The USA Eagles had only recorded two victories at Rugby World Cups prior to this year’s tournament but with playing numbers on the rise in the country, an increasing number of players carving out a career in some of the biggest leagues in the world and with former Irish head coach Eddie O’Sullivan at the helm, hopes were high for an impressive showing.
The caveat to that optimism was the group they had been drawn in, with only Russia ranked below them on the IRB rankings and a hard fought victory over the Bears did prove to be their only success. However, terrific displays in defeat to both Ireland and Italy served notice of the potential in what is a young squad.
Their only blow-out came against Australia in a game which saw wholesale personnel changes, a move which apparently wasn’t wholeheartedly supported by the playing squad. Ten weeks after the final, O’Sullivan has moved on and despite the positives to take from their on field performances, it doesn’t appear to have been all sweetness and light off it. Captain Todd Clever tells their story…
Game 1 – USA 10 Ireland 22
It’s the first game of your World Cup, you’d been planning for this day for a long time and for this particular opposition but what was it actually like in the moment, facing Ireland and trying to put all those plans into action?
Todd Clever: “Going into the first game of a World Cup, there are a lot of emotions and with it being September 11th as well, the emotions were tested to the fullest. We did a lot of homework on Ireland, how they defend and attack and one of the big things we changed was our defence on lineouts, We knew they had a strong line out so we opted not to fully contest and send an extra forward into the backs in order to shut down their first phase attack instead. We also knew they were good at holding up players and turning the ball over at the tackle, so we trained very hard on our body height and made it a goal not to be held up in the tackle.”
As you mentioned, the game was marked by the 10th anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11. The emotions going into this game must have been a huge driving force for the team?
TC: “Yes, it was definitely an emotional day. We started with a mass in a local Catholic church in Taranaki in the morning. The US Marine Corps band was flown in from Hawaii, the US ambassador was there and there was a slide show and speeches in memory of the people who lost their lives ten years earlier. We wanted to make Americans proud of our performance – we knew Ireland were a great team and we were the underdogs – but we wanted to show our strength – especially on this day.”
Ireland had 70% territory and spent almost three times longer in your 22 across the match. It was a terrific defensive display from the Eagles and from yourself in particular – you topped the tackle charts. You must have been proud of your own effort and the team’s?
TC: “For the most part I was pleased with my performance. I wanted to make a statement – not with my voice – but by letting my actions speak for themselves. I was extremely proud of everybody, we put our bodies on the line.”
Ireland’s platform came from a strong forward effort and they pretty much dominated the set-piece, was that an area of concern for you before the match?
TC: “It was a concern. Ireland have a big physical pack and our scrum had not been the strongest going into the World Cup and was under a lot of pressure. I don’t think anyone was fully confident about it, including the coaches. As for our line outs, we did get some good ball but they put us under a lot of pressure and we didn’t always make the right decisions on where the ball should have gone.”
Although you didn’t win, you certainly gave Ireland a major fright and earned a lot of respect for US rugby on a global stage in the process. Is that enough to take away from this game or are you disappointed not to have done more?
TC: “No, I mean we were happy to take that away and we played well in the game defensively but we didn’t have the ball too often and when we did our attack wasn’t good enough against a team like Ireland.”
Game 2 – USA 13 Russia 6
Russia were the only side ranked below you in the group and represented your best chance of earning a victory as a result. Was that the approach?
TC: “We definitely targeted the Russia game for a win. We knew what kind of team they were and what we were going to up against and once the pools were all set, we made it public that we were targeting that game for a win.”
A marked improvement in this game from the Ireland match was the set-piece. You had parity at the scrum and dominated their line out, winning six on their own throw which gave you some early momentum, had that been a focus through the week?
TC: “We’d faced Russia twice in the last year before the World Cup and we knew that their scrum wasn’t going to be as good as Ireland’s. They are an improving side but we knew we could focus on some key points of the game, line outs being one of them.”
