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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Analysis: Eagles Playing With Confidence

By Derek Sagehorn

The Eagles’ emphatic 52-16 victory over Canada was a joy to watch. Although there is room for skill and decision-making improvement, the confidence of the team has never been better.

The Eagles thrived on attacking the 15 meter channel—that space between the 15 meter and 5 meter mark. The wide ball movement was paired with a newfound keenness to go forward as we’ll see below. Tony Lamborn, Marcel Brache and Cam Dolan exemplified this tendency. But in attack, the offloads made the difference. The Eagles have the athletes to create breaks and half-breaks against Canada. Whether they could convert those breaks into tries depended on the trust between players to release the ball at high speeds in the face of contact knowing someone would collect it. The offloads and tries of Dolan to Nate Brakeley, Bryce Campbell to Dolan and Ryan Matyas to Nate Augspurger demonstrate as much.

 There were also several line breaks that saw an unrealized offload. The composure of players to recognize when not to push the limits of their own skills is equally important. The Eagles enjoyed a distinct advantage in possession because they took care of the ball. 

Take the jump to read more.
Another satisfying development is the Eagles willingness to keep the ball alive when they’ve merely met the gainline. The ability to keep continuity alive is integral to pushing defenses into uncomfortable positions. 




The Eagles as a whole have become a lot more skilled in unstructured attack—where possession doesn’t originate from a set-piece. In our first example, Canada has withstood several minutes off sustained American possession within their 22. A box kick off a line is put up to relieve pressure but Mike Te’o collects it calmly. He is supported by massive efforts from Nate Augspurger and Madison Hughes to hold off some of Canada’s larger forwards till the cavalry arrives. 


While possession is being regained, AJ MacGinty and company are working hard to position themselves and organize a counter-attack. Nick Civetta’s quick service to and support of James Hilterbrandt enables momentum to build. 


Augspurger is now back on his feet and delivers ball to AJ MacGinty. 


The flyhalf has called for an unders/overs. Dolan will crash hard back into the line while inside center Marcel Brache skirts behind looking to exploit the far 15 meter channel. The circled Canadian defender sees this ballet off the ball and accelerates his line speed to cut off the wide option.

MacGinty sees the wide option foreclosed but immediately spots the space. The defender inside of the blitz is now panicking. He has to defend the backside of the blitzer from a short pass. The flyhalf throws a dummy to Dolan and the encircled defender turns his hips away on cue. MacGinty backs his step and speed. 

 

As we discussed last week, Canada wants to take away the wide, 15 meter channel away from the Eagles. Dolan’s hard run unders run allows MacGinty to credibly sell the dummy and work outside. After the line break, notice too how much communication is occurring: Matyas calls for the ball, Campbell and Dolan slow their runs and adjust their lines. The quick transfer from Campbell to a searing Dolan happens entirely too quickly for the camera. 

We can see another method of American counter several minutes later. Off a Canadian scrum, the American line speed swallows up a wide Canadian attacking option. 


Caught behind the gainline, the Canadians try two phases of one-off runners to move the gainline. There is little success. Reversing field, they encounter a double-tackle.

 

 The smothering American defense presses them back. The quick phase following is snuffed out and a strong contest at the ruck expends two Canadian supporters; slow service alerts Nick Civetta to a turnover opportunity. 

 

Sensing the opportunity afforded by a tired, fractured defense, Augspurger and company seize the day. The ball is recycled and quickly moved away to MacGinty then to a straight-running Lamborn. The next phases finds Dolan running between a mismatch for a breakaway try. 

 

Organized and Urgent 

Although less exciting than the buildup to tries, exiting is fundamental to attacking rugby. Few besides the All Blacks can attack from the shadows of their own posts. The Americans did a fantastic job exiting their own 22 in San Diego. The right corner of the 22 is particularly difficult place to defend and exit. The Canadians tried to press their penalty and territorial advantage in the middle part of the match by kicking for this right corner. They win the ball cleanly and pop it to another pod set behind them. 


Civetta needs to decide whether to defend the potential maul in the air or the potential maul behind him. He can see the movement of players off the ball towards the back pod and quickly moves to lay hands on the receiver. With a firm grip he tackles the receiver before the maul is formed and prevents a drive. 

 

This quick decision-making and sack allows the American fringe defense to stay on their feet and organize themselves. They are consistently loaded in a three-point stance in pairs off the ruck. This allows them to confront a direct pick or a more belly-run type pick and go. By contrast, the Canadians are slow to get back on their feet and can’t seem to agree on a method of attack. Note the foreground, where Canadian attackers are split out expecting a pass while the man at the base calls for them to support another pick. 



After six phases of picks with little momentum, the Canadians desperately pass left and lose the pill. The organization and urgency of the Eagles forwards help make these turnovers possible. 

After winning the ball back in your own right corner, the task remains difficult. The angle to touch is not friendly for right-dominant kickers. Typically these kicks will go out shorter than those from the left corner, giving the opposition possession again very close to the 22. MacGinty did a fine job on several occasions driving the ball from the right corner. To enable these kinds of kicks, you typically need to create some space for the kicker from potential charge-downs. Observe the American plan below: 


The American scrum channels the ball quickly and the pass goes straight to center Brache. The hardline and run is necessary to move the offsides line behind the scrum. The Canadian players must then retreat to get on-sides. If desired, MacGinty can call for the ball quickly to press advantage, or direct his forwards to create a wall of sorts. 

But because the Canadian double-tackle is high and therefore dangerous, the Americans are awarded a penalty. Although a kick to touch will yield possession, it is still a poor angle. Because the Canadian pack has still not fully retreated, Augspurger senses an opportunity to break out of this coffin corner. He quick taps and darts through an offsides, retreating Canadian defense. 


But the scrumhalf isn’t alone. Mikey Te’o has anticipated this and is running slightly behind the halfback; likewise captain Todd Clever is sprinting in support to offer an emphatic clear out. The momentum from this exit eventually leads to a penalty in the Canadian half, which is punched in by maul. This isn’t a high percentage decision, especially compared to the touch-finder. Augspurger could have been easily been turned had his supporters been absent, tired or taken the wrong supporting line. But the scrumhalf trusted them and they obliged. That kind of chemistry is fundamental to the Eagles build-up to Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan. 

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