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).

U.S. coach frustrated by team’s second-half effort

Mike Tolkin, head coach of the U.S. rugby team, didn’t like the Eagles’ second-half performance in their loss Sunday to Scotland.

Speaking at the post-game media conference, Tolkin blamed the failure to sustain a winning first-half effort on poor lineout play, too many penalties and Scotland’s ability to keep the U.S. from pursuing the planned approach to the rest of the game.

Chris Wyles, the U.S. captain, told the media he didn’t think Tolkin’s assessment was too harsh.

Second-half letdown isn’t new to the Eagles. The U.S. stood 14-8 behind at the half against Samoa in its first game in the Rugby World Cup before giving up 11 points in the second half and only scoring eight more in the eventual 25-16 loss.

So what is it that leads to second-half letdowns? Tolkin blamed it on the lack of professional experience on the part of many U.S. players.

“Without professional play in the U.S., players don’t get those week-to-week tough games to harden them,” Tolkin said.

Which raises the question of how U.S. players can get the kind of professional play that Tolkin is talking about. The formation of a professional league within the U.S. seems a daunting task.

Where would the games be played? To collect admissions, control of the gate is needed, but most U.S. rugby games are played on open fields. So stadiums are needed. Does that mean playing on the narrow fields of American football stadiums?

Building stadiums for rugby seems an unlikely financial event at this time although some clubs are beginning to secure their own grounds. The Glendale, Colo., Raptors and Atlanta Old White come to mind.

Absent professional play in the U.S., prospective Eagles will continue to find it in other lands, where they compete for spots with players from Pacific Island nations.

Even if Tolkin had his choice of 15 players from the top clubs in Europe, Australia, South Africa or New Zealand, he would have the problem of getting them all on the same field enough times for them to jell as a unit. Another daunting task given the competing professional schedules and the practice needs in the run-up to the World Cup.

There’s still South Africa and Japan to play in this World Cup, but it’s hard not to look ahead to 2019 when the World Cup is in Japan. For now, it looks like developing players in the States and serving as a farm system for professional leagues in other countries may be the U.S. best hope for making it through pool play in a World Cup, which isn’t going to happen this time around despite Tolkin’s statement Sunday that the Eagles still intend to win in the two remaining games in Pool B.

In the first half, aggressive tackling by the U.S. caused several mishandles by the Scotland team.
In the first half, aggressive tackling by the U.S. caused several mishandles by the Scotland team.

U.S. Eagles “masters of our own misfortunes”

Titi Lamositele (No. 3) of Bellingham, WA, squares off against Samoan defenders.
Titi Lamositele (No. 3) of Bellingham, WA, squares off against Samoan defenders.

“We were masters of our own misfortunes” was how Justin Fitzpatrick, forwards coach for the U.S. national rugby team, summed up the Eagles’ loss to Samoa on Sunday.

Too many penalties, too many movements left unfinished, a couple of missed kicks and some failures at defense resulted in a 25-16 win for the Pacific Islanders.

Mike Tolkin, the U.S. head coach, was asked at the post-game media session what the Eagles would do differently in their next game.

“Hopefully, win,” he answered.

He went on to say more discipline and more continuity were what he wanted from his team this coming Sunday against Scotland.

The Eagles gave up 15 points in penalties.

“At the end of the day, we were still in position to win but could not finish,” Tolkin said.

He said he was also disappointed that they missed out on getting a bonus point from the match. Teams receive one point in the standings for a loss of seven points or less.

With the U.S. trailing 22-11 with only 11 minutes left in the game, a try would have put them within six. Then the Eagles were called for crossing, essentially blocking, which is not allowed in rugby. Samoa added three points with the penalty kick so that when Chris Bauman scored a five-point try — three minutes after he entered the game as a sub — it needed to be converted to get the Eagles within seven. Alas, the kick, would have added two points, went wide.

(Other bonus points in the standings: four points for a win; two for a draw; one for scoring four or more tries – win or lose. No points for a loss of more than seven points.)

On Wednesday, Scotland plays Japan, who shook up the tournament – Pool B especially – with their shocking upset of South Africa on Saturday.

Tolkin said the upset might cause Scotland to re-think what players they select for Wednesday’s game.

Scotland might have been tempted to hold out some of their best players against Japan. But after Japan’s 34-32 win over the Springboks, that would seem unwise.

So when the U.S. plays Scotland on Sunday, Sept. 27 in Leeds, they may face a team of players with only four days rest while the Eagles will have had a week to recover.

And what about South Africa, the Eagles’ Pool B opponent on Wednesday, Oct. 7? Any word on how the unexpected loss has affected them?

“We won’t wallow in others’ misfortunes,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’ve got enough on our own plate to deal with.”

Here’s how it stands in Pool B:

Japan: 1 win (34-32 over South Africa) 4 points

Samoa: 1 win (25-16 over U.S.) 4 points

South Africa: 1 loss (32-34 to Japan) 2 points (scored four tries in loss by less than seven points)

United States :1 loss (16-25 to Samoa) 0 points

Scotland: Plays first game against Japan on Wednesday

The Samoan haka before the match.
The Samoan haka before the match.Wit

USA, land of pretend world championships

Hard to argue with the summary of the USA rugby effort in The London Times Rugby World Cup guide this past Thursday.

The world, it said, has been waiting forever for the game in America to “harness the big hitters brought up on American football and handlers coming in from basketball.” Then United States rugby could challenge anyone.

But in the meantime, The Times said, this RWC is most likely to “make America realize that sport does not start and end with pretend world championships in American football and baseball.”

The U.S. challenge to get some positive notice on the world rugby stage starts in a few hours as the Eagles take on Samoa at Brighton Stadium.

Not sure how much notice a win will bring, given this question raised by an English fan I talked to yesterday: “How does it feel to be an underdog to a country with a population of less than 200,000?”

But a loss would once again keep the world on hold waiting for the U.S. to answer.

Lamositele, 20, gets first RWC start

Titi Lamositele
Titi Lamositele

Titi Lamositele of Bellingham will play in his first Rugby World Cup match Sunday when the U.S. Eagles meet Samoa in Brighton, England.

The 20-year-old from Sehome High School will be up against Sakaria Taulafo, who has played for Samoa in 36 international matches.

In the July meeting of these two teams, Lamositele scored the Eagles’ only try in a 21-16 loss in the Pacific Nations Championship.

Brighton welcomes USA’s first opponent

The Samoa performs at the welcoming ceremony at Brighton Dome Friday.   (Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images for ER2015)
The Samoa team performs at the welcoming ceremony at Brighton Dome Friday.
(Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images for ER2015)

Brighton welcomed the Samoa rugby team today with a choir from Chestnuts Primary School in Bletchley performing “World In Union.”

Samoa responded with a performance of their own, which makes me wonder what the U.S. team will do on Sunday at their welcome ceremony, also in Brighton. A square dance? Break dance? A chorus of “Born in the USA?”

Any suggestions?

The U.S. and Samoa play at noon Sunday, Sept. 20, at the American Express Community Stadium. The two teams met on July 18 in the Pacific Nations Cup with Samoa winning, 21-16.