Friday, February 17, 2017
Analysis: Breaking Down The Eagles Attack & Maul
By Derek Sagehorn
Last week against Brazil, the Eagles laid down a marker. They scored tries, read defenses and set a new standard for how they should play when favored. But a 51-3 result against Brazil is no sure indicator of how the Eagles will perform against the Can-Am match against Canada in Vancouver on Saturday. The surge of tries in the final 15 minutes will not be easily replicated given the Maple Leafs’ fitness. Let’s look at how the Americans fared against a fresh Brazilian defense.
As we’ve seen over the last year, John Mitchell’s teams are encouraged to move the ball around. This philosophy is encouraged by the use of a 2-4-2 split. As discussed during the Americas Pacific Challenge, the 2-4-2 places the tight five forwards in the center of the pitch and the loose forwards and hooker on its fringes. This allows attacks to be focused on left, right and center channels with width; meaning forwards are not asked to chase possession across the field, but perhaps ruck several balls in a row. It’s a system that requires more skill and decision-making on the part of the mullockers that typically make-up the tight-five.
Take the jump to read more.
The Eagles have embraced this system and are looking increasingly comfortable moving the ball around the park. What was missing at times against Brazil was the forward momentum necessary to pin the defense and open space out wide.
Above we see an American attacking possession in Brazil’s half of the field. The Eagles have identified space out wide and are moving the ball to the left. Unfortunately none of the outside runners are moving forward to add pace to the ball. They are far too shallow to be effective in attack. Bryce Campbell and Spike Davis need to work hard off-the-ball to put themselves in a position where they can add something to the movement. Instead the play is cut-off and they are caught flat footed.
Above we can see a similar issue. There is space to the right to be exploited. In addition, the presence of tight forwards in the middle has drawn defenders as the midfielder passes to Mikey Te’o. But the fullback takes the pass flat footed. Even more, there is space for him to take a step or perhaps two forward after he has receive the ball to challenge the defense and slow their drift. Instead he passes straight on to John Quill, who is moving forward with James Hildebrandt. If Te’o had came from a bit more depth, this movement could have really stretched the Brazilian defense.
As the game wore on, the Eagles start to work harder off the ball to put themselves in more dynamic positions. Tony Lamborn added a lot to the Eagles attack simply by working hard to get back and create pace running onto the ball.
Lamborn chats with the Will Magie, lets him know it’s on and springs from his block. Not only does he speed to the attack, but because he’s starts from such depth he can veer outside from his original running line. The defender marking him is slow to pick up on this overs line and can only throw a half-hearted arm tackle at Lamborn. In a game where line breaks come at a premium, something as simple as running with more depth and a funny angle can do as much as a killer side-step.
Above we see the Eagles go wide, but this time Nick Civetta is stepping forward to challenge the defense. This allows Lamborn enough space to take a deep pass and run aggressively before passing to a JP Eloff. The center starts at the same depth as Lamborn but does well to hold his run until after the flanker has taken the ball. Eloff is well-positioned to pass or run as he takes the football. His ball movement and footwork see him through a half gap and to a try. The center’s play was brilliant but the opportunity was created by the pace that Lamborn and Civetta brought to the line. The first try of the match similarly illustrates the concept.
Here, the Eagles have a very good ball underneath Brazil’s post. They see the space out wide and a disorganized Brazilian defense. Hildebrandt moves the ball to Nate Brakeley. The Brazilian center sees the overload and decides to rush up and pressure the pass. Stereotypically, second-rowers would select the wrong option or fail to execute the skill in such a scenario.
Brakeley sees the rush defender early because he is scanning the field. Rather than force an early pass or turn up field, the lock continues to run at the defender’s shoulder to draw him. Having presented himself as a running threat, the defender cannot turn his hips outward to defend the pass. Brakeley calmly throws a long pass to Campbell. The young center smoothly catches, holds the ball just long enough to commit the defender and passes to an in-stride Spike Davis. Having intelligent, skilled and empowered tight forwards will create more tries. If the Eagles can replicate these kinds of moments against Canada, they will be in good shape.
In addition to the sexy, attacking rugby, it’s important that the Eagles tight forwards don’t lose their ability to score tries in the corner. Although it may appear uncouth or boring, the maul is one of the most effective try scoring methods. The hard work in rugby’s coal-face can sometimes be the only opportunity to score a try in a defensive or wet-weather match. Thus it was imperative that the Eagles throw their weight around, literally, against Brazil.
This maul comes from a series of three lineouts the Eagles had within ten meters of Brazil’s try line in the first ten minutes. They did not score on any of these opportunities. To be fair, in one instance the Brazilians cynically pulled down an attacking maul and were penalized.
Here, the Eagles are penalized for obstruction. They have won the ball, prepared to drive and forgot that they need an opponent to drive against for it to be a contest. This is a tactic the Chiefs used frequently in Super Rugby to defend against less than vigilant forward packs. The lifters of the pod should identify the paucity of defenders and either grab a man to drive against or break the maul. The location of this possession is too valuable to give away to penalty.
Next we see a maul where the Eagles start driving, but lose their feet. It’s often tough to judge the exact cause of this or evaluate whether the forward kept their balance. But it’s so important that players stay on their feet and fight like to stay there. Five points are on-offer if you can keep your feet and move them four meters. Instead the Eagles lose an opportunity to put early distance between themselves and Brazil.
In the second half, we can see a maul formed in the corner again. This time a forward loses his feet. But notice how he fights to stand back up. Once he does, the drive starts again. The Eagles surge forward just short of the line and Tony Lamborn dives over for a try on the very next phase.
As has been said before, scoring opportunities in rugby need to be converted. Whether it’s working hard off the ball to offer pace on an overload or reaching deep down to drive a maul over, the Eagles need to convert more of their try-scoring chances.