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Rugby World Cup: The Requiem of The Eagles

Photo Credit: USA Rugby

I'm reminded often by my colleague Pete Steinberg that Rugby is a process driven sport.  When you get the process correct, the outcomes will come over time.  I would state that every sport is process driven.  But nowhere is the process and sub-processes more important than with the National Team.  This is not to subvert any of your expectations, but only to illustrate that the Eagles have improved.  That is a fact.

In 2015 the program was in a great flux and a mess for a variety of reasons.  Nigel Melville made the choice to hire John Mitchell following the non-renewal of Mike Tolkin's contract.  What occurred through that time was a major culture change within the program, no player's job was safe.  Many players retired immediately following the World Cup as often occurred through the Amateur era for the Eagles.  Without a professional league in the World Cup era, the average retention of players from World Cup to World Cup cycle has been 6.5.  I've done a lot of the analysis there and will be publishing some of that data over the next few weeks when I get the time.

Under John Mitchell, which has continued under Gary Gold has been the requirement of professional fitness.  It takes professionals to compete against professionals on the World Stage.  Gary's first tour began in the middle of  Major League Rugby's pre-season, the effects I said at that time would not be felt in 2019.  A program off a shortened November tour put it together and won the America's Rugby Championship taking the Grand Slam.  2018 Was a dream season.  Gary Gold's squad went 9-1 (10-1 with the ARG XV victory)  against Test Competition.  The 2019 season was a bit tougher in the ARC, but we pushed through with a solid campaign in the PNC.

Looking at our outcomes, I know that we were in a different place than 2015.  In three of the four matches we showed that we should have been there.  Yet, if we look at our previous competition against a top 3 team.  USA v New Zealand in 2014 where the Eagles lost 6-74, Mike Tolkin deployed his best, Hansen turned out a B-Side for a warm up and we played a non-competitive match.  Against England, although the Eagles had a limited attack, which I go back to that Piers Francis hit on Will Hooley being what set the tone for that entire contest.  The defense improved considerably in a World Cup,  against the 3rd ranked team [England] in the World the Eagles only conceded 45 points.  In 2015, against the 5th ranked team in the World [South Africa] they conceded 64 points at the World Cup.

Against France, the Eagles were able to compete hard for 60 minutes.  This coaching staff and player group were able to fix their problems from the England game and give a full 80-minute effort.  What failed the US in the France game was  more the quality of depth.  When France put on their first choice tight-five things changed for the Eagles as France began to change their tempo and grind against the Eagles front line.  But still, the Eagles competed.  That's the difference from 2015, that's been the process started under Mitchell, then refined and overhauled under Gold.  The Eagles know they can compete everywhere on the pitch, they yearn for the highest levels of competition.

Many people writing about the Eagles pool said that the US needed to target Tonga.  The last time the Eagles targeted a team at the World Cup for a win, they got demolished by South Africa and failed against Japan.  Yet, if you look at Japan of today and even Japan of 2015 it's hard to think that targeting was ever a good idea.  Japan has continuously refined it's processes since then and have shown the world in 2019 what process development is about by winning their pool.   What I appreciated from the very beginning when asked about his selection philosophy, Gary Gold stated that he was going to be consistent and there wouldn't be a "targeting" of a single match in the World Cup.  Although we know there were KPIs for every campaign, the philosophy and desire to stick to process has been an important hallmark of Gary's tenure as coach.

Against Argentina the Eagles turned out a first choice side.  They competed every minute of the game, again.  They were in the game physically and did not quit.  But there were more mental mistakes that eventually made the score line look at a little bit sloppy.  Yet, based on how hard the Eagles played I come away with the Argentina match being their best total performance.

Tonga, the final match showed a lot of things for Eagles.  Although they did not win, when they Eagles committed to running their attack and stringing together phase play they could make and break the gainline.  Something that they had been unable to do or chose not to do in their previous matches.

Going 0-4 is deflating.  Examining the game plan, the propensity to kick the ball away without an effective chase became super frustrating.  Yet, the idea behind that did bear some fruit against Tonga.  Sometimes the dice don't roll.  The Eagles staff committed to a high risk/high reward strategy in this competition.  Looking at the Tonga game, the conditions were rough, heavy rain and humidity early on in the game took away from what they wanted to do.  Two key injuries proved rough to overcome losing both Blaine Scully and Eric Fry at the  18-minute mark reduced the ability of Gary Gold to effectively deploy his bench.  Going into the sheds, the US was up 12-7 and the question of finishing was clearly on the minds of everyone.  In this game, short rest meant everything.  Tonga was fresh and the US were not.  The idea of resting certain players overall is a tad moot for me.  If you put on 7 players against Argentina that wouldn't play against Tonga, there's a severe reduction in rhythm.  The two players that needed that rhythm in De Haas and MacGinty played lights out for the Eagles.

Back to process. What makes Japan different was the commitment of many Rugby Men working with JRFU to establish the Japanese Top League.  The progress made under that structure eventually led to Japan earning the rights to a Super Rugby franchise in the Sunwolves.  The Sunwolves have been subsequently cut by SANZAAR, but that certainly looks shortsighted with the success of Japan at the World Cup and the commercial success of the Rugby World Cup.  The Top League is 16 years old.  Major Japanese companies committed to supporting Rugby through professionalization of their amateur teams.  (A by-gone era of many generations ago when American companies fielded recreational sports teams)  With that companies like Canon, Suntory, Coca-Cola, Ricoh, all began spending precious capital over time on players from overseas and bringing in high level coaches from overseas as well.  Gary Gold once coached the Ricoh Black Rams.  Jake White the former Springboks World Cup winning head coach just finished a three year stint leading the Toyota Verblitz.  Then you look at the long term investment in youth Rugby in Japan with their Collegiate Championship existing just before the founding of their Union in the 1920s.  Their High School Championship coming to fruition 20 years before the founding of USA Rugby.  The emphasis on youth development and structures under the Top League is what pushed this group further forward.

In addition to that professional process has been the frequency of Tier 1 Test exposure that Japan earned from the 2015 World Cup.  With greater performances comes greater reward and preparation.  In the build up to this World Cup the Brave Blossoms took the field 13 times in four years against Tier 1 National teams.  The Eagles in that time have only played  a Tier 1 Nation in four matches.  This was evident in how they played.  Although physically and athletically able, the Eagles lacked the mental decisiveness that consistent competition against Tier 1 Nations would give them.

What 2023 will look like.  Keeping Gary Gold is an imperative, the systems he's put in place has driven the Eagles to being ranked 12th in the World twice.  They'll finish this World Cup in a place on the board that won't look nice, but the foundation that has been laid by this player group and this staff is something that needs to be built on.  Finding money to support the National program is a must.  It will be difficult and it takes a community to support the Eagles. Major League Rugby will have wrapped up its 6th season, Gold will have had a full World Cup cycle to guide to further guide and shape the program.

It Takes an Army.

~Aaron Castro