And now for the Rugby World Cup disappointments

The U.S. against Samoa. Are the Eagles condemned forever to be the team of the future?
The U.S. against Samoa. Are the Eagles condemned forever to be the team of the future?

There’s a flip side to the best rugby matches in Rugby World Cup 2015, and that’s the games that disappointed. Not surprisingly, all of those are the matches that involved the United States team — four losses and no bonus points in the standings, which means they never came within seven points of an opponent and they never scored four tries in a game.

The quickest way to list the disappointments would probably be to look at the margin between winner and the United States, and that would bring the South Africa game right to the top: 64-0 with the Springboks scoring 50 of those in the second half.

Next would come the Scotland game, a loss by 23 points, then Japan (10 points) and Samoa (nine points).

But did anyone expect the U.S. team to beat South Africa, even after Japan knocked them off the opening weekend? I didn’t. Maybe not lose by 64 points, but a win against the Springboks ranged beyond even my open optimism.

Samoa and Japan seemed the games that the U.S. could win, but giving up 15 points on penalties against Samoa doomed that chance of victory. More penalties and poor defense sunk the chance of a win against Japan.

So given my expectations, here’s how I would list those games from the most disappointing to the least:

Samoa

Japan

Scotland

South Africa

Stuart Barnes, writing in The London Times, listed his first to worst teams and somehow the U.S. made it up from the bottom to No. 15, but I suspect his disappointment in England’s performance and a general dislike of things French put those two teams below the U.S. along with Canada, Tonga and Samoa.

What Barnes said about U.S. rang true: “They are always touted as the coming team but seem to be in no great hurry and rarely looked like a cohesive team in their sorry sequence of defeats.”

That statement reminds me of a story I did back in the 1960s while working for the Associated Press. The story was about transportation systems and what might be coming in the cities of Ohio, where I worked. I asked a Cincinnati transportation planner about the prospect of monorail as an answer to moving people efficiently. His answer: “Monorail is the transportation of the future and always will be.”

Right now that looks like the fate of U.S. rugby: The world’s forever future team.

Australia vs. Scotland the match of the RWC tournament

NZ with ball
Off they go again. The New Zealand All Blacks cut through the Australia defense in the Rugby World Cup Final. One thing that struck me as I edited my photos from this match: Richie McCaw, the New Zealand captain, is in almost all of them, always around the ball. He is reaching over an Aussie player in this picture, looking up at the ball carrier.

Before we left London, Kathy asked if going to the Rugby World Cup measured up to all my expectations — a question that surprised me since I thought the giddy smile on my face for eight weeks made my delight obvious.

Let me count the way, m’lady. Thirteen international rugby matches. Theater seats for London and Stratford-upon-Avon shows. Hiking the hills, punting the river, browsing through every sort of attraction covering history, art, religion, architecture and others realms of human achievement.

Yes, a definite success and then some.

Then we decided over a restaurant meal to break it down: list the top five favorite things we did while in England. We both ticked off five before the waiter got the first glass of water to the table. We were approaching more than 10 favorites apiece before our order was taken.

In keeping within the rules of naming only five, I tried to do categories, so that one of my five choices was “the rugby games,” another was “Oxford colleges,” another “plays.” Cheater, cheater, Kathy protested.

My answer to this was to offer to list five choices within each category, and of course I started with the rugby games I saw. My five favorites:

