With their 34-3 win over Romania last Saturday, the Eagles finished their fall tour of Europe with a 2-1 record, taking their 2012 record to an even 3-3. The represents the first time the team has had a .500 or above record since 2003—a positive sign the team is trending in a good direction. During the tour the Eagles new offensive system was on full display as the team racked up a total of 87 points, the most the team has managed in a long time. The defense was also active, giving up 51 points in total, including only a penalty to Romania. Overall, it was a good run for the team as they look to improve ahead of next year’s World Cup qualifiers. So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the things we learned about the team during the tour. (Note: This is Part 1 of 2. Look for Part 2 tomorrow.)
The props have improved thanks to hard work. During the 2011 World Cup, the Eagles scrum was not very good. Besides veteran Mike MacDonald, the team relied on youngsters Eric Fry and Shawn Pittman, of which only Pittman had professional experience, spending a couple of years with London Welsh in the RFU Championship. The result was the scrum getting beaten and manipulated by veteran opposition. With MacDonald getting older and injuries beginning to take their toll, the Eagles were in desperate need of depth at prop. To make matters worse, Pittman was let go from London Welsh just as they ascended to the Premiership.
However, rather than giving up, both Pittman and Fry dug in to get more playing time and to improve their scrumming abilities. In the spring of this year Fry moved down to Wellington, New Zealand where he played with the Wellington Old Boys. When the summer series rolled around, Fry’s abilities as a prop had improved. Still, he continued to work and look for opportunities. Earlier this fall he signed on with the Manawatu Turbos in the ITM Cup where he played in seven matches, starting four. While he didn’t start every match, Fry improved simply by training in a high-level environment, something that he couldn’t get in the States.
Pittman did like-wise. Rather than returning to the U.S. after being released from London Welsh, he moved to Dublin to train and play with Trinity in the All-Ireland League. Trinity is coached by assistant U.S. coach Tony Smeeth. Even though Pittman could not play in all of Trinity’s matches because he is not a student, it’s the fact that he put himself in a good training environment that’s important. Both of these players surrounded themselves with rugby in a full-time environment. As a result, the Eagles scrum during this fall tour was better than it has been in years. Against the strong packs of Russia, Tonga, and Romania, it did what it needed to in order to help the U.S. offense. But it wouldn’t have happened if Fry and Pittman hadn’t sought out training.
Scott LaValla is the next Eagles captain. Todd Clever hopefully has many more years left in an Eagles shirt, but already his heir to the captaincy is LaValla. The former age-grade captain has successfully made himself a big part of the Stade Francais side after a move from Trinity in Ireland. That has transferred over to his play with the Eagles where he is an absolute monster on the pitch. He makes his tackles and plays intelligently on defense.
Still, it’s his leadership that is making a big impression. Eagles head coach Mike Tolkin had this to say about LaValla to Rugbymag: “[He] has really come along and has become a big leader on this team. Todd Clever is a great captain but Scott is also a leader.” It seems that whenever Clever is done in an Eagles shirt, then LaValla is there to step up—something that should be reassuring to Eagles fans.
The team still needs depth. While the Eagles did well on their fall tour, it’s important to remember that just over a month ago fans were lamenting the performance of the Eagles Select in the Americas Rugby Championship. In that tournament the team went 0-3 and posted some very bad results, including a loss to Uruguay. True, that team was comprised of many developmental players, but in total nine of the twenty-eight players came from the ARC squad. Three of those players, Cornelius Dirksen, John Quill, and Zach Pangelinan each started a match for the Eagles while one other, Derek Asbun, saw significant minutes. Of the other six players, only Zach Fenoglio and Graham Harriman got in any game time. Gearoid McDonald, Tony Purpura, and Nick Wallace saw time on the bench but never on the pitch. So despite the poor performance by the ARC team, the Eagles did get contributions from some ARC players. Some of these players, Quill in particular, played well, but the fact that so much of the depth on the team came from the ARC team has to be a little worrying.
Further, Tolkin rarely used his bench during the three matches. Against Russia he made five substitutions, against Tonga four, and against Romania six. When Tolkin did go to the substitutes bench it was usually in favor of veterans like Inaki Basauri, Mike Petri, or Roland Suniula. Obviously Tolkin felt that he had the best chance to win with his starters, and he proved that by winning two of the three matches, but in all three his starters began to tire and substitutions could have been made. The problem was that the bench simply did not give Tolkin enough confidence that he could trust them to go out there. During a three match series spread out over three weeks this lack of depth might not be a problem, but in a tournament like the World Cup where turnaround time can be short and the competition more intense, the team needs depth.
Fitness. Along the same lines as depth, fitness was an issue for the team. It cost them a better result against Russia when they allowed the Russians to score several tries in the second half, and it cost them the match against Tonga when, despite holding a lead and a man advantage, the Eagles couldn’t muster enough energy to get more points. It was regarding fitness that the disparity between those that play and train full-time overseas, and those that do their best in the states. Passports, family, and other reasons can stand in the way of a skillful player gaining a professional contract while a similar player may not have that same problem even though they have the sameskill set. Plenty of domestic American players have shown that over the years, but the one thing domestic players can’t compensate for is fitness. They can train and run all they want at home, but without high-level competition pushing them, and meaningful matches against tough opposition to test them, they simply don’t have the fitness.
If the U.S. wants to improve its world ranking, it will have to find more ways to get domestic players high-level matches. Looking at this from a positive angle, the Eagles managed a terrific year with these limitations. If they can find the right situations for their players, good things are going to happen. Further, it seems that under Tolkin, more and more players are doing that, heading to clubs that train full-time and get solid matches.
Tomorrow we’ll finish our two part series on the things we learned from the Eagles tour.
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