GoffonRugby is an opinion column written by Alex Goff. Follow Alex on Twitter @goffonrugby
Halftime, or gut-check time?
The USA Men's 15s team will play Canada Saturday afternoon in Toronto, and while the Eagles' forays into Canadian territory haven't been disastrous of late (losses of 16-9, 28-25, 28-22), they have all resulted in an American defeat.
So this weekend, expectations that the USA can overcome an 18-pooint deficit are hugely optimistic. If you are a player or a coach on the team, then having that as a goal is what we expect. If you're a fan, you might have to temper your hopes a bit.
The USA has never beaten Canada by 18 points. Their biggest victory was in 2003, 35-20. Before then it was 34-25. Win by 18 or more in Toronto? History isn't on the side of that wish.
But ... there is more to look for in this game than just a victory. We've got a national team to fix, and this game, the last game of a distressing summer, is the time to start.
Players will be playing for their jobs. They have to be, don't they? Not one player can look at last week or June and say he performed at his highest level. Not one.
And if there are going to be adjustments made in the lineup, with the likely second round of qualifying coming in 2014, then they should be made now.
Who has questions to answer? OK, everyone does, but Toby L'Estrange at flyhalf has directed an attack that averages 11.5 points a game. His form has not been good all season, and his inconsistency as a kicker from the hand has led to the Eagles box kicking every time they want to use the boot to gain territory.
Eric Fry is under question for his agility and defense. He has been at the center of some crucial USA defensive breakdowns, and his body language is one of a player who is a little at sea (I've been reporting on the Eagles for 17 years, I know what that body language looks like). But overall he has just not played well on offense or defense, and looks tired. The fact that there is no one to come in after him is a bit disconcerting. Actually the USA had a bunch of good young props; they are just a little too young.
Taku Ngwenya. Privately observers are shaking their heads at Ngwenya's maverick ways. He seems to be active, and seems to want very badly to do something. But either he's not being put in a position to do something (likely), or he's not doing what he's supposed to do (also likely).
Todd Clever has actually played well and certainly doesn't hold back. But as a captain he feels he needs to lead by example and manage much more besides. Sometimes that means he is out of position, or at least sending the message that he doesn't trust anyone else to get the job done (can you blame him?). His anger and frustration at an underperforming team is understandable, but it clouds his judgment.
Peter Dahl. His job is to get to the breakdown and steal ball. First part, check, second part? The Eagles are not poaching ball, and while you might want a Richie McCaw- or George Smith-type of player on the Eagles, he can't just look the part. Dahl gets blown off the ball too much to be able to stay in there long enough to steal the ball. Somebody has to fulfill that role, and Dahl has to prove he can do it.
The box kick. I have so much to say about it that I have decided to put it all in another post.
Then, let's talk down by the tryline. On offense, the Eagles do the absolute worst thing when they get close. They take forever to cough up the ball, look around, and then make a static surge forward. This is especially annoying because several of the USA forwards know how annoying that was in 2011, and in 2007 (Lou Stanfill should be tearing his hair out, but he's not, which is telling.)
Quick ball out to someone running forward is how you score tries close in. It's just a fact.
Now, because they think slow ball at the tryline is de rigueur, the Eagles are starting to defend like that. When Canada scored their third try last Saturday, what did you see on the goal line? Phil Thiel running, with his back to the play, from a sparsely-defended weak side to a clogged up open side. You saw Taku Ngwenya walk back onside with his back to the defense, but not looking to where he was needed, either.
And you saw huge gaps that no one was closing. Quick ball to a wing against a prop and a lock and into the gap vacated by Thiel.
So this weekend I'd like to see the players work together more. I'd like to see them poach some ball. And I'd like to see them work a more varied offense that runs the big guys up in tight, produces the ball out of the ruck within two seconds, and then out to use the backs. I'd like to see passes all the way to the wing.
I'd like to see running onto the ball from depth.
I'd like to see power by the goal line.
I don't need to see a victory; but I do want to see improvement.