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Writing columns about USA national team games is a strange job. You can call out mistakes, bad decisions, and poor coaching decisions, but we all know the obstacles the American rugby faces, and that always plays into any criticism of a team’s ability to play together.
And even at the highest level, when a young player with no caps or just a few caps makes a mistake, is it fair to hold him to the fire for it?
So today I find myself examining what I saw and how I say it.
For example, I know I end up complaining about referees a lot, especially in USA games. Today against Canada, referee Mark Lawrence was really very good, and was responsible for the game being entertaining as well as close. I may not have loved all his calls, but that always happens. He was terrific.
Assistant referee David Smotchevsky deserves some special notice from me. I have been rough on him mainly thanks to a game he refereed in 2008 (hereon known as “the incident”). But lately he has been eminently fair to the USA, and this day, as a Canadian serving as an official in a USA v Canada game, made several tough calls that were correct and right.
Or what about examining the teams on the field? I wonder about the perspective.
If I were writing about Canada I might say that Canada won despite not being able to win their lineout, and giving away important forward progress to the USA because of that. Fix your lineout, and maybe you’re 20 points better than the USA, not six.
But then I might also worry. Canada created one true moment of offensive importance – sending flanker Jebb Sinclair through a poor Todd Clever tackle and into the corner. Taku Ngwenya did just enough to push Sinclair into touch (I don’t think Sinclair was in touch, but Smortchevsky called it, so OK), but Canada scored right after that on a silly quick lineout by the Eagles.
Other than that, Canada didn’t really create anything. They kicked, hoping to foce USA mistakes, and through USA mistakes scored three tries and kicked three penalties.
So if I am assessing Canada, I say, win your lineouts, and maybe you’re better, but only if that leads to more creativity with the ball.
If I assess the USA, I could be pessimistic, and say that Canada didn’t run out their best side Saturday. Adam Kleeberger and Tyler Hoston were on the subs bench. Nanyak Dala wasn’t even in the 22. Ryan Smith and Ciaran Hearn were on the subs bench, while Nathan Hirayama was nowhere to be seen. All of there players are excellent and might have made Canada that much better.
But the same could be said of the USA, especially with the absence of Chris Wyles. More important, perhaps, was that the Eagles made some substitutions that undercut their rhythm, chiefly replacing both members of the halfback hinge at around the same time.
I might also be optimistic, saying that Canada only scored because of repeated USA mistakes: missed tackle in midfield, and then badly-timed quick lineout by Lou Stanfill leading to the first try, a dropped pass by Nese Malifa in-goal for the second try (set up by some really iffy defense on a kick), and then a missed defensive assignment by Nic Johnson opened a massive hole for Ed Fairhurst.
The Malifa mistake was egregious, but a relatively common one for a flyhalf. He was backed up on his dead ball line, and his eye was drawn to the blitzing defenders, which led to him letting the ball sail through his hands to his forehead.
A test flyhalf cannot make that mistake, but it’s worth noting he was all alone, and he needed another back there to cover the ball when it was dropped.
Malifa, perhaps harshly, was subbed off immediately after that try.
On attack, the Eagles simply looked the better team. They had longer sequences on attack, broke the gain line more often, and were deep into the Canadian 22 more often and for longer periods.
The result were some exciting play and good tries, but also some key mistakes. Some try-scoring opportunities were lost due to mistakes in the red zone, and Malifa (once) and Andrew Suniula (once) missed very makeable penalty kicks.
So ultimately I see good and bad for both teams in this match. Obviously each has something important to work on in set piece – USA with scrums, and Canada with lineouts. Obviously the Eagles are superior with the ball, but not so good that they can overcome some boneheaded mistakes.
Canada proves they can win when not dominating. The USA proved they can play hard and compete on hostile territory. Canada proved they won’t give up. The USA proved they need to focus for a full 80.
I like this step taken by the Eagles. I think they can build on this and win in a week in Glendale. But they have to stop giving away points.