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Sometimes it's good to hesitate. This column has its beginnings from Saturday night, when it was supposed to explain why the USA 7s team should start Carlin Isles.
Well that's moot, for now, seeing as Carlin is going to concentrate on
football. Or is it? Hidden between the lines of the speedy USA player's
statement to RUGBYMag's Pat Clifton, and his actions, is the message that
had Isles been getting more time and, frankly, more respect for his talent,
he might have stayed.
That's his choice, one way or the other, and figuring out whether to start him or not is Head Coach Matt Hawkins's job. But there's a lesson here for the future, maybe more than one.
If the USA team gets another player like him, or if Isles comes back, you have to analyze objectively whether he helps you win games. Since Isles started with the team, almost every observer who is not coaching the USA, including some coaches from other teams (based on anecdotes) thinks Isles should have received more game time.
His strike rate is astounding, as he has scored 23 tries in 13 tournaments. Given that he has averaged probably less than seven minutes per match, that's a full-game strike rate that would put him among the top try-scorers on the circuit. In his first game for the USA, he scored a try 30 seconds after setting foot on the pitch.
But we saw in Las Vegas that there's more to Isles than speed.
“It's more about him calling for the ball and wanting the ball. There are times we need to get him the ball, but he needs to create something, that's also on him,” Hawkins said on Saturday. That was fair criticism, to a point, but with a player who has not grown up with rugby, “looking for work” has little meaning. You have to set things up for him. You have to design plays for him. The USA brought back the kick for space for Isles, and that produced tries.
On Sunday in Vegas they produced some key changes that led to tries, bringing Isles up the middle on an attack, and eschewing the fancy tap penalty play for a simple pass to the fast man – Isles, after all, has shown that he can beat players one-on-one and in space, so when you have a penalty or a free kick, that gives him ten meters to find a gap, make a read, and go. They did that against Uruguay, and Isles scored from 85 meters.
So the team needed to do more. The coaches needed to do more to use him. And Isles also needed to do more. In Vegas Isles set up a try by ripping the ball out of a player's hands and then getting into a place to receive the return pass and score. He made at least one try-saving tackle, and set up a try when he made a break, was caught, but executed a perfect offload to Ryan Matyas.
None of this should be a surprise. As elusive as Isles is as a runner, he
is not as a person. He was very clear in saying he wanted to learn, he
wanted to be an Olympian, and he wanted to play.
So what do we learn from this? We learn that you can't just put an athlete
on the field and expect him to perform, even if you teach him how to play
rugby. Setting up scenarios that put him in position to help the team –
just as you're supposed to do with all of your players – is important,
Going forward, the USA team has to replace Isles on the squad. This brings us to the second issue from this weekend, the player mix.
Hawkins wanted a big, physical team to challenge tacklers. When it was
working, it provided the USA with immediate go-forward. But putting five
size players (Test, Barrett, Thompson, Durutalo, Edwards) on the field with
two guys whose game is sidesteps (Niua and Haitsuka) left them without a
lot of pace, and also meant that the second-half substitutions changed the
You went from 5 big guys and 1 big sidestepper (Niua is actually scary strong) and a tiny guy, to a lineup of perhaps four or fix smallish guys. It's a completely different type of player mix.
On Sunday, Hawkins changed the player mix to a 3-big, 1-middle, 3-small mix. And then bringing Shalom Suniula, Nu'u Punimata, Danny Barrett, Nick Edwards, and Ryan Matyas on brings two big, one medium-big, and two small on.
That kept the player mix consistent. Now with Isles not available for Wellington, who replaces him complicates that mix.
If you pick the player with the best form from the USA Falcons, you might think of Jack Halalilo or Garrett Bender – both big forwards with good work rate but not a lot of pace. If you want to pick the best little fast guy, you should probably go with Madison Hughes. If you want to pick someone who replaces Isles's place as a player with no real home and no defined role, then maybe you go with the misunderstood Mike Te'o.
I don't know what the best option is, although I would lean toward Te'o. But what I do know is this: Carlin Isles showed he can do more than just stand on the wing and wait for the ball; Isles was open for a pass repeatedly over the last year-and-a-half and didn't get the feed; while Isles wasn't a great face-to-face tackler, from the side he was better than most, as he was able to duck under and around fends; Isles is good offloading out of contact, wanted to learn the finer points of the breakdown and other aspects of rugby, and knew the value of a turnover.
And he was not put in the best position to help the USA team. Maybe if he
returns, he will be.