How the Eagles Can Compete with the Saxons
Saturday Jun 13, 2009 in Columns GoffonRugby
(Brian McClenahan, who starts at hooker, will have a lot on his plate. Ian Muir photo.)
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Glendale, Colo – The USA will take on the England Saxons Sunday in a game that, history tells us, will not turn out too well for the hosts.
In 2003 they played England A in the first year of the Churchill Cup, losing 36-10 in the pool match and 43-6 in the final. Four years later it was the Eagles against the Saxons in the 2007 Churchill Cup. Saxons won 51-3. Last year, Saxons 64 USA 10.
(Interestingly, the USA has fared better against the full England side. In 2001 the Eagles hosted England in a British Lions year in San Francisco. After falling behind 31-5, the Eagles played a competitive second half to lost 48-19. The Americans scored three tries, Jone Naqica two on debut and Juan Grobler one. In 2007 at the World Cup the Eagles lost 28-10, scoring a try from Mate Moeakiola in a game much, much closer than England wanted.)
But in the Churchill Cup it’s not been pretty. The average score of those four Churchill Cup matches is 49-7. The average of the last two is 58-7. The story of these games is one that repeats each game: the Saxons have generally won the kicking game, hitting their pinpoint punts to the corner, kicking for their wings, and seeing the USA be the team that hits kicks out on the full, or past the dead ball line.
The Saxons pack has also done well, especially in the scrums, where they’ve put the screws to the Americans, and the mauls. Oh yes, the mauls. As USA coach Eddie O’Sullivan said about good mauling; it’s basically impossible to defend, and it’s energy-sapping to do so.
England Saxons will kick to the corner, attack at the set pieces, and if you give up penalties, they will go for the lineout and maul you into the ground.
So what can the Eagles do to combat this? Well if they watched the major games played on Saturday they might get a bit of a clue. Western Province stopped the British Lions maul by hitting them very hard and low, around the legs. They also had the benefit of a referee who orders a maul going backwards to use it or lose it (this did not happen for the Eagles against Wales).
They also cannot afford to have their rare backline opportunities end with knock-ons. When that ball is spun out to the backline, they have to hold onto it. The issue for the Eagles at present is that those attacking opportunities are so rare, the players know they are under pressure to convert. That’s why you see them trying to read the defense while catching a ball (hard to do), and that’s why on big breaks you don’t see them take those slight risks that often pay off into tries – it’s just too risky.
If the Eagles can get some good ball to their backs early, they might be able to raise their confidence level.
But before we worry about that, we need to see a USA team that can handle the basics: win their own lineouts, hold firm in the scrums, take the maul out of England’s game plan, and not turn the ball over.
If they can check those boxes it won’t necessarily mean a win, but it will mean better than 49-7.
Last week’s 48-15 loss to Wales was basically where you’d expect them to be against a Six Nations team. This week we raise the bar slightly. For the USA to perform to expectations, then a 40-20 score would be OK. If the Eagles hold the Saxons to less than 40, and score more than 20, and especially if they score more than two tries, then you could rightly call the game a win against the spread. Better than 50-10 might fall into the realm of within expectations. Worse than that will be below expectations.