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Friday, September 25, 2015

Preview: Eagles Search For Upset Against Scotland

In reflecting on the Eagles World Cup opener against Samoa head coach Mike Tolkin noted that not only may some players have been nervous but more likely they were too amped up for the match. That led to penalties and getting on the wrong side of the official which hurt them all match. Whether it was nerves or excitement that should dissipate now that players have a match under their belts. When the Eagles have played well this summer it's because they played with a lot of energy and physicality but played under control. All indications are that the Eagles should return to that form this week.

The recipe is there for an upset. The U.S. have never beaten Scotland in their four meetings but did play well for long stretches in their 24-6 loss in Houston last year. The U.S. were in that match and only done in by a penalty try and a couple of great moves when the U.S. relaxed. Over the last year the U.S. improved on both of those areas. Scotland finished with the Wooden Spoon last year and even though they had some solid warm-up matches haven't looked like world beaters.

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Will the U.S. beat Scotland? Maybe not but they have the tools do it. It can't be under stressed how much a win would boost the Eagles and rugby in America. It may not be on the scale of Japan-South Africa but it would still make waves. It would also throw Pool B into more turmoil and give every team a shot at not only making the quarterfinals but a third place spot. That is the goal for the Eagles and losing to Samoa hurt their chances of advancing. The pressure is now on but that's what makes good drama and this match should have plenty of it.

The Team

The Eagles have only made one change to their first choice starting line-up having no injuries from their match against Samoa. Phil Thiel comes in for Zach Fenoglio at hooker, The amount of matches Fenoglio played this summer is being cited for the season for giving him a break but at the same time the lineout has been off the last couple of matches and Thiel's insertion may settled that down some. The only other change is positional with Blaine Scully moving back to wing and Chris Wyles back at fullback. That might be an effort to uses Wyles's kicking ability and to have Scully's handling on the wing. On the bench John Quill has found space while Brett Thompson dropping out.

Forwards: Eric Fry, Phil Thiel, Titi Lamositele, Hayden Smith, Greg Peterson, Al McFarland, Andrew Durutalo, Samu Manoa

Backs: Mike Petri, AJ MacGinty, Blaine Scully, Thretton Palamo, Seamus Kelly, Taku Ngwenya, Chris Wyles

Bench: Zach Fenoglio, Ollie Kilifi, Chris Baumann, Cam Dolan, John Quill, Danny Barrett, Shalom Suniula, Folau Niua

The Opposition

With a tough match against Japan mid-week and then an even tougher match against South Africa mid-week next week Scotland have made ten changes to their starting line-up. The line-up has the distinction of being the least experienced of any side put out so far at the World Cup despite having the likes of Ryan Grant, Richie Gray, Alasdair Strokosch, and Stuart Hogg on the roster. Still, any idea that Scotland is going to be naive is a mistake. The five remaining players from the Japan match include Mark Bennett, Grant Gilchrist, John Hardie, Finn Russell, and Hogg.

The back three of Scotland is going to be especially dangerous with Sean Maitland, Hogg, and Tim Visser providing plenty of bite. The halfback combination of Henry Pyrgos and Finn Russell will be dangerous as well.

Forwards: Ryan Grant, Fraser Brown, Jon Welsh, Richie Gray, Grant Gilchrist, Alasdair Strokosch, John Hardie, Josh Strauss

Backs: Henry Pyrgos, Finn Russell, Tim Visser, Peter Horne, Mark Bennett, Sean Maitland, Stuart Hogg

Bench: Ross Ford, Alasdair Dickinson, Willem Nel, Tim Swinson, Ryan Wilson, Greig Laidlaw, Duncan Weir, Matt Scott

The Head to Head

In something rare when they face a Tier I nation the U.S. actually average more caps per player than Scotland. With Thiel's return to the line-up the Eagles have 334 or roughly 22 per player. Scotland have 273 total or 18.2 per player. Having John Hardie with just three caps helps. Another import, Josh Strauss, with only one cap also brings down the average. Strokosch is easily the most capped player with 46. Mike Petri leads the way for the Eagles with 54 while AJ MacGinty and Al McFarland each have six.

Key Match-ups

Front-row vs. Front-row: The Eagles scrum has been better the last couple of years but is till not necessarily among the best at the World Cup. Scotland, much like they did in Houston, are going to try and slow the game down and force the Eagles into penalties. If they can hold up and prevent Scotland from getting the ball out quick that will be a success.

Deep Three vs. Deep Three: Scotland may not be the flashiest side but they are going to try and use their wings and fullback any chance they get. Visser, Maitland, and Hogg are super dangerous. Ngwenya, Scully, and Wyles can be dangerous themselves but their defense will be tested.

Finn Russell vs. AJ MacGinty: This fly-half battle is going to be fun to watch. Finn Russell is an emerging star while MacGinty has all the makings of a special player. Whoever dominates with their boot is going to be important as well.

Keys to the Match

Kicking: Like last week and every week we're going to talk about kicking. It was good but not great last week from the tee and kicking from hand was poor at times. Scotland are going to play a drag out match and if the U.S. leave points on the board it could cost them the game. Likewise, if they make errant kicks from hand the deep three of Scotland are going to make them pay.

The Breakdown: The Eagles have come up against more difficult opponents the last few weeks and that has limited what they can do at the breakdown. They are keep their own ball well but they aren't creating the same turnovers they did in the summer. If they can achieve even a fraction of that rate they should be good.

Play the Ref: Pretty much all pundits agreed that the Eagles were hard done by against Samoa by the referee. That wasn't the only reason for the loss but it was a factor. Hopefully the refereeing is better this go around but the Eagles still need to learn to adapt to the referee.

Scrum: We've talked about this endlessly in the past but the same principles remain.

Energy: Scotland are going to be tired, at least some of them, so the Eagles need to take it straight to them and make them physically suffer.

The Takeaway

If the Eagles ever had a chance at upsetting a Tier I nation at the World Cup this is it. Scotland are one of the weaker teams in the Six Nations, they are playing some of their reserves, and the U.S. has been playing well.  It's not going to be easy but at least the ingredients are there. We can't stress this enough, a win is unlikely, but the U.S. is due for an unlikely moment and this is going to be it. 

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