direction – easily spotted and easily stymied.
More often, the USA passes outward. If the first pass is to the left, the second pass (if there is one) will be also. No shift in direction of attack; no inside pass to a trailing forward; no reading of matchups.
The USA team of the past few months has been working from a playbook that doesn’t take the opposition into account, and doesn’t read what the opposition is giving them.
The coaching staff, I hope, has to know this. They have to know their attack is easily defended.
In the last nine internationals, the USA has scored 17 tries. Of those, eight came from broken play, counter, or turnover. Only about half have come from a concerted pattern of play.
I don’t think this is because the players aren’t following the plan, or working hard enough. In the last three test matches, the USA is 36 points for and 28 against in the first half, and 7-47 in the second. As easy as it might be to point to fitness for that dichotomy, I think it’s due to the predictability of the pattern. I think, if the USA attack returns to basic rugby tenets of coming from depth, passing more than once, and letting the players read what’s in front of them.