  1. Scotland vs. Australia in the quarter final: If you take the measure of excitement generated in a game by how many times the lead changes, this match goes right to the top of the list. Four lead changes. Australia took an early lead, but Scotland took over for most of the first half and was ahead by one point at the break, 16-15. The teams were never more than eight points apart and most of the time were within three points of each other. Australia got up early in the second half until Scotland climbed back up to a 34-32 lead with under seven minutes to go in the game. Then came the bad call from the ref, a three-point penalty kick by Australia with less than two minutes left and that was the end of the tournament for Scotland.
  2. New Zealand vs. Australia in the final: How can the culminating game of the tournament not be No. 1 on this list? It probably would be if the Scotland-Australia match hadn’t been one that had me jumping out of my seat and endangering my laptop on the media table in front of me. The final threatened to be a boring, let’s-play-it-safe, penalty- kicking affair through most of the first half. It wasn’t until the clock had ticked off more than 38 minutes that New Zealand put together a thriller try from the back of a loose ruck with Aaron Smith getting two touches and then skipping a pass to “he’s everywhere!” Richie McCaw, who made one more pass to put Nehe Milner-Skudder in for the score. The All Blacks got up 21-3 and it was starting to look like a rout until Australia put together two converted tries and pulled within four points. All Black Dan Carter stomped on the Aussie momentum with a drop goal at 69 minutes. Every winning team needs a player who can perform this score-from-anywhere-inside-the-50 tactic. Nothing is so soul-killing for a team to be scored against this way. And Carter wasn’t done. He added a penalty kick at 73 minutes and all that was left to complete the game was a mishandle by Australia, kicked ahead by Ben Smith and a bounce up into the hands of Beauden Barrett for one more New Zealand score and a conversion by Carter. 34-17 All Blacks.
  3. The other quarterfinal — South Africa vs. Wales: Another close one. Most of the scoring came on penalty kicks, but the tries turned the fortunes of the game for both Wales and the Republic of South Africa. It went like this: 3-0 RSA, 6-0 RSA, 6-3 RSA, 9-3 RSA, 10-9 Wales (nothing like seven points from a converted try to get you back in the game), 12-10 RSA, 13-12 Wales (drop goal by Dan Biggar gave the Welsh the halftime lead), 16-12 Wales, 16-15 Wales, 18-16 RSA, 19-18 Wales, 23-19 RSA (nothing like five points from a try to get you the win). RSA 23, Wales 19.
  4. Canada vs. Italy: Canada got up 10-0 to start the game, which included a try by DTH van der Merwe, who scored in all four of Canada’s losses. Owen Slot, chief rugby correspondent for The London Times, named him to his all-tournament team this week saying “his try-a-game tally showed consistency and the try he started and finished against Italy was outstanding.” Yeah-yeah, as the English say when in agreement. Too bad Canada couldn’t finish one more of some great movements. That would have given them at least a tie. But Italy won, 23-18.
  5. Canada vs. Romania: Canada again? Yep. For an exciting game, it’s hard to beat a 15-point comeback. Just too bad that it was Romania coming back for a 17-15 win. You can’t look away from the train wreck and you don’t want it to happen, but you have say afterwards that it was exciting.

    The All Blacks spread the field in defense, and Australia seldom got through it.
    The All Blacks spread the field in defense, and Australia seldom got through it. And once again, McCaw is right there, in front of the tackle being made by Brodie Retallick (No. 4)

Here’s what USA Coach Mike Tolkin said after the loss

Your faithful reporter missed the post-game media conferences after the U.S. loss to Japan. The game ended at 21:35 (as they say over here), and the last train to Oxford and the apartment left at 21:59. So there wasn’t really any choice about it unless Kathy and I wanted to sleep in the Gloucester streets overnight.

She didn’t.

We rushed to the train station.

So the quotes here of what was said at the media conference come from the Rugby World Cup media site.

You will see that USA Head Coach Mike Tolkin is optimistic to the end, which may not sit well with some readers. I have said in earlier posts that I was skeptical about such optimism and whether it was justified given that the Eagles did not win a game or earn a bonus point in the Rugby World Cup standings. U.S. rugby fans keep being told to look ahead four years to the next World Cup, and judging from Facebook comments on earlier posts quoting Tolkin, that is no longer satisfactory.

I report here the quotes from the Rugby World Cup. That doesn’t mean I agree with them, as seems to have been the impression of an earlier post.

On where the match was lost:

“It was pretty clear we made some simple errors,” Tolkin said, “and whenever we scored we allowed Japan straight back into the game. We had momentum and then let it slip at critical times which was disappointing today.”

On the development of tier-two nations:

“I think it’s certainly a big stepping stone; the margins of victory have been far lower than previous tournaments. There haven’t been the massive blowouts in certain games and every game has been tough, so I think it will be interesting to see what happens in 2019 with tier-two teams.”

