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The USA Eagles have chance to defeat Ireland when they play on June 10, even if a slim chance.  There are some positive signs for a potential upset. The last time the two sides met, the match was a closely contested 15-12 in Houston. It is a Lions’ year, so Ireland is forced to travel without several key players. And, most importantly, the Eagles won the 2017 Americas Rugby Championship, and that was historic. 

While the success from the ARC makes it tempting to overlook, the Eagles did not look good in their three November matches. What follows is a look at the structure that worked for the Eagles in the ARC. If they are able to work with this structure in June, the upset is possible.

Trying to predict what Ireland will do in attack is difficult since many of the tactics and patterns they employ against other top sides are likely not to be necessary. For those wanting a look at what Ireland has done recently in attack, Murray Kinsella writes a lot about that. One thing that is likely is at least one attempt at a dummy-loop.

What was the difference between November and February?

There was definitely more cohesiveness on display in the ARC than in the November matches. In addition to moments when players were not operating together--in attack and defense--the Eagles struggled to manage territory in November. They did not have that same trouble with territory during the ARC.

Additionally, there were some things developing in 2016 that became real in 2017.

During the ARC, the Eagles attacked with a clear structure. The outline of the structure is not unique, but the consistency with which the Eagles used it effectively is a new development. The ability of the Eagles to use a set pattern in the ARC is precisely what the tournament was designed to do, in terms of developing sides.

Even if it isn’t the most dynamic all the time, the players know where they are going and what they are doing, and are largely ready when opportunities appear. Even if this structure is not creating big runs or many line breaks against a top side like Ireland, it can still allow the Eagles to keep the ball for meaningful periods of time. Additionally, confidence in a structure like this allows them to move the ball across the width of the field into a channel they desire and, potentially, create favorable defensive match-ups.

One version of the structure, used by sides in many different competitions, sees three forwards standing around 10 meters from the ruck. They offer a relatively easy pass for the scrum half and a high chance at secure ball following the tackle. 

The photo above, from the match against Uruguay, actually shows two groups of three visible--with the next phase already shaping up. In the ARC, the Eagles consistently won clean ball using only one ball-carrier and two rucking forwards. The downside is clear in the above picture. The Uruguayan defense has already lined up the player about to receive the ball and can tackle him behind the gainline.

If the pass is made to a player who is not moving forward when he receives the ball, and that nine-to-forward pass is the only one made in the phase, that is exceptionally easy for a team like Ireland to defend. During the ARC, a static runner could still produce quick ball by dominating the tackle. That is unlikely to happen against Ireland. The Eagles did adjust, though, throughout the ARC, with ball-carriers recieving the pass at pace and passing between the three forwards. 

A second variation of the structure is for the group of three forwards to position themselves outside the fly half. The ball goes from the ruck, to the fly half, who makes a simple pass, and then follows his pass to set himself for the next phase. Below, Ben Cima is ready to receive the pass from the base of the ruck in the photo below, with three forwards outside him.

This variation is also relatively simple to execute and manages the risk of turnover at the next tackle. It also means the forwards are further from the previous ruck. That matters because, generally speaking, the closer to the ruck, the tighter together the defenders. By attacking a little wider, there is more chance to find a gap. However, if the option from 10 is always the same, the defenders can still read it easily. The Uruguayan defense from the photo above was able to shoot up and turn the ball over.

One option from this position is to pass behind the three forwards. Against the Argentina XV, the photo below sees Will Magie doing just that, with Bryce Campbell receiving Magie's pass.

Attacking structures work well when attackers know where to be, but an element of the unpredictable remains. However, the passes and subsequent decisions behind the screen have to be good. Campbell ended up carrying into contact when there was a good opportunity wider.

Another variation with the forwards on the outiside shoulder is for the first receiver to carry the ball to the line. Magie played well during the ARC, and did occasionally challenge the line. Aj MacGinty, however, is more likely to cause trouble by carrying the ball to the defensive line. If he is first receiver with three forwards on his outside shoulder, he can create attacking opportunities.

Against the New Zealand Maori, the Eagles were working toward the shape achieved during the ARC. However, there were no passes between forwards, no passes behind a forward screen, and the first receiver did not take the ball to the line. In the three matches from November, the Eagles did not manage to get into this pattern with any regularity. Looking back to last June, against Russia, there were moments when players were not entirely sure of where to go or what to do. With personnel changes, building from one match to the next was difficult. Now the platform has been built.

There is every reason to believe the structure will continue to evolve. For example, taking another look at the photo below from the Uruguay match, it is easy to imagine a winger, or someone else, offering himself on the first receiver's inside shoulder.

If the Eagles are attacking with some variety within this structure, then they will be in the match. Here is hoping that a good crowd turns out and is rewarded with good rugby from both sides.