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Monday, December 21, 2015

Eagles 7s: What We’ve Learned from Dubai and Cape Town

By Rob Chudzik, Northeast Academy

The Eagles arrived in Dubai with the sevens world watching closely to find out if the Cup-winning performance at last season’s London 7s was a fluke.  Mike Friday’s troops answered emphatically, with only an extra time try by England keeping them out of a second straight Cup Final. In South Africa, the Eagles showed that they’re still not the finished product, with a Cup Quarterfinal performance where they looked out of sorts. Mike Friday is fond of saying, “you need to get it wrong to get it right,” and that Quarterfinal and the pool match loss to Australia will be additional steps in that learning process.

Along the way, we learned a few things as well, in terms of the team’s tactics and strengths.  This might come as a surprise to some, but in the 2014-15 World Sevens Series, the USA was the top team when it came to regaining their own restarts, regaining possession in 41 percent of their contested restarts (uncontested restarts are primarily deep kickoffs).  Additionally, the Eagles put that possession to good use, topping the Series with 27% of their tries originating from restart possession.

Take the jump to read more.

The thing is, they may actually be even better in this area this season. They now have legitimate aerial threats across the park - Test to the left, Unufe in the middle, and Bender on the right.  Most teams will find it extremely difficult to match up in all three spots, so it’s a matter of identifying the best matchup and executing (easier said than done).  What’s giving other coaches nightmares is that the past two weekends showed that there is a new crop of players in Will Holder, Brett Thompson, and even Perry Baker, who came in and showed that they can step in and compete in the air without any drop off.

The numbers bear this out:

  • In Dubai, the Eagles won 12 of 22 contestable restarts (55%, with 4 being uncontestable), with 52% of their tries originating with possession from a restart -- nearly double last year’s mark.

  • In Cape Town, the USA won 11 of 18 contestable restarts (61%) and also held their opponents to just 22% on their contestable restarts. Their strike rate from restarts in South Africa came back down to earth with 25% of their tries originating from restart possession (possession from penalties led to the most tries - 33%).*

*Stats may differ a bit than other stats - different analysts may use slightly different definitions between an "uncontestable" restart (for example, if it doesn't go 10m, we call it uncontestable, or if there's a penalty, say for tackling the man in the air). World Rugby doesn't publish their definitions, so it's likely that there will always be discrepancies.

All this stats mumbo-jumbo points to the fact that the restart has become an important attacking weapon for the Eagles, rather than just handing the ball back to the opposition. Think about it for a moment - regaining your own restarts can mean holding on to the ball for large chunks of the game. In addition to denying the opposition the ball, it also has a big psychological impact on the defending team.

In the second half of the Plate Semifinal against New Zealand in Cape Town,  the Eagles took possession through a lineout with 5:40 left in the half. They scored off that possession, won the subsequent restart, scored from that possession, and again won the restart. After two won restarts and two tries, they finally surrendered possession through a knock on with 0:57 left.  Nearly five straight minutes where New Zealand never touched the ball.

It’s telling that in the three wins over New Zealand, the USA won 7 out of 11 restarts (64%),while New Zealand only kicked one contestable restart over three games, and didn’t win it (New Zealand kicked the fewest number of contestable restarts last season).

In their losses to France (Dubai) and Kenya (Cape Town), the Eagles let the opposition turn the tables on them and win the majority of their restarts.  In both of these matches, there often appeared to be issues between the jumper and lifter, with several catchable kicks being mishandled or missed completely.  That said, in the loss to Fiji in the Plate Semifinal (Cape Town), the Eagles won 2 of their 3 restarts, and won all 6 of Fiji’s restarts (Will Holder and his lifters were perfect). Yet they still lost primarily due to turnovers, with Fiji scoring four tries from Eagle turnovers.

So while it’s not a perfect indicator, by and large, if the Eagles’ restarts are going well, the Eagles are going well.

A couple of new tactical wrinkles also stood out in the Eagles’ game.  First, they seem to be frequently using a “pull out” pattern in the wide channels, in which the widest player (often Baker or Isles) challenges the defense, but rather than going into contact, pulls out and plays the ball back to a deep support player, who then moves the ball back in the other direction. This is likely done for two reasons: 1) to keep Isles and Baker out of contact (they are both much improved in contact, but each of them can still be a liability).  And 2) the defense usually commits pretty heavily to defending the wide channels against these two, so using the pull out and quickly moving the point of attack to other areas of the field opens up opportunities where the defense isn’t able to recover.  Conversely, if Baker or Isles take contact, this gives the defense time to reset across the field.  This pattern isn’t new, but it seems that it's being used more often than in the past.

Additionally, the USA has been employing a new offload game, to great effect. Using the offload is effective when done well, because it seeks to avoid a tackle/ruck where the the defense is given time to organize, connect, and get their defensive line reset across the field. It keeps the defense in a constant state of disorganization, which leads to linebreaks and tries. The tactic has been great for the Eagles, except in the few times where a 50/50 offload was forced.  Fiji, masters of the offload game, defended the Eagles’ offload game well - getting a defender in the close support channels around the ballcarrier to prevent or intercept the offload.

All in all, the first leg of the Series was a good one for the Eagles. They will have certainly gained some confidence in Dubai, knowing that they can back up after last season, picking up right where they left off. Cape Town was a bit of a let down, mainly because expectations for this team are much higher now.  And you can’t say enough about Mike Friday and his staff, from the management of these players to get them to believe in themselves, to the new tactical adjustments to take advantage of the strengths of the players, while minimizing their liabilities.  These are just the first few steps in a long journey to Rio, but all signs point to an exciting few months ahead.

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