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The USA Eagles will be looking to learn from their mistakes as they are set to take on Japan in their second match of the Pacific Nations Cup on Friday in Sacramento, California.
Their first match against Samoa, a 21-16 loss, was a mixed bag for the Eagles. While they were able to keep pressure on inside the Samoan 22, turnovers and countless mistakes cost them valuable points, and eventually, the match. Head coach Mike Tolkin said he saw some positives in their pressure, but was not satisfied with the mistakes.
“The good part of that is we got into Samoa’s 22 a lot, especially in the second half,” he said. “That was a positive, but not protecting the ball enough in the scoring zone is unacceptable. That was disappointing.”
Tolkin also said that those mistakes could be due to a lack of chemistry, as his team hadn’t played together in an organized match together since November 2014.
“We haven’t played together at all,” he said. “That lack of rhythm and understanding on the attack leads to isolation and mistakes. Playing in the attacking end is one of the most difficult things to get right as a team early on. It requires a lot of rhythm, timing, and understanding among a lot of players. Match fitness is still an issue. Turning the ball over is something we didn’t want to do, but some of the circumstances dictated that. We hope to improve on that in the second match.”
Titi Lamositele, the lone try scorer for the Eagles as a reserve, thought that he and the rest of his reserves played a solid match in relief of some of the starters.
“I thought we brought a good impact on the game, and just left off where the rest of the guys started,” he said.
Lamositele also said that it was a big relief to his team when he scored that try late in the match.
“It could have been anybody,” he said. “I just took the opportunity. It was late in the game, and I saw the open space, and I just went for it.”
Perhaps the most difficult player to stop on the Samoan side was Alesana Tuilagi, who scored one try and set up the other for Manu Samoa. He also had a big run in the early stages of the match, in which he knocked over multiple Eagle defenders, including captain Chris Wyles, and almost made it to the try line before Danny Barrett knocked him out of bounds.
Tolkin said his team knew about Tuilagi’s abilities, but still found it difficult to stop him.
“I think we found of the hard way how difficult it is to stop him,” he said, laughing. “We saw him on film a lot. The guys know he’s a load with a ball in his hand. You struggle with him, but you do the best you can, and double him up when you can. He’ll always do his business, and you just have to limit the damage.”
Tolkin was also happy with Wyles’ first cap as captain for the Eagles. However, he also thought the captain had room to improve, coming off a club season with Saracens.
“He was rock-solid,” he said. “As captain, he set a good tone for the team. On the field, he was solid as well. For professional club players like Wyles, there’s an adjustment period moving from one team to another. You have to battle through that. He played well, but you’ll see a different Chris Wyles in the next match.”
Friday’s match will be pivotal for the Eagles if they want to start building confidence going into the Rugby World Cup. These two opponents last faced each other in the 2014 Pacific Nations Cup. In that match, Japan walked away with a 37-29 victory.
The Eagles will be without Todd Clever for the rest of the Pacific Nations Cup, as he was removed from the team for conduct violations stemming from missed meetings and practices. Tolkin said that it will be tough to replace Clever’s experience and leadership, but also thought that his group is resilient and will be able to absorb the loss as a strong, tight-knit team.
Tolkin also gave some updates on injuries sustained during the Samoa match. Hayden Smith, who appeared to suffer a shoulder injury in the second half, is expected to play for the Eagles.
If the Eagles want to beat Japan, they’ll need to make some adjustments, and start the match on the right foot, according to Tolkin.
“We need to play more solid defense out of the gate, and work harder,” he said. “Japan is disciplined and fit, and like to operate quickly. We need to be up to that task, and operate just as quickly as they do. That’s something we did better in the second half of the first match. In the first half, we were still a little shell-shocked out there in our first match in a long time. We settled down at halftime. In Japan, we have to come out of the gate that way.”
The match kicks off at 8 P.M. Pacific time and is available on ESPN3 and the WatchESPN app.