Friday, November 18, 2016

Preview: Eagles vs. Tonga

The Eagles had several unofficial goals for their November test series including 1) continuing to search for players that can play at an international level, 2) stay ahead of Canada in order to host the second leg of their World Cup qualifying series, and 3) improve in areas of the game they struggled with in the past. While there are specific things that can be looked out to see if the Eagles hit those goals on a macro level the easiest thing you can look at to see if your team is doing well is wins. Based on that it hasn't been a good series so far for the Eagles. They were blown out of the park against the Maori All Blacks and then a terrible first half against Romania ruined any chance they had to win that match. All that leaves is a potential win against Tonga on Saturday.

To put things in perspective of how hard that might be for the team they have only beaten Tonga once in eight all time meetings. Many of those meetings have come in recent years with the Pacific Nations Cup and on European tours. While the Eagles have played well in some of those matches they have always had stretches--just like they did against Romania last week--where the Tongans were able to capitalize on mistakes and pull away for a win.

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The keys to this match are the same as they have been for the Eagles for every other match. The same could be said for every team in the world. The U.S. needs to cut down on silly penalties and mental errors. At this point everyone that represents the Eagles has been playing rugby for years. Most for most of their lives. Simple mistakes of game management should be erased by now. Absolutely only having a short time together lends itself to mistakes but teams like Tonga face that same challenge. The Eagles also need to score some tries. Outside of their effort against Russia in the summer the scores have been few and far between for awhile. Setting up a good platform is a big part of that but at the same time they need quicker execution to free up their backs.

If fans are honest with themselves it is not as easy to get excited about the prospects of the Eagles in this match. Yes, they absolutely have a chance of winning but right now has the same feel that fans get every cycle namely that no matter what new system is put into place the inherit structural weaknesses--lack of money, lack of high-level game time, etc.--are causing the Eagles to be in the same place they've been the last several cycles. In many ways the recent challenges faced by Canada and the U.S. success over their neighbours has masked some of those structural weaknesses.

This doesn't mean it's doom and gloom for the Eagles. As an article this week pointed out it's far too early to judge John Mitchell on his performance so far. He's made mistakes to be sure, in particular selection last week, but he's also made improvements that should pay off dividends down the road. The Eagles are also better positioned to overcome their structural weaknesses than they were in the past. Nearly every single player on the team with the exception of Al McFarland and Bryce Campbell has played professional rugby. Even though the Eagles are playing catch up with a lot of other teams around the world they have the tools to put it together and cause an upset win on Saturday.

The match is live from Spain on Saturday at 11:00 a.m. et/8:00 a.m. pt. It can be seen on The Rugby Channel.

The Team

Mitchell has made a number of changes to his side from the one that played Romania. Veteran players like James Hilterbrand, Cam Dolan, Samu Manoa, and Tony Lamborn are either back onto the squad completely and starting or have moved off the bench to start. Manoa in particular was effective against Romania and should compliment what looks like one of the best back-rows the Eagles have every seen. Tony Lamborn and Andrew Durutalo are Super Rugby players while Manoa could easily be if he wants one. The Eagles are going to need a lot from these three, especially at the breakdown, to be successful.

In the front-row Titi Lamositele has gone back to Saracens which means Joe Taufete'e is taking his place with Hilterbrand sliding in at hooker. Chris Baumann will start once again. Cam Dolan will see his first action for the team and will line-up with Nick Civetta in the locks. Those are two players with Pro12 and Premiership experience.

The halfback pairing of Nate Augspurger and Will Holder remains in tact. Both have had some bright moments but both also need to work on their game management. We thought that Augspurger was one of the bright spots in the second half against Romania.

Finishing out the backs are Martin Iosefo and Blaine Scully on the wings, Madison Hughes at fullback, and Marcel Brache and Thretton Palamo in the centers. Iosefo and Scully have settled in together as a solid pairing. Hughes brings a high rugby IQ but he struggled with the high ball against Romania. Brache and Palamo are arguably the most interesting pair. Brache has been a center most of his career and has nearly 50 matches of Super Rugby experience. Palamo, if given space, can tear defenses apart.

Forwards: Joe Taufete'e, James Hilterbrand, Chris Baumann, Cam Dolan, Nick Civetta, Samu Manoa, Tony Lamborn, Andrew Durutalo

Backs: Nate Augspurger, Will Holder, Martin Iosefo, Marcel Brache, Thretton Palamo, Blaine Scully, Madison Hughes

Bench: Pat Blair, Angus MacLellan, Dino Waldren, Al McFarland, Langilangi Haupeakui, Mike Te'o, JP Eloff, Bryce Campbell

The Opponents

Nearly every single player on the Tongan team is attached to a professional club. Many of them have experience at the Super Rugby level or in the Top 14, or in the Premiership, or in the Mitre 10 Cup. For years they have been able to rely on these players to come together in a short period of time and be effective. There are some relative newcomers into the team without many caps, including prop Siua Halanukonuka who at 30 has less than five caps, but overall most of the players on the team have been around for awhile. Overall, the team will be as physical as always but can run with the best of them.

Forwards: Tevita Mailau, Paul Ngauamo, Siua Halanukonuka, Steve Mafi, Joe Tu’ineau, Daniel Faleafa, Jack Ram, Tevita Koloamatangi

Backs: Tane Takulua, Kali Hala, Fetu’u Vainikolo, Latiume Fosita, Siale Piutau, Nafi Tuitavake, Telusa Veainu

Bench: Elvis Taione, Paea Fa’anunu, Sila Puafisi, Valentino Mapapalangi, Kotoni Ale, Tomasi Palu, Tevita Taufu’i, Tevita Halaifonua

Keys to the Match

Rugby IQ: As we've mentioned, the Eagles have all the tools to be a top side. They have fully capable players and a back-row that many Tier II nations would be jealous to have. It's been putting it all together over 80 minutes that has been the consistent problem. A lot of that comes down to game time and rugby IQ. While one season of PRO Rugby isn't going to give someone a top rugby IQ enough players on the team have been around long enough to not make certain mistakes. They can't allow an opening ten minutes like they had against Romania to happen again.

Kicking: This isn't about going for points, they have been good at their attempts so far, this is about not getting into kicking battles in which they aren't going to see a lot of success. Against both the Maori All Blacks and Romania the Eagles couldn't respond to back and forth kicks and consistently lost field position. That turned into points for their opponents.

Scrum: We always talk about the scrum. It's made improvements but the likes of Baumann and Taufete'e need to step up big this week.

Penalties: Again, another topic we always address. We though the Eagles had made good progress in this category in the summer. They were able to avoid silly mistakes for the most part and it paid off. Unfortunately the ugly penalty machine came out again last weekend. They weren't aided by a referee that lacked consistency but they didn't help themselves either.

Make Gains: With all of the big bodies the Eagles have and backs that are able to get out and run there is no reason the Eagles shouldn't be one of the best teams at making meters after being tackled. It's their execution putting players in the right spots that has hurt them recently.

Have Fun: Yes, this is probably a junior level suggestion but it doesn't look like the Eagles are having fun. This is a chance to play for your country! This is international rugby! Go out there and play like you are having fun!

The Takeaway

This will be an uphill match for the Eagles but it's one they can win. They traditionally perform well at the end of their November series and with their top players in the line-up they look as dangerous as every. They will likely miss an Eric Fry or Titi Lamositele this weekend but they have a deep team and they have players on their bench that can come in and provide a spark. Still, given their performance the last two weeks it's hard to see them coming away with a result in this one.

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