You are here
The Eagles try to extend three streaks Saturday when they face Canada at Papa Murphy’s Park in Sacramento, Calif. They’re also trying to move to 2-0 in the Americas Rugby Championship and defend a title.
Bonney Field, now Papa Murphy’s Park, was opened in 2014. Since then, the Eagles have played there three times, winning on all three occasions, beating Canada 38-35 in 2014, Japan 23-18 in 2015, and Russia 25-0 in 2016. They’re also looking to extend their current unbeaten streak over Canada, which dates back to 2013 and began with that win in Sacramento. And there’s the six-game unbeaten streak in the ARC. The USA hasn’t lost in the tournament since being upset by Uruguay in 2016.
That Canadian streak is notable not just because it’s against the great rival, which has beaten the USA 67-percent of the time over the long haul. It also comes on the back of a lengthy losing streak, as Canada beat the Eagles seven consecutive times prior to the changing of the guard in 2014.
The game is also taking center stage in a more significant, macro shift. Not only has Canada traditionally dominated the rivalry, it has participated in every single World Cup since the competition’s inception. Furthermore, the Canadians have typically qualified as the top seed out of the Americas every four years. But last year, the Eagles took that top seed by beating Canada in a two-game series, and in the last few weeks, Uruguay has upended Canada to take the second seed, putting the Canadians in real danger of missing the World Cup altogether.
That’s a lot of distractive noise, between the streaks and the ascending Eagles taking on a descending Canada. Throw in the fact that the head coach is entering just his second game, and there are some potential mental pitfalls.
“I think what we’re focused on is trying to continue to get better. We’ll be focused on improving what we need to improve from last week,” said captain Blaine Scully.
“We know what a quality team Canada is, and they’ll be a real challenge this week because they have everything to play for and nothing to lose, and we’ll have a little bit of a target on ourselves, so I think the focus for us needs to continue to be on things we can control, which is how we train day in and day out.
“It’s been pretty good this week. The attitude’s been spot on. The energy’s been spot on. We know we’ll have to bring it on Saturday, we’ll have to be physical, we’ll have to be smart and we’ll have to be tactically sound.”
There is only one change to the USA’s starting lineup from last week’s win over Argentina XV, with Dylan Audsley starting in place of the injured Marcel Brache. Audsley played more than 70 minutes in his debut last week. So the Eagles will have a genuine chance to continue getting better week to week, which can be difficult when the team is chopped and changed.
That win over Argentina was big. Historic, even, in that the Eagles had never beaten an Argentine side before. But it was still riddled with errors – two yellow cards, multiple cross kicks going straight into touch, box kicks landing in the middle of the field, some defensive breakdowns, a missed penalty kick that was within range, etc. So to be able to improve from a historic win, with the same personnel on the field, is a rare one.
“I think we all agree we weren’t perfect, but we were pretty tough and resilient,” said Scully. “We were really able to dig down and defend well when we had to.”
That resilience was the most powerful asset in the win over Argentina XV. Numerous times the favorites drove into the attacking end, but the Eagles scrambled in defense and staved them off. They displayed a collective mental toughness, as defined at Scully’s Cal as the ability to focus on the next most important thing, and that’s a skill the Eagles haven’t always displayed, at least not consistently so.
“The game is going to challenge you and put you under a lot of pressure at certain points. It’s just the nature of the beast, so being able to cope with that is oftentimes the difference,” said Scully.
“When things don’t go your way, when you’re a man down and maybe an error happens, how do you respond as a collective team, and individually, and I think that’s a scenario where the team really shines through.
“Something we really drive is being really connected and communicating really well on some of the more intangible stuff, hard to measure stuff. It’s an area where we know we have to be good at because we know at the end of the day it’s the collective that gets the W.”
After Canada, the team will have to flex those muscles even harder to maintain, as Scully will return to his club in Wales. He, like others, won’t be available the entire ARC, a hurdle the Eagles have had to clear every year of the competition.
“For me representing my country is everything. That being said, I also want to do everything I can to help my club and do the best I can there. It’s a balancing act,” said Scully.
“We don’t ever want to miss any games for our teams, but that’s just the nature of the global calendar. As far as managing kind of the leadership role, we’re pretty fortunate to have a growing leadership group with strong characters in the environment. We’re going to continue to grow and help put the team first.”
The Eagles enter the arena Saturday as the favorite. They're riding high off a big win, while Canada is seething from a series of unfortunate results. It looks like it will be a true armwrestle, the winner of whom will likely be the team that can most often stay focused on the next most important thing.