By Derek Sagehorn
The Eagles play Brazil in Austin on Saturday in the second match of the 2017 Americas Rugby Championship. For those players that traveled to Brazil last year, the memories of losing should be painful and provide extra motivation for the 2017 contest.
Last year, Brazil surprised the Eagles with pace and an overpowering scrum. There should be no surprises this year. John Mitchell and company have had a year with the squad and should be doing their homework. In that spirit, I've looked at Brazil's victory over Chile in São Paulo to understand the former's strengths and weaknesses.
The game was played in greasy conditions so very little attacking width was revealed by either side. Brazil opted to use primary phase ball to challenge the Condors fullback and wings on several occasions with a variety of kicks.
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Here we can see an early, high kick from the Brazilian fly half. The chase is good but the center Felipe Sancery recklessly takes out the opposition fullback in the air. A card is given but it doesn't dissuade from these kicks.
Brazil are able to pin back Chile on several occasions with these kicks. That happens because the Brazilian midfield is well-organized and enthusiastic in its coverage.
In addition to the kicking from hand, Brazil has a potent counter attacking option in De Wet van Niekerk. Watch as the wing fields the ball out of touch and passes to himself to restart play. Not to be outdone, he swerved through a Chilean kick chase to create a platform for Brazilian attack.
Expect the Brazilians to test out the fielding ability of Mikey Te'o early. The Eagles will need to work hard to get back in support of the fullback to avoid turnovers.
The Brazilian team won more than 92% of their own lineouts against Chile. This figure can be handicapped by the fact that the Condors did little to effectively oppose them in the contest. The Eagles should be aiming to bring that number down to the low-seventies.
The Brazilians used a full, seven man lineout exclusively. They never mauled, however, despite the wet conditions and tried to play quickly off the top. Oftentimes, the hosts used a tempo or quick lineout to win ball unopposed at the back. An effective response to this would be to have the last two defenders of the lineout cut off the pass and pressure scrum half/fly half connection. On the one instance Chile did so, they were able to disrupt Brazil attacking possession.
Notice above how João Luiz da Ros, blindside flanker, is the last into the lineout but immediately turns and jumps. The Chileans are caught flat footed. Rather than go up late to contest a well-timed throw, the back defenders prepare to press. As the ball comes off the top, the last defender goes wide to cut off the pas while the second to last defender presses up to contain the scrumhalf. The connection between jumper and scrumhalf is poor, but the swarming defense capitalizes on it. A promising attacking possession is snuffed out by intelligent defense.
Unfortunately for Chile this intelligent play at the back is nowhere to be seen in the final ten minutes. Brazil earns a penalty and opts for the corner. The Chileans stay on the ground and concede the lineout, anticipating a driving maul -- something Brazil has not used once for 70 minutes. From an attacker’s perspective, with the game on the line, a potential historic victory, why would you use a conventional attacking method in a pivotal moment that you've ignored all game? Wouldn’t surprise work better?
The Brazilians opt for the aggressive throw to the back, which gives them quicker ball to the backs and splits the field further. The Chileans watch and hold their positions, despite their opposites working off the ball around the lifting pod.
The two players at the back hold their position and prepare to either sack or contest a driving a maul. No other forwards are actively working towards the pod to relieve the back two of their obligation to defend the maul. Neither pays attention to the Brazilian flanker Andre Arruda rotating beyond the 15 meter mark. Arruda does attract the attention of the Chilean fly half, who senses a disconnection between himself and the forward. He steps inside and forward to contest a potential pop from the lifting pod to the circled forward.
The ball comes down to the replacement scrumhalf Matheus Cruz, who darts towards the back shoulder of the Chilean fly half. The Chilean fly half now pushes up expecting a Brazilian center to receive the ball, trusting the forwards at the back to cover Cruz. These two finally realize where the ball is going, but too late. To make matters worse, Brazillian Arruda is now in their way--innocently or not--and they cannot take a direct line to make the tackle. Try time Brazil.
The try above illustrates cleverness on Brazil's part. They identified mental weakness on Chile's part and ruthlessly exploited it for the decisive score. Uruguay scored a try in the first half last week on a similar move to the blind side. It's imperative that the Eagles identify, scan and work hard in these situations to avoid conceding tries in such a manner.
The conditions of the match hampered each team’s ability to attack the wider channels. Chile, however, did succeed early on in exposing the narrow Brazilian defense.
This should be a familiar play to attentive students of the new-look Eagles. It is a second attacking line, sprung from behind a pivot. While the Chileans were able to get in behind Brazil on this occasion, they did use the attacking option again. Against Uruguay, the Eagles used this attacking pattern often, with some success.
Here, Ben Cima cuts out the available AJ MacGinty to release Bryce Campbell outside. But the option of another distributor is present. Given MacGinty’s departure, the question will be whether Mitchell opts for another distributor in the number twelve jersey. If the Eagles can accurately pass and catch, Brazil may be vulnerable in the wider channels.
In the 2016 match, the Brazilian scrum humiliated the American forward pack. With new selections and an added emphasis on the set-piece, there is hope that performance will not be repeated. There may, even, be an opportunity for the Americans to inflict pain themselves.
Below we see a Brazilian scrum against a Chilean pack missing a back-row due to a yellow card. Watch the Chilean loosehead put the Brazilian tight-head on roller skates.
The Chileans were missing a man and still dominated the Brazilian scrum! The Eagles scrum has spent so much of its recent history on the receiving end of such treatment. If the Brazilians select Wilton Rebolo again, it will be incumbent upon Anthony Purpura to dish out the pain. The loosehead prop played very well in his return to the Eagles shirt, steadying the scrum and earning penalties against a talented Uruguay front-row. For a long-time, the Eagles have struggled to find depth at prop behind Titi Lamositele and Chris Baumann. A destructive performance against Brazil could help seal a spot on the squad for the journeyman player.