On his team’s World Cup performance:

“I think it has been the best we’ve ever performed. We have been consistent in every game and showed moments of brilliance and periods of good play, unfortunately our game management and other areas let us down.”

I thought Chris Wyles, the team captain against Japan, had a more realistic and pragmatic outlook. Here are his quotes from the Rugby World Cup media site:

On the team’s performance against Japan and the tournament overall:

“It came down to consistency, which is the story of our World Cup. Playing some good rugby, but not for the full 80. Credit to Japan, it shows what you can do if you have four years to prepare.

“We were in it against Samoa, good first half against Scotland, and showed some glimpses tonight against Japan. Disclpline throughout has been an issue for us, pushing the boundaries when we need to stay composed.

“No excuses, but it’s difficult with some of our guys playing domestic rugby in the States, and we need to find a way to get everyone on to a level playing field.”

On the ability of USA to compete at a higher level in future:

“There is a lot of talk about our potential, and it is up to us to find the formula to make that happen. We haven’t come away with a win, and we had one win at the last World Cup. So we have to find that formula.”

On being involved in the first try against Japan, and scoring a try himself:

“Any time you play in a World Cup it’s an amazing experience – until you’ve played in one you won’t understand it. But you want to win, not just take to the pitch and lose games against the top teams. So we’ve got four years in front of us to prepare for the next one.”

So now it is on to the quarter finals with Australia and Wales from Pool A meeting South Africa and Scotland from Pool B; New Zealand and Argentina from Pool C meeting Ireland and France from Pool D. Should be some good games in there. We will be at six of them.

Japan did a lot right in winning 28-18; the U.S.? Not so much

Japan's forwards were able to push the U.S. pack around.
Japan’s forwards were able to push the U.S. pack around.

Before we start the roll call of all that the United States did wrong in losing to Japan, let’s acknowledge that Japan did many things right.

In beating the U.S. Eagles 28-18 Sunday night in the Rugby World Cup, the Brave Blossoms had the ball out quickly in all phases of the game. Their defense covered the field and mostly contained the U.S. backs. Their set play was superior to the Eagles’ and they took advantage when the U.S. did something wrong.

Version 2
Alan MacGinty’s kicks accounted for eight of the Eagles’ 18 points.

And the wrongs they did too often put a stop to something they were doing right. The U.S. played ferociously at times, kept possession for loose ruck after loose ruck only to turn it over because of knock-ons or penalties. There was hard tackling by the Eagles, but also some missed ones that set up tries for Japan.

Three minutes after the U.S. opened the scoring with a penalty kick by Alan MacGinty, the Japanese center, Craig Wing, ran through the U.S. defense. He kicked ahead and the Japanese had quick ball out of the resulting loose to overlap the U.S. backs and give Kotaro Matsushima a clear run in for the try. The conversion put the U.S. down 7-3 not seven minutes into the game.

The next 10 minutes saw Japan in possession of the ball steadily, but the Eagles had chances negated by mistakes:

At 18 minutes, the Eagles set up a rolling maul, had it out and a cross kick to the wing looked like it could succeed, but the play was called back to a penalty by the U.S.

At 19 minutes, the U.S. kicked to touch at the five-yard mark on a penalty but the lineout throw was not straight and Japan chose a scrum and kicked to get out of trouble.

At 24 minutes, the U.S. had another lineout and got it right this time, winning the ball and then keeping it through several loose phases until they were in front of the Japanese goal. The ball went out to the backs and a long skip pass put Takudzwa Ngwenya away for the try. U.S. leads 8-7

Any momentum there might have been from the try was quickly extinguished as the U.S. forwards couldn’t handle the return kick, a Japanese player kicked through and the Japanese set up a rolling maul that eventually puts Yoshikazu Fujita (a winger in a rolling maul!) in for another try. The conversion by Ayumu Goromaru was good, and the States team is down 14-8.

At 33 minutes, the Eagles are caught offsides and the penalty kick by Goromaru has the United States down 17-8.

At 37 minutes, the Eagles stole a loose ball from Japan and a high kick was well covered with Zach Test tackling a Japan back in goal. The U.S. won the scrum at the five, but the Eagles couldn’t get the ball out of a maul and the ref awarded a scrum to Japan. The U.S. forwards were called for illegal scrummaging and Japan kicked to touch to end the half, leading 17-8.

