Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Analysis: Eagles Draw Against Canada

By Derek Sagehorn

The Eagles’ 28 all draw against Canada was a necessary result but hardly a sufficient performance. They will be happy to head to San Diego equal, but their performance—especially in the first half—left much to be desired.

DTH van der Merwe’s stunning runs asides, Canada’s game was highlighted by domination the breakdown. The Eagles have few excuses in this matter as they have a veteran backrow of Cameron Dolan, John Quill and Todd Clever. If they are to seize the historic opportunity to directly qualify for the Rugby World Cup for the first time, a much better performance at the tackle area will be required. In addition, as we’ll discuss later, Canada intelligently took away the Eagles’ effective wide game.

Breakdown at the Tackle

The Maples Leafs did an excellent job at the breakdown retaining their own possession as well as creating quick ball. Their forwards ran well in traffic, as we see below.

Take the jump to read more.

Djustice Sears Duru takes contact from James Hilterbrand and John Quill. He spins out, falls and regains his feet to scrap forward for a few more meters.

The prop went from being caught dead-to-rights to five meters beyond the gainline. After quickly securing the ball, the Maples Leafs decide to keep the pressure on the defense in tight. Brent Beukeboom scoops the football and drives forward against an upright Tony Purpura.

The lock adds a few more meters before hitting the deck. The quick recycling and attack keeps the American defense peddling backwards.

Open-side John Quill senses danger from the repeated positive incursions and commits his body to contest or at least slow the ball.

Evan Olmstead violently cleans out and the American flanker ends back up on-top of the ruck. The ref shouts for Quill to roll away, but the open-side makes little to no effort to do so. Canada wins an early penalty. No points are obtained, but the sequence illustrates the Maples Leafs ability to go forward unmolested.

Several minutes later, John Quill is again contesting a tackle, but cannot quite get his hands on the pill before the ruck is formed.

He is also unable to slow the pace of the possession. The ball arrives to first receiver van der Merwe, with forwards inside and outside of him and two runners on the touch line. Because of the quickly recycled ball and miscommunication, the Americans have not resourced this side of the ruck adequately. They have only four defenders for Canada’s six attackers. A well-organized press defense should be able to sniff out this movement.

Above, we see Purpura charged with taking the inside runner, while Nick Civetta is tasked with containing van der Merwe. Bryce Campbell should take the tight-head Jake Illnicki, but correctly hedges inside. Campbell recognizes the mismatch between his inside defender, Civetta and the Canadian center, thus the more tentative drift. Off-screen to the right, Marcel Brache covers the fourth attacker.

But as we see above, Brache has aligned himself too far inwards, not trusting to Campbell to cover Illnicki and the inside step of van der Merwe. He loses track of the attacker to the outside and loses the edge.

From here, it’s a simple matter of pass and catch for the Maples leads, although they are abetted by an uncharacteristically weak tackle attempt by Nate Augspurger.

The Eagles failure to even contest a ruck leads to van der Merwe’s second score.

Augspurger has made a fine tackle here. But that he means he is unavailable to take the traditional guard role three to four meters behind the ruck. Because there is no active contest for the ball by a second or third player, van der Merwe is free to collect the football and run through open space for another try. Pillars Paddy Ryan or Ben Landry need to recognize that Augspurger is unavailable and set up their defense closer to the pile.

Although John Quill didn’t have a stellar day around the park, it wasn’t for lack of effort. We see him below cutting off a passing lane after a Phil Mack pick and go.

This kind of intelligent defense is followed-up by an earnest, if oh-so-close poach attempt. Taylor Paris and Connor Braid deliver hard blows to take the flanker off the ball. There isn’t in the space here to diagram it, but by contrast, the Americans backs—especially young Ben Cima—were far too timid in support. If the Eagles are to play a wide game, they’ll need to mimic the kind of rucking that Paris and Braid deliver here.

Divide and Conquer

Credit to the Canadians, they learned from the Americas Rugby Championship match, where the Americans ran them across the pitch. In Hamilton, the Maple Leafs focused on cutting off the wide channels that allow the Eagles to use their outside speed.

Above, we see the beginnings of the now familiar second-line attack. James Hilterbrand challenges as first receiver and pulls back to AJ MacGinty in the pocket.

The Canadian line moves forward quickly to snuff out either a Hilterbrand carrier or pop pass to Civetta. Below, we also see Tyler Ardron pressing ahead of the defensive line to cut off MacGinty’s wide option to off-screen runners Ben Landry and centers. MacGinty spots Ardron, waits a moment for a runner coming behind or underneath the Canadian, but then tucks to go forward. Here, a promising possession becomes stagnant as MacGinty is swallowed up and the American playmaker is unavailable for the next phase.

What MacGinty is looking for—and what the Eagles need to do in order to counteract this tactic—is a runner either inside or behind Ardron. The defender has cut off the wide option at the expense of very useable space on behind Ardron. Identifying this defensive cue early and responding will be important to establishing the Eagles attacking pattern. A well-executed line break through this blizting defenders inside will temper the defensive line speed.

Another example of this defensive strategy comes off a Canadian box kick. Matai Leuta fields a kick and is well-supported by Ben Cima in the so-called pocket. MacGinty stands near the center of the field, with three attackers on the far-side moving in position to counter. There is space for Cima on the inside and outside of the Canadian defender to attack and regroup with the forwards. Instead he opts to ship it to MacGinty in the middle.

The long pass is not fast enough, which allows Ray Barkwill time to close and pressure MacGinty. The flyhalf opts to step back-inside, right into a pocket of defenders. His nearest forward support will have to travel further to arrive. The Canadians have effectively “trapped” MacGinty into contact with this knot of forwards.

MacGinty tries to stay on his feet for support to arrive to no avail. Cima’s curious decision to loop around the flyhalf, as if expecting yet another pocket pass, leaves MacGinty with no support and the ball is turned over to relieve the Canadians of territorial pressure.

Despite the failures to win and turn over ball at the breakdown and exploit the wide channels, the Eagles were able to scrape together a draw. Will they adapt in San Diego? One certainly hopes, because the Canadians certainly have.

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