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Saturday, a surging Brazil hopes to recreate the greatest upset in the history of World Rugby’s rankings by defeating a wounded USA at Dell Diamond in Austin, Texas. The Tupis are riding high, having upset Canada, 18-10, before the competition’s mandated bye week. The Eagles are reeling from a 45-14 loss to Argentina XV the same day.
In 2016, 42nd-ranked Brazil defeated 16th-ranked USA, 24-23. Should the visitors win Saturday, it will still be an upset, as the Eagles are ranked 13th and Brazil 26th. The headliner in Brazil’s rise has been the strength of its scrum. Against Canada, 12 of the Tupis’ points came as a direct result of scrum penalties converted by New Zealand-bred flyhalf Josh Reeves.
“It’s clearly something they’ve put emphasis on,” said USA coach Gary Gold of Brazil’s scrum. “It’s very much like the fact they have recruited Josh as their 10. They wanted to recruit a guy who kicks the ball a long way, and that’s the way they wanted to play the game, and so they’re doing a very good job with limited resources. Credit where it’s due.
“Scrumming is a mechanical issue, and it’s about having all eight individuals working in exactly the same direction at exactly the same amount of time. That’s what a good scrum is. That’s what a good tug of war is. That’s what good rowers do. Everything works together at the same time.
“A lot of people and a lot of coaches overcomplicate that. Clearly what [Brazil have done] is they’ve done a really good job, added to the fact that they do have three or four really, really quality individuals in the front row, and we saw that in the combine in Glendale in June.”
Reeves is likely unfamiliar to Eagle fans, though he won’t be for long. He made his Major League Rugby debut for the Utah Warriors in their loss to San Diego over the weekend. Like AJ MacGinty does for the USA, Reeves qualifies for the Tupis via residency.
In years past, the Eagles have fallen victim to the modern state of the scrum. Worldwide, referees are having issues correctly managing the scrum. The problem stems from a lack of understanding of why scrums collapse. Often, the scrum perceived to be stronger by the referee gets the benefit of the doubt. That was the case when Ireland needed five penalty kicks, several of which were the result of scrum infringements, to beat the USA, 15-12, in 2012.
Higher-ranked Canada didn’t receive the same benefit of the doubt against Brazil, so the Eagles may not Saturday. The first couple of scrums will likely go a long way toward helping the sir shape his perception of which pack is stronger, if the highlights of Canada’s scrum skating backwards haven't already.
“Scrums are a lottery. They are. That’s not an issue against our referee in any way, shape or form. That is unfortunately where the game has gone today,” said Gold. “I’ve sat in a room with six Super Rugby scrum coaches, watched a clip, asked a question, and you’ve got five different answers. It’s a worrying aspect in the game at the moment.
“The easiest way to manage the perception is to actually put a good picture in front of the referee. Scrum legally, scrum strong. Make sure that you don’t see one team barreling over another team.
“I do believe the one things referees want to do, and I think it must be their biggest nemesis, is they want to see a picture of two scrums being square, staying up, and the ball being channeled in play. The quicker the ball can get in and out, I think the refs are under massive relief. I generally don’t know that a lot of referees have a real handle on what is going on. What’s also difficult as well, is they’re standing on one side of the scrum, and something could be happening on the other side.”
The scrum isn’t the only concern for the Eagles Saturday, as Brazil has some handy ball carriers, too. Moises Duque, who lined up at flyhalf in the ’16 upset, will likely play inside center Saturday. He can scoot, and the USA’s defense against Argentina XV was porous.
“They’re not shy to have a go. They’re a pretty expansive team,” said Gold. “They’ll want to move us around the park, especially after what they saw Argentina do to us. That’s where the real challenge does come this weekend.”
The physicality of the USA’s defense has been lacking to start the year, but it will likely get a shot in the arm by the return of inside center Paul Lasike, who has a significant height and weight advantage on the diminutive Duque. His suspension for stamping against Argentina XV was reduced to one week, served over the bye as his professional side, the Harlequins, had a match he was forced to miss, making him available.
If Lasike and the Eagles can regain the physicality and tenacity on defense that saw them go 10-2 last year, Brazil’s powerful scrum and how it’s officiated won’t be a deciding factor.