|Photo Judy Teasdale|
Still, the purpose of the tournament was to develop, and while it might not have happened during the Selects three matches, head coach Mike Tolkin now knows what his team needs to work on and improve. If not for that reason alone--the team also identified a few players that could contribute to the Eagles--the tournament was worth it. However, it's troubling that the U.S. keeps making the same mistakes over and over at all different levels. Why? That is the big question to answer in U.S. rugby right now and it mostly comes down to a lack of experience, especially in club rugby.
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Let's take a look at the aspects of the game the Selects struggled with the most:
Scrum: There is no hiding that the U.S. scrum was awful. In every match they were thoroughly dominated and not one player showed themselves to be a true international caliber player. This is especially disappointing in the props where the Eagles are in desperate need of some depth. The trouble is that many of the players have plateaued, not because they don't have the talent to improve, but because the talent they are training with, and mostly playing against, is not good enough. A forward may look world-class against his opponent in DI, but in international rugby it's totally different. These props need to be out getting better opposition. Eric Fry has done just that and look at his improvement over the last few years.
Errors: Watching the Selects create a good opportunity only to knock-on the ball through a lapse of concentration was incredibly frustrating. Simply, the pace of play was too quick for the players. They were either too concerned about getting hit or committing some error that they forgot to take their eye off the ball. The same is true for running into space without support and then getting a penalty for holding onto the ball. Tolkin was incredibly frustrated that his team didn't swing out the ball quick enough. Much of that has to do with the team not being up to the speed of play. Again, this comes down to the quality of opposition these players play against and train against every week. The pace of club rugby in America is just too slow at the moment to train players for international play.
Decision-making: The same is true for decision-making. Tolkin was extremely upset that the team decided to take a tap and go late against Uruguay rather than taking the easy three points. He specifically said that players can do that in club play and get away with it but not in international play.
Fitness: It must be said that some of the players on the U.S. team had excellent fitness. However, some were not at the international level. That again comes from not having to push themselves the extra mile in matches and practice.
In essence, the level of the club game is not fast enough and is not punishing enough to force players into making smart decisions. Some players have been able to adjust (i.e. Cam Dolan) but many have not. That is why you see the Eagles struggling in so many aspects of the game in comparison to the other three teams at the ARC. This is not to suggest that the Eagles won't qualify for the next World Cup, they will, but it is suggesting that we have some serious deficiencies when it comes to our club structure. While other countries players are practicing and playing against the other top player sin their country, ours are playing against players that aren't fit, don't have the experience, and simply are not enough to push our top players to be better.
One has to wonder if the new structure in DI is only going to exaggerate this problem. For all of the financial problems with the Super League, the one thing that was an absolute positive about the competition was that it often featured some of the best players in the country. The matches, especially between a team like NYAC, SFGG, or OPSB were of extremely high quality and helped make better players. We need more games like that, not less. Hopefully the Elite Cup will help the situation, but with less games than the Super League, top clubs and top players are going to need more competition. NYAC has already reached out to play teams in Canada and it's likely that OPSB will do the same. But even that needs to happen on a more regular basis.
We have mentioned it repeatedly over the last week, but Canada has been able to excel but putting all their top players on a few teams and then having them play each other. We need to replicate that. That doesn't mean copying their format, but it doesn't mean pushing for national team players to only be playing on Elite Cup teams and to have those teams play each other more often. Even then, there is no easy solution. Our country is so big and spread out that it would be extremely difficult to ask some players to give up their families and their careers for a handful of matches a year.
On the bright side, we are a smart and innovative country. There is a solution out there, we just need to find and then gather the resources. If we can, those four main problems discussed above will improve and our national team will have the opportunity to win the ARC.
What do you think? What was the Selects main inhibitors at the ARC? How can we improve the quality of the player pool?