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For the first time in the Mike Tolkin regime, the Eagles were held out of the try zone against Canada last month. No tries likely means no win Saturday, when the Eagles take on Ireland at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston.
As we wrote about earlier this week, defense will be key for the Eagles against Ireland, as it was in the last game against the Irish. But this time around, the Eagles are hoping to do things starkly different in attack.
“Hopefully this time we get the ball in our hands a little bit more,” said USA lock Lou Stanfill. “We’re going to play a little more, not so much direct rugby, although we want to be direct. But we also want to carve them up, play with some skills.”
The most glaring difference between Tolkin’s Eagles and prior USA teams is the way they open up the offense. They want to play from sideline to sideline, which they did more often than not in a successful 2012, which saw the team go 3-3 in full tests. Where was that against Canada?
“I think we were a little impatient in phase play against Canada,” said Tolkin. “We played through a few phases and were coughing the ball up, so it’s just working harder to get into a proper shape and working harder to keep the ball through the phases.”
“I think conditions had something to do with that,” added flyhalf Toby L’Estrange. “We weren’t allowed to sort of throw the ball around in the way that we would like to, so hopefully we iron out all of those sort of things and have a good time in Houston.”
The addition of several overseas pros, especially Chris Wyles and Takudzwa Ngwenya, means the Eagles will be extremely dangerous when they manage spread the ball. Imagine the unique-but-deadly running style of Luke Hume on one wing and the out-and-out pace of Zee on the other, with Wyles sandwiched in at either outside center or fullback. The Eagles have the horses to run with anyone on the perimeter.
“We’ve spoken about that from day one that Tolks took over, and I think we’ve great pace out wide,” said L’Estrange. “We’ve got the opportunity and we’ve got the guys to sort of play direct if we want to, to get us on the front foot, but ideally I think we’d want to use the whole width of the field and enjoy ourselves in that way.”
Against Canada, the Eagles also struggled a bit to establish a solid attacking platform in the scrum, especially in the first half.
“First time together for us. There’s bound to be some kinks we’ve got to work out, and we worked those kinks out, and I thought we did very well in the second half as far as the scrum went,” said Stanfill of the Canada game. “We’re going to keep that improvement going forward. Hit and chase. We’re going to try and put them on the back foot as much as we can.”
The Eagles have the same referee this weekend as they had in Edmonton, where they were pinged for early engagement a couple of times. In scrum training, the coaching staff has been playing audio of the referee’s cadence.
“We have the same referee for three games, so we’re trying to get his cadence down,” said Tolkin. “He has an especially slow cadence that you have to get used to.”
If the Eagles are able to secure clean ball at the scrum, their pick-and-go game should be considerably better this week, too. Samu Manoa is expected to slot in somewhere in the back row, and potentially at No. 8. He, LaValla and Clever are a dynamic bunch of runners, with Manoa possibly being the most dangerous.
With a handful of pros back in the mix, dry weather expected and couple of more weeks of training, look for the Eagles to try and splay and attack the defense with more purpose than they did against Canada last month or Ireland last World Cup.