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And most of those comments were fair comments, or at least borne out of legitimate frustration at poor USA results. The Eagles were, for the most part, not playing well. They were making basic errors. Magleby was catching much heat for not playing his most electric runner, Carlin Isles, more. And they kept losing games on the final possession.
So, what happened? Well we’ve written about this before, but the players
met between Hong Kong and Tokyo and laid it all out – their fears, their
concerns, the things that they knew they were screwing up. It was a
cathartic and freeing meeting; a cleansing therapy session that somehow
freed the players to be unafraid to fail. As a result, they played their
most exciting and inspired rugby to date, won the Plate, won the Plate in
Glasgow, and made the top eight again in London.
Never before has a USA team made the Cup Quarterfinals three times in a season. This year, they did it three times in a row, and five times overall. After being in grave danger of having to re-qualify (it's noteworthy that all three of this season's core teams that had to re-qualify were successful), the USA ended up catching a fading Canada and finishing 11th. It was a startling turnaround.
How did they turn it around? Well there was that meeting, but that was part
of the team's natural progression anyway. Magleby certainly sorted through
his players, made adjustments, and fixed some things. And a lot of the
players made changes, too.
But I've decided to look at individual players, and I have found five who made significant contributions after having poor starts, or were coming back from a difficult time. The development of these five, in my opinion, led the USA turnaround.
Zack Test. My pick for player of the season for the USA. He was benched earlier and he deserved to be – he was losing the ball in contact, and making poor decisions. But the benching did him some good, and he came back angrier, stronger, and more determined.
From there we’ve seen him do something we’ve been wanting him to do for a while – take charge of games. His second try against South Africa in London was a perfect example. The game could have started to fall away if the USA got complacent, and then he broke a tackle no one should have been able to break, pushed off another guy, and willed himself over the line. And think on all the recent tries the USA saved or scored thanks to effective rucking, once a real weakness for Test, and now a strength. I really like this version of Zack Test – humbler and yet more daring, stronger and because of that more willing to involve his teammates.
Matt Hawkins. Another veteran who made a big move forward this year. Hawkins has for years been a big man who likes to play on the wing and move the ball. That’s great, but a big guy has to make his tackles, and when he has struggled it’s been on defense, not offense. Stripped of his captaincy, he learned a little, was humbled a little, and then fought his way back – back on the team, back as captain, and I think this time exactly the leader he needs to be.
If you are a captain who gets in players’ faces, you better be walking the walk on the field. He is, and he’s playing great.
Shalom Suniula. I have gotten to know Shalom Suniula well this past year as he has written his column for us at RUGBYMag.com. There isn’t a classier guy in the game. He did not shy away from the fact that just as he started writing, he was benched – and benched hard, getting only a minute or two in games. He lost his captaincy, and kept writing and sharing with readers what it’s like to play on the team.
Behind the scenes, and what Suniula won’t tell you, is that his competitive fires raged. He hated not playing, and fought tooth and nail to get back as a starter. He became a better support runner. He changed his style of running, finally realizing that the one shakey-bakey move he always tried wasn’t fooling anyone. He improved his defense. And, interestingly, the other things – his goalkicking, the tries – began to fall into place.
With one or two rare exceptions, his goalkicking has been excellent, and in several key games it helped win games for the Eagles. His confidence as a player has brought others with him.
Nick Edwards. I think I would have to give Edwards my Most-Improved award. I was not a fan at the beginning of the season. I thought he was a self-centered player. He never passed. He loved running into tackles, but he didn’t seem to like making them very much. But with the injury to Maka Unufe, it seemed clear he would have to play. Alex Magleby got busy trying to make Edwards a little bit better.
For me, the key moment was in Las Vegas. With the USA needing to beat Spain by 15, Edwards went on a run down the sideline. The Eagles at the time were up 10-7, and needed to score twice. Now the old Edwards would have just carried two guys to the tryline – or just short of it. This new Edwards floated a pass inside to Suniula for the sure try and a better angle on the kick.
That was a nice bit of trust in your teammates, and while Edwards ended up leading the team in tries this season, I want you to look at the last two or three tournaments and see how many times he passed – really passed! – the ball to guys in better position to score. That is big progress for Edwards and will help the team going forward.
Folau Niua. He played hurt in the early going because there wasn't anyone else. His knee injury didn't help his defense any, and his road back from injury had resulted in less-than-stellar fitness. But, like the other guys listed here, he kept working. Each little improvement helped him and helped the team. With Suniula returning as starter, Niua and Suniula created a symbiosis that got the team moving forward.
And like with Suniula, we saw Niua as an attacking player more once his confidence rose. His defense improved dramatically, and so did his passing - symbolic, I think, of his increased trust in his teammates.
Trust is my favorite word in rugby. I do think if you trust your teammates to play well, they are more likely to live up to that expectation. If you trust them, when one of you makes a mistake, you communicate to figure out how to avoid it next time. When you trust, you also want to be a trustworthy. A player who does not trust does not pass, doesn't think another guy will make the tackle, will not feel part of the team.
What I saw in all five players was an increase in trust and confidence in their teammates, and a marked effort to try to be a trustworthy teammate, as well.
All of that has resulted in victories.