The scrum. It’s been an area of concern for the Eagles for years, and under a new coaching staff -- head coach Mike Tolkin and scrum coach Derek Dowling, specifically -- it appears to be making strides in the right direction.
Just last fall, in the Rugby World Cup, the Eagles were steamrolled by the Italian pack, conceding many of the 19 penalties in a 27-10 loss in the scrum. Saturday, in a 30-10 loss to Italy, the Eagles were improved.
“To be honest, we tried to put pressure,” said lauded Italian tight-head prop Martin Castrogiovanni of the American scrum. “We stole one ball, but after that the USA was quite good to put the ball quick and play it straight back, and it’s hard to put pressure on that kind of thing.”
The Eagles were penalized twice in the scrum, and the Italians managed to steal two American put-ins -- one leading to the second Italian try of the game and one in injury time after the game was well in hand.
Both penalties came early in the game. One went to scrumhalf Mike Petri for not putting the ball into a moving scrum in which Castrogiovanni had a questionable bind outside of the referee’s vantage point. The other was on Shawn Pittman for standing up in the scrum. However, it was the wily Castrogiovanni who first stood up and then promptly blamed Pittman for the wonky set piece.
There’s a theory that referees have a bias, especially in the scrum, against the team that’s perceived to be weaker. Asked if he thought that was in play against Italy, Tolkin said:
“I think that was happening early, but I think later in the game, it was really called evenly. I think it was fair, but there was definitely a point early on.”
The Americans were actually awarded a penalty in the scrum midway through the second half, making the Eagles’ net loss of ball in the scrum just three. Not ideal, for sure, but an improvement from last September.
“Italy has an excellent scrum, but I really thought, if you look at where we came from in the World Cup and the last two years, I thought our guys held up excellently, especially in the second half,” said Tolkin.
“We had some good ball off the base. All things considered, I think our progress in the scrum was very good.”