At Times Good Enough, USA Men Take 4th in Dubai

knockout rounds

Winning their pool did the USA no favors as they played the Hong Kong champs and the 2021-22 World Series champs in Australia. And the Eagles beat them in a while one. They did it by striking hard, scoring in the opening minute when Lacamp poached the ball in the ruck, Baker rushed off to the line and then passed to Stephen Tomasin just because.

Playing with confidence the Eagles got another try when Schroeder looped smartly to keep the ball alive and David Still showed plenty of agility in beating three defenders to score. Australia answered but the USA closed out the half with a team try that saw every player touch the ball and 11 passes including Tupuola following his pass and getting the return offload to allow him to run back in.

Australia then scored twice to come back and with two minutes to go it seemed like they might run away with it. But Perry Baker is still Perry Baker and he unleashed an inside-out move to burn his man and ran in from 60 meters out. We don’t see it every game, but we can still see it. They closed it out from there.

So what happened after that? The Eagles lost the semifinal 12-7 to Ireland and then were smashed by New Zealand 36-12 in the Bronze Medal game.

OK, maybe fatigue or just a game too far in what is always a tough tournament for the USA in terms of travel … but Ireland? How could they beat Samoa and Australia but lose to Ireland while scoring just one try?

We talk about the Eagles being patient in defense, meaning partly that they don’t try to jackal balls when the steal isn’t on and they give up a penalty. But it’s also about style of play. The Eagles managed to get one-on-one tackles done, but Ireland’s more powerful runners demanded more than that. And ultimately it was a missed tackle on a big man that led to Ireland’s first try.

They started to fall off a couple of tackles in this semifinal. And when the Eagles got the ball back with a penalty and lineout, they ended up losing a prim attacking lineout, and, when they got the ball back, a misplaced pass from Still.

It wasn’t patient at all.

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Finally the Eagles did score, taking all of three minutes to go slowly through the Irish defense before Malachi Esdale dished out some physicality of his own before feeding Baker for the try that tied it up.

But the things the USA is usually good at, like winning restarts and winning rucks and being strong at the point of contact, things Ireland are good at. So it was a frustrated USA that gave up penalties and it was a confident Ireland that exploited them. Still, the USA luckily hung on when Ireland muffed their lineout and it was overtime. (That last penalty against the USA was a bad call, and Williams, who was penalized, was also furious that the penalty was called at 35 seconds to go but wasn’t taken for 20 econds … clear wasting time.)

In overtime the Eagles had plenty of possession but they just seemed more frantic and eventually a forward pass from Baker that he didn’t need to make provided an attacking scrum for Ireland, and they scored easily.

So there you have it

Playing with a calm confidence and barely contained furiosity works for the USA. When they don’t push it and don’t get into penalty trouble they beat some of the best in the world. When they started to fix a little mistake by stealing a ball they don’t need to steal, or trying to break five tackles, they get into trouble.

The less experienced players were perhaps quicker to get frustrated, but not always.

It’s also worth considering that Friday sometimes rides his big horses a bit too long. It’s great that Joe Schroeder is back, but he probably needed his time managed so that he was there at the end against Ireland. Hard to predict when you’re playing Australia in the quarters.

Overall, then, not bad for a team with still a lot of new blood. The USA is tied with Fiji at 27 points, but points difference has Fiji at 5th and USA at 6th. The other top teams—South Africa, Australia, France, Ireland—are all only a few points ahead. The chase for a top four spot and automatic Olympic qualification is still on. They just need to bottle that first half against Australia.

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