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A prop being yellow carded in Montevideo? A penalty try conceded from a scrum in Montevideo?
Hmmm. Yes, there is a familiar taste in the mouth after Saturday.
The USA Selects started the Americas Pacific Challenge poorly, losing to the Fiji Warriors by 50 points. The 62-12 final seems a fair enough reflection of the difference between the two sides on the day. Given that this tournament is about developing players, the results don’t matter much. However, when the difference is 50 points, that result does in fact say something about the performance behind it.
Only a few minutes before the end of the first half, the Selects were only down 12. Though the score line was reasonably close for a decent chunk of the match, the problems were there from the start. While many problems came from the scrum, the defensive structure was also a cause for concern.
Moments into the match, Fiji had the ball, and the Selects defensive line was not well organized. The previous phase by Fiji was a simple, one-off runner. This should not be a time for a defense to be scrambling.
A few moments later, a kick by Mike Te’o led to a kick-chase with no discernible organization. The space created by this poor chase was not the work of one player; this was a team effort.
The single area of the match that caused the most problems for the Selects was the scrum. The problems did not all come from the scrummaging itself. Here is an early attacking scrum from Fiji. Fiji has two players between fly half JP Eloff’s inside shoulder and the scrum.
When Eremasi Radrodo takes the ball from the base of the scrum, the flanker and number eight for the Selects are slow to react.
Scrum half Stephen Tomasin stays with Radrodo while Eloff hustles over to close the gap between the two. However, from this position, the halfbacks have little chance of stopping the movement. In the blink of an eye, the Warriors are inside the Selects 22.
The slow reaction of the Selects back row was not limited to this scrum. Radrodo had a field day.
From a scrum a few minutes later, the Selects are again hurt by Radrodo. There is a lot of room on either side of the scrum, and Fiji used it well.
Harry Higgins, the blindside flanker, reacts reasonably quickly and forces Radrodo to pass. The Fiji scrum half, Henry Seniloli, followed Radrodo and received the pass. Tomasin stayed on the strong side, and Seniloli does not have much trouble getting outside of Higgins.
With no help from the nine or eight, Higgins is defending against two attackers.
Eloff comes in to help Higgins, which means that the player he had been marking, full back Lepani Raiyala can attack the space he just left. Matai Leuta steps in to tackle Raiyala, but Fiji are easily into the USA half.
Even when some things went right, the Selects remained under pressure.
The Selects spoiled a Warriors lineout just outside the 22, but the Warriors were able to immediately win the ball back. The Selects were slow to react and immediately in trouble. Here is the defensive line shaping up during the first ruck following the lineout.
There is a massive hole between flanker Pat Blair and center Martin Iosefo. Sure, the Selects did not expect the lineout to play out exactly as it did, and maybe Fiji was lucky to end up with the ball, but it isn’t hard to see from the photo above how the Warriors end up scoring a try from this possession.
In attack, there were some promising moments for the Selects, but also more scrum-related frustrations. Down seven points in the twenty-first minute, the Selects worked hard and earned a five-meter attacking scrum. They won the ball, but just barely. Because they were moving backward in the scrum, they were immediately under pressure. That pressure resulted in a knock on and a scrum to Fiji.
From that scrum Radrodo took several strides from the base of the scrum before the Selects back row reacted. Radrodo was past Higgins and Sione Tu’ihalamaka before they start to stand up.
In the twenty-eighth minute, it was something in the style of the familiar but with a new twist; the third Warriors try was scored by Radrodo from the base of a five-meter scrum. This time, because the front rows had gone down, both Higgins and Tu’ihalamaka were quick to unbind when Radrodo took the ball from the base. However, neither of them actually touched him with anything stronger than a caress on his way to the try line.
In the moment captured below, three forwards are moving onto the ball being passed by Tomasin. There is a sense of organization that could allow the backline to get the ball and some space in the next phase.
However, the ball is slow coming out of the next ruck, and the Selects committed four players to that ruck—plus the ball-carrier.
A moment that looked to hold potential fizzles. When the ball is moved wide, the options available are less than what they could have been if fewer forwards had committed to a ruck that was already pretty secure. In this instance, the Selects had won a penalty for a high tackle on Te’o, so they were operating under advantage.
Another example of a similar occurrence came early in the second half when Joe Taufete’e made a good break.
He is clear through the defensive line, though there are no support runners close enough for him to link up with.
When he is tackled, five players join the ruck. Counting Taufete’e there are six players involved at that breakdown. Including Tomasin, the scrum half, seven USA players are at the breakdown. Since there was a player off with a yellow card, that is half of the team in that one breakdown.
However, they did win the ball at that ruck and the next ruck. Then, something happened that seems mostly positive to me.
After the second ruck following Tafuete’e’s break, Matthew Jensen—who showed himself in this match to be a quick second row—called for the ball from Eloff.
Jensen put himself in a good spot, and Eloff made the pass. Jensen is moving forward to take the ball, on a line that might well end with a clean line break. Eloff recognized a good option.
Unfortunately, the pass is behind Jensen and he can’t handle it.
Still. Players in the right position choosing good options—even if the execution is poor, that is an encouraging sign.
In the past, when the USA Eagles have been on the losing side of a result, one of the things fans were certain to hear was, “Well, they did not have a lot of time together.”
For the USA Selects, the problem was not how much time they had together before playing the Fiji Warriors. My theory is that the problem stemmed from their coming from such different places. Most rugby matches in America, even those played at a high level of domestic competition, do not have the same shape and patterns of top level rugby matches in Tier One nations. Therefore, when these players are asked to step into an environment governed by such patterns, they can struggle.
Players might choose to get involved in rucks unnecessarily or be slow to realign in defense because they do not have enough experience to anticipate what will happen next.
Even the first year of PRO Rugby featured lots of rugby that did not fit into expected patterns. That was not all a bad thing; matches that are unpredictable can be much more fun to watch. And if American players develop enough knowledge and skill to thrive in highly unpredictable international matches, that would be great.
We shall see how much the matches in the Americas Pacific Challenge help some of these young players grow.