Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.
As I near the end of this journey, today I will be looking at the USA.
The Eagles qualified as Americas 1 for the first time in their history by beating Canada on aggregate, drawing 28-28 in Canada before winning 52-16 at home.
The USA started the year with a 3ʳᵈ place finish in the Americas Rugby Championship, winning against Chile, Canada and Brasil but losing to Argentina XV and Uruguay. They again finished 3ʳᵈ in the Pacific Nations Cup with wins over Canada and Samoa but a loss to Japan. They managed one final victory over Canada prior to the World Cup, beating them 15-20.
- Pool Stages (5ᵗʰ in Pool C)
- England 45-7 USA
- France 33-9 USA
- Argentina 47-17 USA
- USA 19-31 Tonga
Playing in a pool with 3 Tier 1 nations was always going to be difficult for the USA, but I think they would have hoped for a better reward. Their campaign could not have started any worse, losing young prop David Ainu’u to injury just a couple of minutes into their match against England, with George Ford scoring the opening try just minutes later and Piers Francis inexplicably avoiding a red card for a high tackle with the first contact of the game! They recovered well to put in a strong defensive performance. While they recovered well, the second half proved too much for them, not helped by a failed HIA for Will Hooley and a late red card for a stupid high tackle from John Quill (which ruled him out for the rest of the tournament).
Against the French, the Eagles gave as good as they got, with their maul proving a real weapon, but again they fell away in the final 15 minutes to concede 3 late tries, without managing to cross the whitewash themselves. A decision to swap Marcel Brache from 13 to wing proved costly against Argentina, as it left them defensively weak in the midfield, which Argentina (who changed things up as they were already mathematically unable to qualify for the knockouts) took advantage of.
Finally was the match they would have been targeting: against Tonga. An initial defensive, territory-based approach was not working for them, but the introduction of Mike Te’o and a switch to a more open attack paid dividends and got them back in the match, at which point they reverted to their more defensive style and fell away again.
Through the tournament, strong running from hooker Joe Taufete’e and Paul Lasike helped but them on the front foot with regularity, while Marcel Brache was a key part of the defence when at 13. AJ MacGinty also looked good for the USA, but his impact was limited as too often he ended up being involved in contact, which severely hindered the team’s cohesiveness in attack.
Of all the Tier 2 nations, I think that the Eagles are one of the teams in the best position to grow over this 4 year cycle. Though it has plenty of competition from other sports, rugby is getting bigger in America, which will only be helped by the success of the 7s team in recent years, which is going to be a key development tool for some of the stars of the future.
Meanwhile, and perhaps even more important, is the growth of Major League Rugby, which is about to enter its 3ʳᵈ season and expand from 9 teams to 12, with 11 of them being based in the US. This is giving the potential internationals a chance to grow with a regular high level of rugby, and the level is just going to continue improving as superstars like Mathieu Bastareaud, Rene Ranger, Ma’a Nonu and Digby Ioane join Samu Manoa, Ben Foden and Osea Kolinisau in the league. Stars like these will not just improve the quality of opposition the players are facing, but be monumental in developing the elite ethics, skills and tactics within their own franchises and – most importantly in the long term – get more people watching the league and getting into the sport.
In terms of personnel, the USA are in a relatively strong position. There are very few players from this tournaments squad who feel like they will be too old to feature again in 4 years, while a number of less experienced players have the chance to become key figures in the squad over the next couple of seasons, such as Ainu’u, Saracens’ Titi Lamositeli, Hanco Germishuys, Mike Teo’o and Ruben de Haas. Moreover, they have the benefit of having a good number of players also playing in the Premiership, Championship and even a couple in France and the Southern Hemisphere, which will again help to improve the quality of the overall squad.
The key thing for the USA now is to start getting more matches against top opponents. This World Cup showed that they were able to hold their own against Tier 1 nations, but were just dropping off in the final quarter. If they could start playing against elite teams on the regular, this is something that they would be able to work on and I think that we could start to see them pulling off some upsets. I continue to believe that the USA could be the next rugby superpower, they just need to be given the chance.