Conditions weren’t conducive to a running game and maybe that was a positive for the Eagles because Russia showed in the tournament that they had some pace and skill out wide didn’t they?
TC: “Yeah, they have some quality backs but I rate our backline better then theirs. On the two occasions we played them before the World Cup it was in perfect conditions and very much a running game and we beat them both times. I think both sides as well as the spectators would have enjoyed a running game if the weather had allowed it.”
You spent twice as long in the red zone than Russia but couldn’t convert that pressure into points, is that one of the key areas of improvement needed for the Eagles to take another step forward as a side?
TC: “That is one of the things we need to work on, our attack throughout the tournament was a bit stale. We did have opportunities through some individual brilliance, but in fairness, the weather didn’t do us any favours.”
The wet conditions obviously played a part in this game being the lowest scoring RWC match since the 1991 final between Australia and England but was it a bit too close for comfort or was it always going to be a tight affair, no matter what?
TC: “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, especially with the rainy weather which would even the teams up even more, so we were prepared for a tight game. We came in off a short four day turn around from a very physical match against Ireland and this was Russia’s first game so they were fresh and very eager to play. Those things also need to be taken into account.”
Game 3 – USA 5 Australia 57
Obviously, you appreciate that certain strategies come into play in terms of picking your fights but as captain and with the chance to play against the No.2 ranked side in the world, were you disappointed not to play in this one?
TC: “I was extremely disappointed with the tactics of the selection and I made my voice very clear to Eddie O’Sullivan and all the coaches that I did not agree with them making fourteen changes after a good performance against Ireland and a win against Russia. I brought the senior players together before they named the team to speak about the guys that were going to be playing and who would be resting and everyone was against it.”
Presumably, the changes were made as there was a game five days later against Italy that the coaches deemed to be far more winnable – why didn’t you agree with that philosophy?
TC: “With teams like ours, we have a very slim chance of making the Quarter-Finals and we wanted to put our best fifteen in against the best in the world, to show we can compete and play well, but sadly our voices fell on deaf ears. However, we must give the guys who played a lot of credit because they played really well for a lot of the game and after thirty minutes the score was only 7-5.”
What were the thoughts on Australia going into this one – were you concerned about a backlash from their defeat by Ireland?
TC: “We knew they were going to be going into the game all fired up. They needed to make a statement for their fans, for their coaches and for the squad itself. I knew it was going to be a tough day at the office for us.”
When the Eagles kept it in tight, they got some reward but the Wallabies ability to strike on the counter attack really hurt you didn’t it?
TC: “Yes it did and that’s why they are ranked number two in the world. They are a world-class team and will punish you whenever you make a mistake. At the same time, our guys made a lot of mistakes defensively and our attack was non-existent.”
Stats can be misleading but you led in both possession and territory and made half as many handling errors so there were still some positives to take from this one?
TC: “Yes, we did well with hanging onto the ball and recycling but we didn’t ask many questions of their defence. Our attack was stale and we didn’t create many opportunities to go wide. The reasons why the stats were lopsided were because we played too simply.”
Game 4 – USA 10 Italy 27
Italy had departed from a forward oriented approach in their previous game against Russia and they won in style as a result but some heroic defending from the Eagles in this game forced them to revert to type and play for territory. I guess you should take that as a compliment?
TC: “We worked hard on our defence and we were rewarded throughout the tournament with some big hits and by shutting teams down but Italy are a smart team and they figured out some ways to crack our line. A couple of times it was very disappointing because it was down to just one player missing a cue.”
It was still 10-10 after half an hour, there must have been a quietly growing confidence in the team at that point?
TC: “We knew it was going to be a tough game and that it was going to be tight so when it was 10-10, I brought the guys together to refocus and to believe that we could hang in there and play with these guys. Even though they were dominating some of the play, we just needed to trust our defence to stop their attack and try our best to get the ball out wide. It is sad to know we had such brilliant players out wide and we didn’t get to use them.”
