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Arrive Sunday, typically from all over the world. A prop might fly in from France, a flanker from Ft. Lauderdale and a hooker from Bloemfontein. No matter how many hours of travel they’d just endured, they've got to boot up for training as quickly as possible, because they’ll be asked to play international test rugby in five days.
That’s what an Eagle assembly usually looks like. This June, though, somehow Gary Gold negotiated for his team to do what the rest of the world does – have players assembled 12 days before kickoff. The active pros, so just those playing in the MLR as it panned out, had to be sent back to their clubs midweek, per World Rugby’s regulations surrounding player availability. The rest stuck around Denver and got some extra time together until the MLR pros returned.
Thanks to a quirk in the Super Rugby schedule, this June Australia had to endure what the USA had for years, meeting for the first time on match week. The Wallabies still managed to beat Ireland in the test opener Saturday, but the insufficient time together had them worried.
The result of the USA’s extra assembly time was a 62-13, nine-try drubbing of Russia. Two years ago when these teams met, the Eagles managed just one try in a 25-0 victory. Extra assembly time is among the new variables which helped deliver the improved result.
“It’s incredibly valuable. Usually when we come into an assembly it’s straight into test week. Part of it is how quickly can we get connected as a unit and as a team, build those relationships, have those conversations and learn to play with each other,” said captain Blaine Scully after the Russia win.
“A lot of us are coming from a lot of different environments, and it’s one of the challenges of international rugby – how quickly can we jell and become a really tight unit.”
It’s no surprise that Gold feels similarly.
“Every day, every training session extra we can have is incredibly valuable. Those first two, three days we had at the beginning of the week before was critical for us. We went through all our learning at that time,” he said. “We couldn’t do too much with the guys because they had to return to their clubs, from a physical point of view, but we could do quite a lot from a learning point of view, and the players took it on board.”
Saturday, the Eagles battle sixth-ranked Scotland at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston. It’s expected to be a full 30 degrees warmer in Central Texas than Scottish Rugby’s home at Murrayfield. The Scots are playing uncapped debutants at No. 8 and scrumhalf. They’re starting 10 players with single-digit caps. They looked unimpressive in beating Canada by 38 last week, while the Eagles haven’t lost to the Canadians since 2013 and walloped them by 36 less than a year ago.
Those are reasonable indications the Eagles may be in line to earn a big scalp this weekend. If they did upset Scotland, it would be the USA’s biggest win in history, their first over a tier one nation, first over one of the Home Nations, etc. It’d grip the rugby world’s attention more tightly than any upset since Japan knocked off South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
“Makes a huge difference that you arrive back in camp, a couple of new faces, and everybody knows their roles and then you can just really crack on and work on quality of execution rather than run around reading playbooks after only being together for a day or two,” said Gold.
“You only have to look back to the last Rugby World Cup where a guy like Eddie Jones literally had Japan in camp for eight months. Literally had them for eight months just because the way the Japanese league and Japan Rugby Union work, and you saw the fruits of his labor there. If a group can spend more and more time together, then it becomes hugely beneficial.”
The Eagles won’t have been together for eight months by the time the first restart is hoisted into the humid Houston air Saturday, but they’ll have had an extra week together, adding another reasonable piece of evidence pointing toward a potential upset.