At 44 minutes, U.S. penalty gave Japan three more points. They lead 20-8.

Ten minutes later Japan was called for not releasing and MacGinty added another three. Japan leads 20-11.

At 61 minutes, U.S. prop Eric Fry was sent to the sin bin for 10 minutes for deliberately kicking the ball out of the loose. Japan kicked to touch, won the lineout and Amanaki Mafi dived over for the try. They lead 25-11.

The United States scored one more try on a long pass by MacGinty directly out to fullback Chris Wyles, who was alone on the wing and went in for the score. MacGinty converted and the U.S. were within seven points, 25-18, just a converted try away from a tie. And if nothing else, coming within seven points in a loss would have given the U.S. one point in the standings, erasing the awful zero that is there now.

But at 77 minutes, the Eagles commit one more mistake, not letting the ball out in the loose, and Japan scored three more on the penalty kick, winning 28-18, leaving the U.S. with no wins in the tournament and no points in the standings.

Japan had good coverage on defense for most of the night, but two lapses allowed the U.S. to score out wide, once by Takudzwa Ngwenya and another by Chris Wyles.
Japan had good coverage on defense for most of the night, but two lapses allowed the U.S. to score out wide, once by Takudzwa Ngwenya and another by Chris Wyles.

Fulfilling promise of U.S. rugby could start today with win over Japan

Today would be a good day to start on fulfilling the promise of U.S. rugby.

With the last game the Eagles will play in the Rugby World Cup 2015 only a few hours away, it’s worth taking a further look at what the Eagles coaching staff has said about the future of the game in the United States.

Mike Tolkin
Mike Tolkin (USA Rugby photo)

After the 64-0 loss to South Africa on Wednesday, head coach Mike Tolkin said, “At this World Cup you don’t get any 80, 90, or 100-point scores. They (players) played against a full Springboks side. In four years’ time it will be really interesting to see what happens. It would have been interesting to see what a full (USA) side would have done against the Springboks.”

No one at the post-game media conference followed up on what Tolkin meant by a “full” side. The players he rested for today’s game against Japan? The players that Tolkin sees in the future?

And he does see better U.S. sides in the future, as does the rest of his coaching staff.

Before the game against the Springboks, Chris O’Brien was quoted on the Rugby World Cup media site saying the USA would become more powerful in future World Cups. The kicking and special teams coach said, “I think we’ve competed already at a higher level than we have at previous World Cups. The wins and losses don’t show it but we’ve become a better rugby nation, that’s shown through the first half against Scotland and Samoa.

Chris O'Brien (USA Rugby photo)
Chris O’Brien
(USA Rugby photo)

Absolutely the game is growing. It’s the fastest growing sport in the country right now and you’re seeing that. When we travel we see kids playing. They start at five or six years old. You’ll see in the next two World Cups where that’s really going to show.”

O’Brien went on to talk about something that could provide a big boost to the game in America: Sevens in next summer’s Olympics. Assuming it gets prime time television coverage, it could spur more interest in the game, especially when the rest of America finds out their country has been the defending rugby Olympic champions for 90 years.

O’Brien led up to the sevens game in his answer to whether professional rugby will develop in the U.S.:

“I honestly can’t answer that. I’ve heard about it for the last 15, 20 years but it hasn’t happened; there’s always talk. In the States all of our big sports pay so much money. In one sense I can get an NFL player to come and play rugby, but it’s so hard to teach the sport and they want something. They’re used to being in a different environment so it’s pretty tough. That’s why it’s building the foundations from youth all the way up and getting these guys through.

“The dream of an American is to play in the NFL, the NBA, major league baseball. Now you also want to be an Olympian. You can teach someone sevens (rugby) quicker than 15s.”

Probably all this talk about how good it will be in future World Cups won’t satisfy those who have been hearing it for so long. And a reduction in runaway scores from 100 points down to 64 seems like being on a nearly never-ending diet before reaching the goal of a win or two.