Nineteen penalties and a penalty try conceded by the Eagles is an indication of the Italian dominance up front but – given that they have one of the best packs in the world – I still thought there were huge signs of improvement in that area by the US since the last World Cup – do you agree?
TC: “Yes, they have a very strong pack and their scrum is very good. We prepared for it and we fell a little short but I didn’t agree with all of those penalties and the penalty try came off a scrum when we had one forward in the sin bin. The US team is getting better in that area because there are more people playing in the States now and starting at a younger age and we also have better athletes than in previous World Cups but we didn’t come close to reaching our potential because US Rugby limits the teams’ time together.”
I sense some frustration there?
TC: “We had a good group of guys who were committed to the cause and left everything out on the field. The loss didn’t come from not trying, but from not executing and that lack of execution was a direct result of the lack of time we were together.”
Looking back at the tournament with a sense of perspective, would you describe the USA’s World Cup as a success?
TC: “Yes, to make a successful World Cup we wanted to get at least one win and play some good rugby against a tier one nation which we achieved. This World Cup was aired on major television in the United States and it really got the American public’s attention for the first time. Now it is up to USA Rugby to take the opportunity to do something with it while it is fresh in American minds,”
You lost by only 12pts to the 8th ranked side in the world (at the time) and by only 17pts to the 11th ranked side (at the time) – that certainly indicates signs of major progress. What do you think has improved specifically over the last 4yrs since France 2007?
TC: “I would have to say the players – we have more guys that are playing overseas than we have ever had before. We have quite a young squad and I said before the World Cup that this team will be something to reckon with in 2015. We are a team with a lot of talented individuals and the more time we have together the better we will be. It is just a shame that we came into this World Cup with so few weeks and days together.”
What has to happen in US rugby over the next 4yrs to ensure that they’re in a better position to compete at England 2015?
TC: “We need a coach that believes in his team and we need all of USA Rugby to get behind the World Cup squad and make sure that we have time together. For the Rugby World Cup build up, we were together for fewer days than any other national team – if we can change that, then we can go places.”
Eddie O’Sullivan has decided not to reapply for his own position. Do you think he leaves behind a positive legacy or not?
TC: “Eddie brought in a lot of good things to a team and a staff with very little experience. However, I think it is time for a coach that will sell the game of rugby in America.”
Could that mean we see a home grown coach take up the reins such as a Mike Tolkin or a Dave Hodges for example, or is there still a need to scour the planet for someone with an international track record who brings even greater experience, knowledge and technical nous to the table?
TC: “In the future, I would love to see a home grown coach and both of those guys would bring a lot of positivity to the national team but in terms of getting the Eagles on a pathway to succeed for 2015, we are going to need a lot of support from USA Rugby. We need more time together, a greater commitment to the players and a bigger budget and then we will be able to compete at a higher level.”
Given the size and population of the two countries, could/should the US and Russia be in the best position to challenge the Six Nations/Tri-Nations and Argentina over the next 20 years if the sport continues to grow on a national level and is suitably financed and promoted?
TC: “Nothing is impossible but we are so far behind the likes of England and New Zealand in making the game professional in our countries, I think we are further behind then most people think. But, if there is the right person heading it and good enough sponsors to back it, the sky is the limit.”
There was a lot of talk about how the lower ranked nations were mistreated at this World Cup in terms of rest days between matches compared to the Tier One nations. Do you agree that things need to change for England 2015?
TC: “Yes, it isn’t fair for the second tier nations to have such quick turn-arounds when the tier one nations have a full weeks rest, it should be the same for all teams. It is just another example of the strong getting stronger and the weak getting weaker.”
What did you think of the tournament experience as a whole in New Zealand and do they deserve to hold another World Cup in the future?
TC: “There were a few things that didn’t run as smoothly as possible such as accommodation, stadium sizes, and the weather but New Zealand is fantastic as a whole and they really embraced the tournament, from the big cities to the small towns. It is a very passionate country that supports rugby one hundred percent and the fans were amazing and made the games memorable. New Zealand did a great job.”
This article was previously published at www.ruggamatrix.com