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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Preview: Eagles Seek A Win Against Japan

A four year journey for the Eagles comes to an end today as they finish their World Cup campaign against Japan (3:00 p.m. et/12:00 p.m. pt). Without a doubt the Eagles are much improved over four years ago (but then again so are almost all Tier II teams) and they have played especially well this year. However, progress must be accompanied with wins and the Eagles face a winless campaign unless they beat a strong Japan side today.

The pressure is on Mike Tolkin and his squad to beat Japan. They ran out a second side against South Africa a few days ago to save their top team for this match and having won once at the last World Cup and feeling they could have more this year they won't want to go out not having picked up a win. Nigel Melville said as much this week in talking to World Rugby. “We know that we have to win one game at the absolute minimum to be on par with the last World Cup although we were looking at two wins. Now we know that isn’t going to happen, we aren’t where we wanted to be while other teams are competing well."

Take the jump to read more.
It's not as simple as to say the Eagles haven't played well this tournament. They certainly have. They led a Tier I nation for the first time at halftime and only trailed by two tries against South Africa at halftime. They knock-ons and poor penalties that have haunted them in year's past have greatly diminished this year. Still, the wins aren't there. While the problem may be more structural (something that Melville should take into account when evaluating the team's performance) the U.S. must come away with a victory against Japan.

That won't be easy. Japan are the darlings of the tournament having beaten South Africa in that memorable match. They also held firm against Scotland before running out of gas (thanks to World Rugby's schedule) in the second half. They then took care of Scotland. Japan have legitimate stars on their team like Michael Leitch and Ayumu Goromaru. All the players on the team will almost certainly be playing Super Rugby soon. All that said, they are beatable. The U.S. beat Japan earlier this year in Sacramento. Yes, it was many of Japan's substitutes but it also featured plenty of top players. The U.S. will have to feel that they are playing an exhausted Japan that has little to play for having been locked into third place in the pool. It's a difficult task but one very doable.

The Team

The Eagles have returned to their first choice line-up with only Samu Manoa and Zack Test keeping their place from the South Africa match. Still, it won't be a perfect line-up as Blaine Scully is not on the roster all together thanks to an injury. That will be a big loss and it will be up to Test to step up and give the Eagles an added dimensions in the backs.

Overall, it continues to be the strongest line-up the Eagles have fielded in a long time. Eric Fry and Titi Lamositele have been playing well at prop this year and while Zach Fenoglio has had his ups and downs in the line out he's been steady. There were some questions whether Cam Dolan should start but even with Hayden Smith and Greg Peterson at the locks the U.S. has options. The back-row of Al McFarland, Andrew Durutalo, and Samu Manoa are fantastic.

The backs haven't been able to get out and run much this year but players like Thretton Palamo, Taku Ngwenya, Mike Petri, and Chris Wyles have had some of their best matches against Japan. Look for AJ MacGinty to have another stellar match.

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

Backs: Mike Petri, AJ MacGinty, Zack Test, Thretton Palamo, Seamus Kelly, Taku Ngwenya, Chris Wyles (C)

Bench: Phil Thiel, Ollie Kilifi, Chris Baumann, Cam Dolan, John Quill, Danny Barrett, Niku Kruger, Folau Niua

The Opposition

Japan have also named a full strength and experienced line-up. Much has already been written about Japan and thanks to their exploits at the World Cup players like Michael Leitch Ayumu Goromaru, and Fumiaki Tanaka are household names. Overall they are an older squad with an average age of 29. In many ways this is the type of line-up the U.S. hope to have in four years.

Forwards: Keita Inagaki, Shota Horie, Hiroshi Yamashita, Luke Thompson, Justin Ives, Michael Leitch (C), Michael Broadhurst, Ryu Koliniasi Holani

Backs: Fumiaki Tanaka, Kosei Ono, Kotaro Matsushima, Craig Wing, Harumichi Tatekawa, Yoshikazu Fujita, Ayumu Goromaru

Bench: Takeshi Kizu, Masataka Mikami, Kensuke Hatakeyama, Shinya Makabe, Amanaki Lelei Mafi, Hendrik Tui, Atsushi Hiwasa, Karne Hesketh

The History

The U.S. and Japan have played 22 times. That's only second to Canada on the Eagles all-time list. The Eagles have won 13 of those match-ups with Japan winning 8 with 1 draw. However, the U.S. picked up the bulk of those wins early only in their history and Japan have dominated the rivalry as of late. The one exception was in July in Sacramento where the Eagles won 23-18. Prior to that Japan had heated the U.S. 37-29 in L.A. in 2014 and then 38-20 in Tokyo in 2013. In terms of form Japan have won four of their last five while the U.S. are winless in their last five.

The Key Match-up

Front-row vs. Front-row: The U.S. have scrummed better against Japan as of late and it's given them a platform to attack and defend. Despite their small size Japan are very good in the scrum and if they can bully the U.S. around the Eagles are in trouble.

The Keys to the Match

Scrum: See above.

Goal kicking: Goromaru is going to connect on his kicks and Japan will take advantage of any U.S. penalties. It's going to be up to the U.S. to stay disciplined and up to MacGinty to connect on his kicks.

Kicking from Hand: This is an area the Eagles have struggled at during the World Cup. Against South Africa they continually put themselves under pressure by losing the territory battle. That can't happen against Japan.

Scoring: The U.S. have only scored 32 points this tournament off of three tries. That's only one try per match. Japan on the other hand have scored 70 points per match with six total tries. The U.S. will need to find their scoring form and fast.

Fatigue: Both teams have put a lot into the World Cup and both will be exhausted. Whoever can dig deeper, especially in the second half, will win.

The Takeaway

It can't be stressed enough how difficult of a task this is going to be for the Eagles but a very doable one. The U.S. should look to Japan and tell themselves that they aren't that far off from being where Japan is at the moment. They have the tools to beat Japan and we think the Japanese are going to be tired. While it will be close, we think the U.S. puts in a special effort and squeaks out a win. 


  1. All signs point to a loss. Japan has looked so much better throughout the tournament. Does the US pull it all together today? I don't think so, but will be rooting for them regardless.

  2. Kicking from hand is not an area they have struggled in. They have out right failed at it. The box kicks have done nothing but turn over possession and with favorable field position. Scoring tries has been a problem for the Eagles all summer long. Especially for the backs. The Eagles have no killer instinct, and just do not finish. What very few opportunities they have managed to gain for themselves has almost always ended up with a foul or a knock. I hope they win. I just do not think they have what it takes to finish and take the game. They have done nothing but fall apart in the second half all WC long. Most of this summer, they have only managed to play well for a single half in most all of their games. Japan is not going to be as tired as you seem to think they will be. They have had over a week's worth of time to rest. They have better coaching by leaps and bounds. Eagles keep it close for the first half, matching Japan through first and second gear, but like the rest of the WC games, Japan will hit third gear in the second half and pull away.