But a win today in Gloucester would help make believable something Lou Stanfill, a Seattle Saracen player who has more than 50 caps for the U.S., said earlier this week:

“The direction things are going, future World Cups hold huge amounts of promise for us and America intends to fulfill that promise.”

Today would be a good time to start.

United States has one last chance to show improvement and win a game

The United State rugby team gets its last chance to win a game in the 2015 Rugby World Cup when they take on Japan at Kingsholm Stadium in Gloucester on Sunday.

For Japan, a win would make their third place finish in Pool B look a bit healthier, but even with a five-point bonus win they would fall a point short of taking the runner-up spot from Scotland.

It could have been much more meaningful if on Saturday Samoa had defeated Scotland. Then a win by Japan over the United States would have put Japan through to the quarter finals. Or, the U.S. Eagles could have played spoiler to Japan and helped the Scots through. But Samoa couldn’t quite get it done, losing 36-33.

In the quarter finals, Scotland will play Australia, the winner of Pool A after defeating Wales Saturday 15-9. South Africa gets Wales in the quarter finals.

New Zealand and Argentina advance from Pool C, but won’t know their quarter final opponents until after the Franc-Ireland game on Sunday.

A win by the Eagles on Sunday would do a lot to restore some belief in the outlook by U.S. Coach Mike Tolkin that things are headed in the right direction for U.S. rugby. After the 64-0 drubbing by South Africa, fans could rightfully be skeptical of Tolkin’s optimism.

As he says in the video above, the U.S. did pretty well in the first half (as they did against Samoa and Scotland), holding a full Springbok team to 14 points from two tries that came only after they had to “work their way down the field.” Then, as he says, South Africa got going in the second half, scoring 50 points.

Tolkin sees the problem correctly — many young players in the lineup with little experience at the international or World Cup level. He saw good performance by individuals but not as a team.

For the game on Sunday, Tolkin is starting 13 players who were not in the South Africa starting 15. Only Samu Manoa at No. 8 and Zack Test, a winger, remain from the game played on Wednesday.

Tolkin said he was also frustrated with the four-day turnaround between the two matches and said he “was not alone in that.”

“I’m sure the Rugby World Cup will look at that.”

As for U.S. rugby, he says things will get better.

“Four years down the road, it will be interesting to see what happens in the game,” Tolkin said in calling for international rugby to continue investing in “tier two” nations.

As he said after the Scotland game, the U.S. side would improve with more professional experience.

“Half my guys will have to go to work on Monday,” Tolkin said, and that will not mean going back to play on professional teams in top tier nations. It will mean resuming jobs as plumbers, fitness trainers, etc.

But Tolkin says he thinks that is about to change and predicted professional rugby union competition in the Untied States “soon.”

I like the idea, but I remain skeptical.

Bryan Habana delivers a pass in the game against the United States. He scored three tries in the game to tie Jonah Lomu's record of most tries scored in the World Cup (15).
Bryan Habana delivers a pass in the game against the United States. He scored three tries in the game to tie Jonah Lomu’s record of most tries scored in the World Cup (15).

Hard not to call it an embarrassment: U.S. loses to South Africa, 64-0

Two South African players scored five of the team’s 10 tries, and the Springboks took complete control of the second half and buried the U.S. Eagles 64-0 in the Rugby World Cup.

Bryan Habana, a South African back, scored three tries and Francois Louw, a forward, also put in two five-point tries.

A Springbok forward pushes U.S. defenders back.
A Springbok forward pushes U.S. defenders back.

Four other Springboks collected tries with the 10th one coming from a penalty try awarded for the U.S. team collapsing the scrum. The Springbok dominated in all phases of the game, and the Eagles rarely had possession of the ball and never produced anything from it.

A last-minue spurt by the U.S. ended with Lwazi Mvovo kicking a dropped U.S. pass into open space and going 70 yards for one more horror in a house of them for the Eagles.

South Africa easily picked up the bonus point for scoring four tries and will finish as the winners in Pool B over Scotland, who play Samoa on Saturday. Even with a bonus point on Saturday for Scotland, it would fall a point short of South Africa’s total.

The Springboks will have to wait until the Australia-Wales games on Saturday to see which one finishes as Pool A runner-up and will meet the Springboks in the quarter finals.

