Thursday, June 22, 2017

Analysis: Breaking Down The Eagles Offense

Photo: Cody Schmelter
By Derek Sagehorn

The two biggest red flags from last Saturday’s 21-17 loss to Georgia were scrummaging and handling. The former is a constant irritant for the Eagles, while the latter is an aberration in John Mitchell’s brief tenure. Unfortunately the bad handling opens the door for more pain up front. It was a vicious cycle for the Eagles: gain possession, mishandle it, give up a scrum penalty and lose territory or concede points.

The Eagles poor scrummaging is a theme I’ve written about frequently. Strides were made in the area during the Americas Rugby Championship but the deficit between the United States and Georgia is still immense. The overwhelming destruction practiced by Georgia in this facet of play is sublime. Given the lopsidedness of the affair, there isn’t much for the reader to gain watching looping video of it.

The Eagles themselves have marginally improved in the area with the help of Kiwi scrum coaches. Individuals like Chris Baumann and Paddy Ryan have emerged as hardened practioners. But fractions of eight does not a scrum make. Proud scrummaging nations practice scrummaging as a collective effort, not as individual contests. Teams like Georgia, Argentina and Uruguay (and many other) will continue to exploit this weakness until USA Rugby publicly acknowledges, plans for and remedies the problem. Poor scrum play in this country is a structural problem associated with a paucity of technical knowledge and experience at all levels. Any fix that doesn’t internalize this fact is cosmetic and the results will continue to be as ugly as we saw in Atlanta.

Take the jump to read more.

As to the other red flag, handling, it is abundantly clear that the AJ MacGinty, Will Magie and Bryce Campbell are skilled players. Each has displayed these skills since the fall tour. The missed and dropped passes themselves are an aberration. What is not is the placement of MacGinty in the #12 jersey.

I confess, playing an experienced flyhalf playing at center is something I enjoy watching. Maybe it was growing up with Luke McCalister for the All Blacks or just the promise of quicker distribution; having a flyhalf play here works for my reptilian brain. The usual fear in this situation is that flyhalves, typically slighter than inside centers, may struggle in defense. This has not been a problem for AJ MacGinty who is an excellent defender at #10 and in both games he’s played at #12 thus far. Attack, rather than defense, is where the Sale Shark has struggled against Georgia.

An important part of an attacking center’s game is to move the ball across while preserving space. Moving the ball across the field through quick passing appears relatively simple but becomes more complicated when trying to create space against professional defenders. A passer that simply shovels on without challenging the defense will be ignored—defenders simply accelerate their drift or press. Centers are thus asked to run onto the ball running straight or angled back towards the interior defense. It is often difficult to ascertain the angle of attackers from the sideline angle television provides. A good indicator, however, is the position of the shoulders. An attacker looking to preserve space while passing should have lines as perpendicular to the touch line as possible. As an example, above we can see Will Magie has turned his shoulders back towards the ruck as he prepares to pass.

Next we can see AJ MacGinty playing second receiver. He has three attackers in support running against three defenders in that space. After receiving a pass from Magie, he angles his shoulders towards the touch-line. He needs, however, to fix Georgia’s open-side Vito Kolelishvilibefore he passes. The turned shoulders means it is unlikely that MacGinty will step back and attack Kolelishvilli’s inside. The flanker is free to press across to sniff out the attacking move. We see the same problem in a similar situation below.

MacGinty is moving forward in attack but his turned shoulders make it clear that he is not comfortable challenging the defense from this position. We see it again below.

This time MacGinty is running at second receiver after receiving the ball from Magie. He has three defenders in front of him with five attackers in support. This is a fantastic opportunity for the Eagles to break the line and possibly score. MacGinty needs to attack the inside shoulder of Georgia’s Lasha Khmaladze. Dino Waldren sees the space and looks to run an unders line to pin the middle defender. Marcel Brache is positioning himself to receive the pull-back pass. Instead, MacGinty turned shoulders means he runs at the gap between the first and second defenders, right where Waldren is heading.

This tendency to drift across is something all rugby players fight against. But running straight and challenging the defense is something MacGinty excels at while playing flyhalf. We see him challenge a defender as first receiver in the build-up to the Eagles second try.

We can also see MacGinty minimizes the drift and challenge the defender to release Augspurger below.

MacGinty isn’t the only Eagle that struggles to run straight. Mikey Te’o passes quickly here, but his turned shoulders allow the defense to ignore his run.

The tendency to run with shoulders pointed North/South is important for the Eagles ability to move the ball wide, including with the more dexterous forwards.

This is an area of the game all players should strive to improve. But it’s clear that MacGinty struggles with this specific skill at inside center that he normally excels at when wearing #10. The distributing inside center may live again after Mitchell’s departure but with admission to the Rugby World Cup on the line, AJ MacGinty should be playing his natural position of flyhalf.

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