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“We didn’t really celebrate,” said Folau Niua. “There wasn’t much in terms of celebrating. We have another tournament to play.”
The key for Glasgow was a superb start for the Eagles. After playing poorly in the first tournament of a set of two three times in a row, they torched Russia in their first game and went on from there, finishing 4-2 and winning the Plate.
“We knew what we had to do in terms of the IRB standings and all that,” said the USA flyhalf. “We have good coaching, good leadership, and they were all saying, ‘just stay within our game plan; don’t panic, just play the way we can.’ We just played that first game and got a good win and it built from there.”
After a long season, and a physical one where the Eagles kept most of their lineup through the entire World Series, the Eagles have been mostly resting and recovering. This, said Head Coach Alex Magleby, is a key component to finishing out the season.
“We’ve been resting more than usual,” said Niua.
That fits in with conventional wisdom regarding contact sports. The later you get into the season, the less you have to do any contact, and in fact sometimes you just need to rest.
The Eagles go into London knowing they are in a real dogfight. With the bottom teams fighting it out in a qualifier tournament (that’s the tourney the Eagles really wanted to avoid), the top 12 teams (including the USA) will match up.
What that means is the top eight will once again move on to the Cup
Quarterfinals, while the bottom four teams will all compete for the Bowl.
There will be no Shield, because the Qualifier winners will, in essence, be
the Shield winners.
The Eagles kick off the tournament at 9:30am local time on Saturday (that’s 12:30am Saturday morning PT, 3:30am ET) against France, a team they beat 21-14 last week. Then at 2:02pm (6:02am/9:02am) it’s Australia, and at 4:02pm (8:02am/11:02am) it’s South Africa.
It’s a tough pool, but they’re all tough.
“All of the games are hard,” said Niua. “Russia, Hong Kong, they were hard,
too. We can’t let up against any team. You always have to play like there
is no tomorrow.”
Niua himself has had a resurgence in his play. Like several on the squad when it was under-performing, he was in danger of losing his place. This was partly due to his game being limited due to injury, and partly due to his defense, which wasn’t good.
But in the last two tournaments, Niua’s tackling has greatly improved, and he is also healthy enough to start making a different as a runner as well as a passer. That has led to some key tries, including the Sundial Breakaway, when he cut through the Fijian line in Tokyo, and no one had the energy to chase him, and he strolled over the line.
Asked if that was the slowest breakaway try of all time, Niua said we weren’t the first to make that joke – he has been enduring some good-natured ribbing for some time over it.
“I came back from two bad injuries on my knee,” Niua said. “I got a lot of help back the OTC. I feel healthy and 100 percent on the field, and when I feel like that I feel good about my own game. And I am getting used to the guys and more comfortable. I know what they’re doing and I can react to what they’re doing more easily as I play more with them.”
As for his defense, “I feel a lot better. We do a lot of work on the
volleyball court at the OTC, reacting to the player and reacting to how he
moves his hips. Coach Magleby has been working with me, and I’ve gotten a
lot better – I’ve learned a lot.”
That could be the story for the USA team in its entirety. They have certainly improved, and have certainly learned a lot. With the pressure off this week, we might see some youngsters get more playing time, but we might also find that the culture of improvement, and the winning, becomes infectious.