The U.S will have one more chance to win a game in this World Cup when they meet Japan on Sunday in Gloucester

U.S. trails South Africa, 14-0, at half

The U.S. scrum collapses for the third time and South Africa is awarded a penalty try.
The U.S. scrum collapses for the third time and South Africa is awarded a penalty try.

The South African scrum, especially in the set play, showed their strength over the U.S. forwards and took a 14-0 halftime lead, including a penalty try awarded after three collapsed scrums by the U.S. just outside their try line.

The South Africans scored seven minutes into the match. The Springboks set up a rolling maul after a lineout and drew an offsides penalty from the U.S. They took the quick penalty and broke through a scattered and surprised backline defense by the U.S. Damian de Allende touched down for the South African try and Handre Pollard added the two conversion points.

The penalty try came almost a half hour into the game as the Springboks drove down to the five-yard mark and were awarded a scrum. Three times South Africa won the hook and held the ball at the feet of the No. 8. On the third collapse the referee awarded the penalty try (it would have been scored if there had no been an infraction) and Pollard converted.

Five big days ahead for the U.S. rugby team

Beat South Africa today, and then Japan on Sunday. That’s the task ahead for the United States Eagles in the Rugby World Cup if they want to assure themselves a place in the 2019 tournament in Japan.

Advancing through Pool B to the quarter finals is now out of reach for the Eagles, but getting a RWC win and saving face is still possible for the U.S.

Knocking off the Springboks is a tall order although it’s been done. Japan surprised South Africa and the world by doing so in the first weekend of the tournament. But since then South Africa has shown they have moved beyond that loss, defeating Samoa and Scotland convincingly.

U.S. Coach Mike Tolkin has made several changes in his lineup. He may be resting his best players for the Japan game on Sunday, the last game before the quarter finals start the next weekend.

Tolkin said after the loss to Scotland that he still thought the U.S. could win games in the tournament. We’ll see.

Most of the pools have been sorted out for what teams will advance to the knock-out rounds. But there are still some games this weekend that will have a big impact on what comes next:

Pool B: Samoa vs. Scotland on Saturday. The Scots would love to have this win and a bonus point for scoring four tries. It’s their last game of pool play and they trail South Africa 11-10 in the standings. Whichever team goes out the winner will play the runner up in Pool A.

Pool A: Australia vs. Wales on Saturday. Right now they are tied in the standings with 13 points a piece. Going out as the pool winner would probably mean meeting Scotland in the quarter finals instead of South Africa. That would be my choice.

Pool C: New Zealand plays Tonga and Argentina plays Namibia. Barring an even bigger surprise than Japan over South Africa, the All Blacks and the Pumas will win and go out 1-2.

Pool D: Italy vs. Romania on Sunday will probably determined who takes third place in the pool and wins a guaranteed trip to the 2019 RWC. The stakes are higher for this time around in the game between France and Ireland on Sunday. They are tied with 14 points apiece, and the pool winner will likely face Argentina in the quarters, much preferable to taking on New Zealand.

USA vs. South Africa starts in an hour and 15 minutes.

Canada leads Romania at half, 8-0

Kickoff of the Canada-Romania game in the Rugby World Cup.

You know those big white wrapped bales of hay? Bruce and I were squeezed in between two of them for the Canada-Romania game in the Rugby World Cup.

I’d say that the two pseudo sumos on either side of us were the two largest people n the Leicester Stadium except that there had to be two like them on the other side to keep the stadium from tipping over

I’ve been more comfortable as a hooker at the bottom of a collapsed scrum.

And the guy behind me has obviously been deprived of human contact and was trying to make up for it by pressing his knee into my back. At least I hope it was his knee.

One more thing: The Romanians are the slowest team to ever walk a pitch, which is what they do to every lineout as their trainers run out with water bottles.

I’m hoping Canada annihilates them in the second half. The Canucks are ahead 8-0 at half.

Sorry, there should be no cheering in the press box. Wait. I’m not in my comfortable press seat with a table for my laptop.

I’m so spoiled.

But I’m taking sides and also hoping Mr. Blimpy can’t waddle back up to his seat.