Friday, June 17, 2016

Preview: Eagles Face Italy Challenge

After several months off the Eagles are ready to get back at it as they face Italy in San Jose on Saturday. In many ways it feels like we already know this Eagles team. After all, the likes of Titi Lamositele, Andrew Durutalo, Todd Clever, AJ MacGinty, Blaine Scully, and Taku Ngwenya will all start. At the same time it feels like something completely new. For the first time under new head coach John Mitchell nearly all the first choice team will be available and will have time together in camp. Already we are starting to see some wrinkles of where things might be different under Mitchell but now we get to see those changes in action.

It just so happens that this unveiling comes at the same time as the Eagles have their first chance at knocking off a Tier I country since the World Cup (the match against Argentina in the ARC was against the 'B' side). Over the past few years the U.S. has performed increasingly well against Tier I teams. Aside from the South Africa in the World Cup the U.S. has held a lead against Scotland at halftime, trailed Australia by four at the same juncture, and have been competitive against Ireland in the past. Now they are playing the team that finished with the Wooden Spoon at the Six Nations and is still adjusting to a new coach.

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Make no mistake, the U.S. are not favored to win this match. Italy are a Tier I nation and they have players that have proven themselves at the highest level. That said, it's not as if the U.S. is facing the All Blacks again. Italy have great players but they arguably don't have the depth of many other Tier I nations. That depth is still greater than the Eagles but when you compare 1-15 in the line-ups you see that the U.S. actually have an advantage in certain parts of the pitch. If the Eagles are going to win they need to have their star players play big and then get contributions from emerging players. It's going to be tough but it's possible.

The Team

As mentioned, by and large the core group of the Eagles remaining from the World Cup is starting. In the forwards veterans like Lamositele, Greg Peterson, Durutalo, Clever, and Dolan will all start. Joining them are Chris Baumman at prop and James Hilterbrand at hooker with Nate Brakeley at lock. Where the Eagles have a major strength is in the back-row. Durutalo, Clever, and Dolan is as close to first choice as you get for the Eagles. If they can be strong at the breakdown (Durutalo is the Breakdown King) then it's going to give the Eagles a huge advantage. With MacGinty's kicking anytime the U.S. can win a penalty they have a chance to put points on the board.

Penalties are going to be targeted in the front row as well. The U.S. has a negative reputation for their scrum despite three years of solid improvement and unless the front row sets the tone early they could give up a number of errors.

Where the Eagles line-up gets really interesting is in the backs. Nate Augspurger will get the start at scrumhalf and even though he has played 7s in the last couple of years he was phenomenal for Old Blue for a couple of seasons. Fans will be surprised by how well he plays in comparison to expectations. The other surprise is Shalom Suniula in the centers. He's a bit small for a center but he does provide the Eagles with extra play-making ability. The Eagles have always struggled to get the ball out to their backs early and the hope is that putting Suniula in a position to make plays will help that.

Forwards: Titi Lamositele, James Hilterbrand, Chris Baumann, Nate Brakeley, Greg Peterson, Andrew Durutalo, Todd Clever, Cam Dolan

Backs: Nate Augspurger, AJ MacGinty, Blaine Scully, Shalom Suniula, Thretton Palamo, Taku Ngwenya, Will Holder

Bench: Joe Taufete'e, Ben Tarr, Angus MacLellan, Steve Tomasin, Harry Higgins, Tony Lamborn, Chad London, Mike Te'o

The Opponents

Italy have one made one change to their starting line-up from the team that lost to Argentina last week. Canadian-born Robert Barbieri will come in at flanker. Overall, Italy have a mixed team as they are also making adjustments after the World Cup. Experienced players like Quintin Geldenhuys, Edoardo Gori, and Luke McLean will get starts but other players only have a few caps to their name. That said, they are all professionals in either the Premiership, Top 14, or Pro12.

Forwards: Andrea Lovotti, Ornel Gega, Lorenzo Cittadini, Quintin Geldenhuys, Marco Fuser, Robert Barbieri, Simone Favaro, Andries Van Schalkwyk

Backs: Edoardo Gori, Carlo Canna, David Odiete, Tommaso Castello, Michele Campagnaro, Leonardo Sarto, Luke McLean

Bench: Oliviero Fabiani, Sami Panico, Pietro Ceccarelli, Valerio Bernabo, Maxime Mbanda, Guglielmo Palazzani, Tommaso Allan, Giovanbattista Venditti

The History

The U.S. and Italy have played four times with Italy winning every match-up. The most recent match saw Italy come out 27-10 winners in Houston in 2013. That match saw both Paul Emerick and Andrew Suniula controversially red-carded in what had been a close match. Prior to that Italy beat the Eagles in the 2011 World Cup, a match Italy also won 27-10.

The Keys to the Match

Defense: The Eagles have the potential to be one of the best defensive teams in the world. Durutalo, MacGinty and others are world-class defenders. The trick has been putting it all together from top to bottom. The Eagles have been hurt in the past when they give up cheap tries on one defensive error. If they want to beat Italy they can't give up those sorts of tries and have to keep it clean.

Kicking: The U.S. have shown that they can win penalties recently but they must turn those into points. They need to get MacGinty to consistently tick over the scoreboard. Anything that is kickable they need to go for it. If they can pick up 15 or so points on penalties they'll have a shot to win.

Score Tries: It sounds simple but the Eagles need to start putting up multiple tries against Tier I opponents. Breaking down a top defensive team like Italy is tough but if your opponents score a two or three tries and you're only kicking penalties you probably won't win. The U.S. not only need the penalties but they need to show that they can score three or four tries against at Tier I team.

The Scrum: We always talk about the scrum but it's a massive part of the game. Lamositele has proved himself and now it's going to be up to Baumann and Hilterbrand to show what they can do. If the U.S. falter early it's going to be a long day.

The Bench: Where the U.S. have faltered in the past is when they've run out of gas an had to make substitutions. With the likes of Tony Lamborn, Chad London, and Joe Taufete'e on the bench hopefully it improves.

The Takeaway

This is a winnable match. The U.S. starting line-up is getting closer to a team that can compete against the likes of Italy. However, they are going through a new cycle and things are going to be different. They need time to get accustomed to new systems and a new coach. Having most of the team spend time together during the ARC has to help but this is an uphill task. We think it will be close but with Italy winning by a try. 

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