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With the USA Eagles match against the New Zealand Maori All Blacks nearly here, it is time to take a peak at what we might expect from the New Zealand Maori. With relatively few matches, and with a squad of smart players ready to adapt to what is in front of them, it is risky to assume too much about how the match will go. Still, here is some of what we do know.
To put it briefly, they don’t lose much. They do not play as often as a full international side, and they have only played eight matches since 2011, a year in which they played no matches. Here are the results from the last five years.
They tend to play better in the second half than in the first. If the Eagles are going to have a chance to win the match, they need to win the first half.
Speaking with my brother on our podcast, The Carter Divide, he asked if the Eagles have a chance. My answer was, "Yes, for 60 minutes." Looking at how they have performed in the last 20 minutes against Fiji and Japan, and looking at the general level of fitness in the Mitre 10 and Super Rugby competitions, it seems unlikely that the Eagles will dominate the final quarter of play.
There are different ways to look at the patterns teams fall into in attack. My thought was to try and collect some data about passes and kicks from rucks.
However, I recently had an actual, literal, shaking-my-fists-at-the-heavens moment when I saw that the spreadsheet into which I was putting the information was blank. Only when I saw the blank cells did I recall that the reason I’d paused the information-gathering was because my computer had, for no apparent reason, decided to shut down on me the other day.
The numbers would help, but there are observations to be made even without the numbers.
They are ready to benefit from chaos, but they aren’t playing particularly high risk rugby. They are perfectly prepared to use conventional tactics, like kicking for field position and relying on potentially strong set pieces inside the attacking 22.
The Maori look to shift the ball away from the ruck more often than not. Even if the pass from the base of the ruck goes to a forward, there is a good chance he is going to pass rather than carry into contact. With the skilled players and the decision makers in the squad, their tendency is to use the entire width of the pitch.
The general tactics are a mixture of optimism and conservatism.
At the lineout, they use limited movement but many different jumper and lifter combinations. The only thing that stood out in watching the lineout was the rare use of the front jumper. Even when using the front jumper, the first lifter moved away from the five meter hash.
When the second man in the lineout did move toward the five meter hash, it was only a decoy. He ended up lifting the third man in the lineout.
One move that popped up a few times from scrums was the winger acting as first receiver. Against both Fiji and Canada, the 14 was the option from a five meter scrum.
Also against Canada, the 14, Andre Taylor in this case, was used as first receiver further out. This highlights how the Maori like to operate in attack. Taylor takes the ball to the line and has the option of a center running a straight line or the fly half running a deeper, wider line.
This move against Canada demonstrates how they create the chance to move the ball wide--even if that option was not taken on this occasion--and rely on players other than the half backs to direct the attack.
They trust their one-on-one tackle ability, and they want to be kicked to.
Early against Japan, the Maori seemed to assume the clearing kick from Japan from the match's opening kick was a given. Instead, Japan executed an excellent exiting move. There are forwards both inside and outside the first receiver. The ball goes behind the forwards, and there is lots of space out wide.
With a defensive focus that is relatively narrow, there is a chance to attack wide.
Against Canada, they seemed to be challenging Canada to beat them out wide, and Canada was able to do that early.
Optimism and Concern for the Eagles
If the Eagles are going to do attack successfully, they need many players to be ready to make good decisions and then execute well on those decisions. We saw in the Americas Pacific Challenge that Joe Taufete'e can be one of those decision makers, but others will need to contribute.
There is the familiar attitude that a side needs to "earn the right to go wide." That makes a lot of sense. However, the Eagles are unlikely to earn that right by crashing the ball with one-off runners 5 meters off the ruck. The Eagles do not have the personnel do dominate the narrow channels in a way that will create space out wide. However, they do have the personnel to run smart lines in midfield that can create space.
The USA has been building toward the kind of attack that can exploit the narrow tendency. In the Americas Pacific Challenge, the Selects did have some moments that show real potential. On the other hand, the defense of the Maori is likely to be sharper than the APC.
With the Maori likely to have the edge in the last 20 minutes, it is imperative the Eagles win the first 20 minutes.