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Since then the Eagles have gone 0-4, scoring three tries and giving up nine, including six in their final match against Japan, a 38-20 loss.
What happened? Well a few things happened, and a few things that were endemic reared their heads, and a few new things showed up.
The opposition this spring, Canada, Ireland, Tonga, and Japan, was better than the two teams the Eagles beat last fall – Russia and Romania. The step up in competition asked much of the players, and sometimes too much.
If you have a look at the USA v. Ireland game, you will see the Eagles work an exciting offload game, but in that game they got away with a few things. A more intellectually adept or more athletic opposition would have stolen the ball in some of those cases.
Some players underperformed. The backs, especially, seemed to struggle. At flyhalf, Toby L’Estrange knows he didn’t play well. After an ill-advised attempt to turn him into a goalkicker, L’Estrange found his confidence waning badly. That loss in confidence – even when he was not asked to kick goals anymore – spilled over into other aspects of his play. Against Japan, he was clearly told to just relax and run or pass – he did very little kicking for territory – and the result was a far improved US offensive performance.
No Paul Emerick. It’s clear that when some players are absent from the USA
team, the effect is dramatic. Chris Wyles is an impressive field general
from fullback. Todd Clever is a tornado. Samu Manoa, in his one effort this
spring, can turn a game around. But for me, the game-changer is Paul
Emerick. Look at the Romania game again. Emerick was hugely influential in
that game, and when he went out injured, the offense faltered.
One of the great things Emerick does is the pick-and-go. This may seem a simple thing, but most backs don’t do it. They don’t want to get caught in traffic that way, and want to show they are willing to ruck over. Emerick, though, is very strong and not afraid of getting caught in traffic. If the ball is there to be had, he takes it and makes the gain line. Repeatedly, he has created tries in both 15s and 7s doing this (he did it twice against Romania). In future years, I envision Seamus Kelly being the same kind of player. He is still new, and is working his way into the Eagles, but he could do it.
Without Paul Emerick, a player who takes games by the scruff of the neck and drags them in his direction, the USA hit devastating flat periods.
Time together. Yes the Eagles have essentially been in assembly since late May, but it’s not been what you’d expect. The first assembly was more centered around new players. Then a few players arrived, then a few more left. Mike Tolking was moving players around, as well.
In November, the Eagles were essentially the same team for all three games. There were a few squad changes, but not many. Consistency seems to be easier to achieve in the fall.
Tomorrow, we will talk more about that, and more about endemic issues with
the American game and the national team. On Wednesday we will talk about
some of the aspects of USA play that have been exposed in the past few
USA v Romania November 2012