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Olive Kilifi. Mike Bobis photo

For the third year in a row, the USA’s lack of fortune at scrum time is a major story line coming out of the June test in Houston, Texas. In 2012, the gamesmanship of Martin Castrogiovanni helped the Italians upend the Eagles. In 2013 Ireland beat the USA by three, and six Irish points came as a direct result of scrum penalties. Saturday, Scotland got 10 points off scrum penalties, including a penalty try.

“We’re in a situation now having been under pressure over a number of seasons, any infraction is ours or theirs, and it generally tends to go the other way,” USA forwards coach Justin Fitzpatrick told RugbyToday. “I thought the sin bin of Ollie Kilifi was a little bit harsh, but that’s where we find ourselves. We’re in a bit of a hole and we’ve got to dig ourselves out of it.”

The sending off of Kilifi was a pivotal point in the game. It not only left the Eagles down a man and forced them to shuffle around their pack for 10 minutes, it led to a penalty try and conversion that put the Scottish up 17-3. After a flurry of scrums, including one which was clearly wheeled past 90 degrees, Kilifi was shown a yellow card. The very next scrum the penalty try was awarded.

“Eight scrums back-to-back, that’s a lot,” said Kilifi. “Fatigue, that’s probably what added up to the yellow card. They said I wasn’t pushing straight, which I think is questionable.”

As Fitzpatrick acknowledged, the Eagles’ struggles in the scrum have fostered a perception that the USA can’t scrum, and that’s parlayed into more penalties. It’s become a cycle.  

“I think that’s something that Scotland studied over the build-up to the game,” said Kilifi, “and that’s something they tried to utilize and take advantage of, which I think they did pretty good.”

The USA’s scrum was certainly not without fault. It went backward too often too early, fairly raising the referee's antenna. Scotland put the Eagles under an immense amount of pressure, and the experience of the Scottish, versus the inexperience of the American pack, was visible.  

“We’ve got to take cognizance of the fact that we’re playing against six front rowers that are all professional players,” said Fitzpatrick.

“We have one full-time professional in Eric Fry in the front row, and one guy in Titi (Lamositele) who’s in a professional environment with an academy. The rest of those guys are all domestic players, so what do we do? We educate them, we work them, and we try and improve them.

“It’s not a quick fix. There is no quick fix there, but I am pleased with the trajectory we’re taking. We’re definitely improving, and that’s what we can do. There is no magic wand to wave at it.”

In the second half, the Eagle scrum was penalized less. Kilifi was transferred to the tighthead, reserve hooker Tom Coolican settled in after being subbed on early for an injured Phil Thiel, and Lamositele came on. Evidenced by a couple of penalties against Scotland at the scrum, the Eagles scrum improved over the course of 80 minutes.

“100-percent,” said Fitzpatrick, confirming his unit’s improvement throughout the game.

“Again, you’ve got to compare how many scrummaging sessions those guys do collectively. They’re in camp for the Six Nations for almost a couple of months. We were lucky this year having the World Cup qualifiers, the boys were into camp for a couple of weeks, but you’re not comparing apples to apples. I think we’re on the right track, but all we can do is roll our sleeves up and keep working.”

Part of that work is identifying the best start front row available.  

“That’s definitely some of it, getting the right people playing is definitely part of it,” said Fitzpatrick. “We’re trying to grow depth on the right hand side of the scrum. We’ve got both Ollie and Titi who are new to international rugby, and we’re trying to grow the depth there.”