Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Analysis: Eagles Defense Against Ireland

Photo: All World Photo
By Derek Sagehorn

Saturday’s 55-19 defeat was neither the result nor score line the Eagles were hoping for against Ireland. The superficial comparisons to the narrow 2013 defeat to the Irish are fodder for the pessimists but tell us little about this team. What is clear, however, is that American defense could not keep pace with the mix of Irish youth and prime-aged players.

Many noticed the frequent line breaks by Keith Earls, Jacob Stockdale and others and promptly indicted the Eagles tackling. Such a conclusion is a narrow charge, like battery without the assault. Reviewing the tape, it’s clear that the Irish attacking pace moved so quickly that the Eagles did not have time to form a well-spaced defense. Even great grapplers like Thierry Dusautoir would miss tackles if they are meters out of position. The reaching, lunging and ankle-tapping tackles necessarily follow from a defense that is alternately too narrow or wide, moving too slow or fast at the incorrect moment.  Of the nine tries scored by Ireland, four were attributable to poor defensive spacing and pursuit. We’ll review each in turn.

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The Dog Leg

Three motivated, communicating and hard-working people can defend a lot of turf against an overload. Here, we have three American defenders working hard but not necessarily communicating very well.

Our three defenders are Peter Malcom, Ryan Matyas and David Tameilau. They are defending a wide blind against five attackers, including Keith Earls off-picture. These three actually have help inside, Nate Auspurger, and outside, Martin Iosefo, but it’s not clear if they are aware of this fact. Malcolm marks the inside forward while Matyas calls out Joey Carbery. Tameilau marks no one in particular, despite the fact that two men are outside of him. He’s also late stepping off the defensive line, creating a dog leg shape. This allows more time and space for fullback Tiernan O’Halloran to exploit.

Carbery identifies this misallocation of resources in space and hits O’Halloran on an overs line. Tameilau has to lunge to make contact but can’t slow the fullback’s pace. Unfortunately, Iosefo doesn’t make up his mind as to help Tameilau or run with Earls to prevent the offload. Instead he sits on an island as O’Halloran motors by. A few more meters of width by Tameilau and Matyas, the Eagles could have sniffed this movement out; instead Ireland scores their first in minute two.
Several minutes later, the Irish are again on the front foot and playing faster than the Eagles would like. The ruck in the middle of the field splits the Eagles defense. Nate Auspurger tries to slow the ball down but is quickly cleaned out. Marcel Brache gets up the deck from a tackle attempt and backpeddles into the defensive line at the beck and call of Matyas.

Unfortunately Brache cannot backpeddle fast enough and instead turns and runs to the offsides line. As he turns to face, the ball is on its way to Joey Carbery. Brache doesn’t have enough time to tighten his spacing to help out Tameilau. Brache’s tardiness leaves space outside of Tameilau while Baumann is slow to move across.

All three Irish attackers have spotted the isolated Tameilau and attack the space. Rhys Ruddock runs an accompanying line while Keith Earls holds off and bends a line (in blue) behind him. Tameilau is worried about getting beaten outside again so commits to Carbery. Now Baumann has to take the inside line. As the middle defender in this line he’s in a tough position. He is exposed on the outside and inside shoulders. It’s unclear if he sees Earls start to bend his line, but Nick Civetta is in a good position to observe this movement. Civetta needs to call Ruddock as his man and empower Baumann to push across and cover the elusive Earls. Instead Baumann fixates on Ruddock only to realize too late that Earls is on his outside. The half-gap turns into a jailbreak and the Irish have their 2nd try.

Nobody’s Home

One of the most important plays in rugby is the exit from behind the 22 meter line. It’s imperative to leave this area with ball-in-hand or as far away as possible into touch. Teams practice these kicks from all angles because coughing up possession or shanking a kick quickly turns into points for the opposition. The very narrow in-goals posed a challenge for the Eagles. They need time and space to execute these clearing kicks.

After bundling an Irish attack into touch at their 5 meter, the Eagles decide to overthrow the lineout to David Tameilau. The ensuing rucks  far from the touch line give AJ MacGinty the option to choose either side to kick towards. He opts for the same-side but doesn’t find touch.

Immediately after the kick, the Eagles are thus assembled. After resourcing the ruck and providing a curtilage to protect MacGinty from challenge, the Eagles are bunched together. Several are on the deck and there is 20 meters between the nearest forward and the touch line. These forwards will have to work hard to cover this unoccupied space. Martin Iosefo chases the initial kick but the follow-up is disconnected and misshapen.

Finally, the simple act of creating a post or guard at the base of the ruck goes begging in the 2nd half. After several quick phases, Paddy Ryan shifts too quickly to the blind as replacement scrumhalf Luke McGrath reaches for the football. McGrath needs little else as he scampers past the tighthead prop.

The Eagles all know how to tackle and given the time they know how to position themselves. But the lightening quick possession produced by the Irish forwards put tremendous pressure on Eagles defenders. With the exception of replacement prop Joe Taufete’e, no Eagles forwards made nuisances of themselves at the tackle area. If they had, the margin of error for a bad defensive alignment may have been narrower and so could the score. Georgia will bring the same level of physicality to the breakdown. The Eagles forwards will need to front up and slow possession if they are to progress from this result.


  1. I think the extra week of film study and defensive work will help. Georgia may have the forwards to make the attack work, but their backs are not up to the level of the Irish. Hopefully, having a game underneath the belt will help the cohesiveness​ in attack and defense.

  2. The Eagles had two pro's at 10 and 12. They had an experienced player in the US setup in Te'o and a player in the high performance 7's program. Matayas was the weak link based on experience but doesn't lack for pace. Ireland did not attack with anything complex. It was pretty straight forward rugby. The Irish Times quite appropriately commented that this was a tackle averse side.