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Day one was a mixed bag for Team USA. The Eagles didn’t play well against Argentina, but they nearly won anyway. They shuffled the lineup against Brazil, and though there was a slow start, they got exactly the kind of dominant shutout win they needed.
For head man Mike Friday, Tuesday was a roller coaster of emotions.
“Nerve racking, exciting, anxiety. As you can see, it’s a wild tournament. You know that there’s no second guessing, anything is possible, as we’ve seen,” he told Rugby Today. “We’ve just seen kind of sevens at its brutal best. But for coaches, it’s just jeez, blimey. It’s the small margins. It’s the little things that is ultimately the difference between winning or losing.”
Against Argentina, the Americans never got in a rhythm offensively. When they had the ball, they knocked it on or threw it away. Argentina got some yellow cards and gave the USA every chance, and the Eagles did take a late lead, but it wouldn’t end that way.
“We made too many unforced errors in the first half,” Friday continued. “When we got possession back, we never got past first phase once, and then we clawed back in the game, 14-12, and then made a critical error, and then we made the one, probably, defensive policy error we made in the whole game, believe it or not, was in the last play allowed them to score.
“But, you know, that’s not the reason we lost. You could look at 6 or 7 pieces of possession we gifted back to them in the first half, and we didn’t play out our attack. Every time they we down to 5 or 6, they had the ball. We didn’t even have the ball. We got ourselves back into the game playing poorly, but we didn’t finish it off.”
The most angering play of the match was Argentina’s second try. The ball carrier appeared to clearly knock on before getting the ball down, but referee Craig Joubert awarded the score even after going to a video review.
“He went upstairs for the replay, but for some reason they gave the try which is a shame,” said Friday, “but that’s a big decision we’ve allowed to become a big decision because we haven’t done what we should have done.”
The bevy of the USA's unforced errors in game one changed the plan for the second match. Nerves were obvious. Even Madison Hughes, the unshakeable captain, let the Olympic butterflies get to him. So for Brazil, Friday opted for some guys who’ve been in big games before, starting Super Bowl winner Nate Ebner and Premiership and European champion Chris Wyles.
“We just felt in that second game we needed some big match temperament to start us off, to bring us into the game, and those two did that, and we did start reasonably well,” said Friday.
“We just started to force a few things just after halftime and made a couple of silly errors. I thought Ebner’s work ethic in game one, when he came it made a real impact, and Wyles just gives us a boar-headed cool part that we needed in that game two against the host where it was going to be a volatile, big home crowd, and then allow Maka [Unufe] to come on.
Wednesday, the Eagles face their toughest test yet in the pool finale against top-seeded Fiji. Every pundit has Fiji to win it all, but Friday’s team has beaten the World Series champ before and isn’t going to be intimidated.
“We know, and it’s been show today watching Fiji play, they’re not unbeatable by a long way, but they are the favorites and rightly so. They got out-of-jail lucky against Argentina, they made hard work of the first 7, 8 minutes against Brazil, and we know when we play them they don’t like to play us because of our physicality and our aerial ability,” said Friday.
“So it is about us, and whether we can go out there and impose ourselves on them, and frustrate them defensively and then take our opportunities in attack. But we do need to step up our game. We need to start playing the game of rugby instead of the occasion.”
The knockout scenarios are endless. The USA can get into the quarterfinals with a win, tie or loss, depending on how everything else shakes out. But the possibility of the Eagles not reaching the top eight is also very real. Two years into what can only be judged as a successful rehab project so far, Friday understands more than anyone the disappointment not making the quarterfinals would potentially bring.
“If we don’t make the quarterfinals, will I be disappointed and see it as a failure? Yeah, definitely, but that’s because we’re winners here and we want to win.”