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I got to watch day two of the IRB 7s World Series opener in Gold Coast, Australia, and I have a few observations to share, but first let me get a few disappointing statistics out of the way.
The Eagles’ 22-21 loss to Canada in Gold Coast was its fourth in a row. The Eagles have now lost to Canada nine of the last 11 times they’ve met. Equally as appalling as the USA’s record against Canada is its recent record on day one. The Eagles again went 0-3 in pool play in Australia. In six of the last 10 IRB World Series stops, the Eagles have laid a goose egg in pool play.
Obviously, those streaks need to end if we want to be watching Team USA play in Rio in 2016 or the Eagles become anything other than a doormat on the circuit.
Now onto some observations.
Carlin Isles is getting it, and he’s already earned his spot on the team. His speed is obviously unparalleled. His skills and understanding are subpar, but good enough, and his defense is better than he’s given credit for.
He still has to learn when to get aggressive defensively, and it’s not entirely clear yet whether or not he possesses the natural instinct that tells an athlete when to light to someone up or the ability to knock some of the bigger guys on the circuit on their heels. But, he makes tackles with as much or more consistency as the next two players I’m going to name.
Tai Enosa and Make Unufe need to be better on defense. Both went down swinging when trying to make some poor arm tackles in Australia. No doubt, fatigue played a factor, and it was amplified by the injuries to Peter Dahl and Shalom Suniula. But Enosa and Unufe still have to make their tackles with more aggression and consistency. And Enosa made some questionable decisions, too. He’s not a greenhorn anymore, so that needs to stop.
Luke Hume is extremely dangerous. He can break the line when needed. But, the team seems to still be learning how to play off of him. He’s not in residency in Chula Vista, and it showed in Australia. Twice he attempted to offload from the ground and threw the ball off of a teammate ducking in to ruck, causing a knock-on. Hume just needs more time with the rest of the team, and vice versa.
Mike Palefau and Zack Test were the two best players for the USA on the circuit last season. Neither did much to write home about in the first tournament. To be fair, Test is fresh off of surgery.
Matt Hawkins made some positive plays. He was expectedly stellar in the scrum. He provided physicality in the tackle, which forced some turnovers. But, he was obviously too slow on several occasions and it cost the Eagles on the scoreboard.
The Eagles still don’t have enough athletic size in the forwards. Hawkins is good offensively and when he’s not overmatched defensively. In those instances, actually, he’s really good. But, he is a liability against some of the better teams and players on the circuit. The return of Andrew Durutalo, who is coming off of knee surgery, will help in that category, for sure. As will the maturation of Brett Thompson and hopefully the healing of Peter Dahl. Perhaps Colin Hawley can come back into the fold and help in the pack, too.
Still, the Eagles are not good enough in the forwards with all that added in. Leonard Peters or Thretton Palamo would help tremendously. But they’re not available at the moment. Two guys who are, or are expected to be, are Taylor Mokate and Preston Bryant. Bryant’s schoolboy highlights from South Africa are impressive, and if that translates to the international game, he could be an upgrade, for sure, but don’t expect Mokate to be the savior.
The backs have to ramp up their physicality and defense on the whole, too.
The promising takeaway is that the speed is there. Isles, Unufe and Rocco Mauer are all really fast, even by circuit standards, and Hume is a star in the making. So the Eagles are as athletic, or more so, than they have been in some time. But none of that matters if they don’t have the ball.