Coming out of Hong Kong the USA 7s team is no better, no worse, really, than they have been all season.
If you take anything positive from the effort you might notice that there was no complete blowout (such as the horror show of their opener in Las Vegas). Every game was close; every game winnable.
But in the end it was a 1-4 weekend that didn’t live up to expectations. Every team they could have beaten they lost to, save Scotland.
More than that, it’s become painfully apparent that whatever is happening within the team is not working, not improving.
The USA approach is good for two tries a game, three if things go really well. In their last ten games, the Eagles have averaged 2.3 tries a game, scoring four tries once, a single try three times, and two or three tries 11 times.
This tournament they scored 2.4 tries a game. Meanwhile the opposition is averaging 3.0 tries a game. Every game is basically their average – the USA scores about two tries, and the opposition scores a little bit more. They might lose by a close margin to New Zealand and Fiji and Wales. That’s great. But they lose by the same margin to Hong Kong and Spain and France.
They are falling short. Just. So, why?
Conversions. The Eagles, mostly Shalom Suniula, kicked well in Hong Kong. Converting 9 of 12 tries. However, they lost one game in part because the other team kicked more conversions. In Las Vegas, the USA was 7-12, and lost two games where a conversion would have at least tied it.
So it’s kind of unfair to say the Eagles should be kicking better. More, it’s the knowledge that most 7s games can come down to who kicks better, and if you’re mounting a comeback when you’re 21-0 down, missing a conversion means that try almost didn’t count.
Restarts. It wasn’t that long ago that the USA was among the best restart teams in the world. Their current Head Coach is a proponent of winning your own kickoff and takes it very seriously. But the Eagles cannot win the possession battle at kickoffs.
This is because, first off, the tactic is to send a player up in the air to tap the ball back. Too many things can go wrong with this. This move requires the tap to be superbly accurate and the target of the tap to be right where he needs to be. In addition, the move means the jumper is now out of the play for the next few seconds. At best he lands on his feet and careens forward into an offside position. At worst, he gets flipped and lands on his head, neck, or ribs (Colin Hawley coughing up blood post-game in Las Vegas is testament to this).
If the ball is tapped back and isn’t caught, it rolls toward the USA tryline (bad) or takes one of those funny rugby bounces and can get nabbed by the opposition (also bad). Yes I am channeling Bo Schembechler here when I say, four things can happen on a tap restart, and three of them are bad.
And more to the point, the bad things are happening. Even receiving their own kick, the Eagles seem incapable of controlling the ball. This is how they gifted Hong Kong the Bowl Semifinal.
When the Eagles 7s team has been great in the restart is when they try to catch the kick, not tap it. Zack Test is really good at this. Attempting the catch is different – you are under control more. There’s less chance of getting hurt, and more chance of taking the ball forward into the opposition.
Attacking. Look at the final between Fiji and Wales. The team that had the upper hand attacked. When they had the ball, they took the fight to the defense. When they were on defense, they shut down space.
Fiji, especially, does a good job of this. They almost always pass for the man, leading the player so he runs onto the ball. They can do this because they are fit and fast and get deep very quickly, and in numbers. They get the ball out of the ruck quickly and go!
Now I know that Magleby wants this from his team, but it’s clear in their play that they are, for the most part, unsure what to do. For a while they were running directly into defenders. What they were supposed to do was run between defenders, committing extra tacklers, and then, with a quick ruck, attack space.
Now they seem unsure, and often revert to the skating, lateral offensive that wasn’t getting them anywhere before.
The decision to take a small gap and turn the defense happens in the locker room. It’s not a split-second decision, it’s a split-second read. But the decision has already been made. I know if Hawkins picks and goes, I will be there, every time, and I will let him know I am there. We will attack that weakness until we’re stopped.
That leads us to ...
Trust. I don’t think the USA players trust each other implicitly. One or two might. They might say they do. But they don’t. Why do other teams execute no-look passes, and over-the-head offloads? Why, when Canada runs weakside, they can pop three passes in a row to different players without hesitation?
They know those players are there because they communicate, and more than that, once they hear “with you” they trust the guy to catch the ball.
If the Eagles trusted each other more they would have scored 35 on Scotland, Carlin Isles would actually receive a pass, and they wouldn’t get stuck in so many rucks.
When you don’t trust each other, and the scrumhalf sends a leading pass to a flyhalf who isn’t moving, then both players adjust. The flyhalf thinks “I should have been flatter and moving forward.” The scrumhalf thinks “he won’t run onto the ball, so I will pass straight to him next time.”
What happens? The next pass is behind the flyhalf. When you trust each other, the flyhalf says “same pass next time, and I’ll be there for you.”
Personnel. Only two players played really well in Hong Kong, Matt Hawkins and Shalom Suniula. Both players played some of their best defense in a while, and both showed a willingness to attack and take the fight to the other team.
Most of the other players had a mixture of good and bad. Zack Test made some things happen, but gave up too many penalties. Nick Edwards is a terrifically aggressive runner, but doesn’t pass. Andrew Durutalo needs to exert his physicality more.
I don’t know if this is the group of 12 we need to hang our hopes on. I do know that the results this season have only improved a marginal amount. I also know what other teams are doing. If they have a big guy, he is there to break tackles – the USA’s big guys don’t.
When I look back at the USA teams that were really good, they had players like Kevin Swiryn, Paul Emerick, and Chris Wyles. These guys were aggressive runners who broke tackles, pounced on loose balls, and ran together as a pack. How many of you wish these three were back playing 7s for the Eagles now? Why is that? Because they made plays and created havoc.
We do have aggressive players who like to run and break tackles, but they don’t work as a group, and, frankly, some of them can play pretty selfish rugby. So if they are to work as a team they have to operate as a team. This week, if Mike Palefau, Nick Edwards, Carlin Isles, Colin Hawley, Zack Test and Luke Hume could just get in a room together and agree that they as a group are going to tear it up, and that a try by their team is a try for everyone, not just the individual, we might get somewhere.
So that’s it. That, in my opinion, is how we get from 2.3 tries a game to 3 tries a game, and how we reduce the opposition from 3 tries a game to 2.5:
Go for the catch on the restart above anything else, and make sure that if the ball is tapped, it doesn’t hit the ground.
Attack. Decide before the game starts that you’re going to take gaps and break tackles, and that on defense you’re going to take away space and time.
Be Trustworthy, by being in support, communicating, and, passing when you have support.
Make your personnel work for you by being unselfish. Learn the ruck interpretations and stop committing penalties right now. Work your attacks as a unit, and challenge the guys on the team who don’t pass to pass. And get Carlin Isles the ball more often.