Improving USA not yet good enough to stun Scots

Thretton Palamo carries the ball during the USA's 25-16 defeat by Samoa. Picture: Getty
Thretton Palamo carries the ball during the USA's 25-16 defeat by Samoa. Picture: Getty
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THE smooth, slick running of Rugby World Cup 2015 has come unstuck. Before they play Scotland the USA are scheduled to host a press conference in their Leeds hotel nestling beside the railway station at 8.30am. We are a little bemused because the hotel has the conference in its diary at 9am and the Eagles have nothing in their diary at all. The wheels have come off!

The argument revolves around the usual who said what to whom and when but to be honest no-one really cares, well almost no one. The Scottish journalists have walked a total of two minutes to the Americans’ hotel, they can live with the error, but one poor English journo has driven two hours up the M1 to hear what the Eagles have to say and he is a getting animated. Being essentially decent human beings, the Americans drop whatever they are doing to offer some insights into today’s game, starting with that four-day turnaround for Scotland which can only help the underdogs’ cause.

“It certainly doesn’t hurt,” says Eagles’ coach Mike Tolkin. “Those are tough ones to bounce back from and we’re going to have ours at the end. Any little advantage is certainly a help.”

Tolkin has an unenviable task. He is an unlucky man, arguably the last to coach an Eagles team comprised mostly of amateur players, supplemented with a few professionals from Europe.

My American mole insists that a professional league in North America is not far off: one big result is all that is needed to help publicise the launch and you can probably guess who the Eagles fancy that big result might come against.

Meanwhile Tolkin’s squad is semi-professional and therefore semi-good. There are some superb players at his disposal, world class even, but the likes of skipper Chris Wyles, Hayden Smith, Blaine Scully and Manu Samoa are interspersed with too many journeymen to make the Eagles a genuine threat on the world stage. Every time they challenged against Samoa in their Pool B opener the Eagles conceded another dumb penalty – it was amateur hour.

They have quality but no depth to speak of, a competitive XV, an ordinary bench, although former Glasgow centre Folau Nuia is probably the best of the bunch.

The American amateurs still have to think about decisions that are second nature to Scots, never mind New Zealanders. They are big and strong and powerful and determined but so are a good many others. The subtleties of international rugby, the little intricacies of what to do and when exactly to do it, occasionally bypass the Eagles, as Tolkin at least partly concedes.

“Game management is big for us,” he says, looking back at their opening defeat. “Samoa had a lot of possession in the first half, and on a couple of occasions when we got ball back, we kicked away too quickly rather than make them play through phases and defend.

“We also have to be more disciplined with penalties. Decision making too: we had some good space and opportunity, and on some occasions we turned back into traffic.

“We clearly see the things we could and should have done, and there are parts of that game where we played very well. We were disappointed by not executing the lineout better. But we had real good parts of that game where we were putting them under pressure.”

Tolkin has mixed feelings about Japan’s stunning win over South Africa. First up it offers hope to all the lower-tier nations. The Americans won their first sevens tournament in London last May and if there is any unanimity in world rugby it revolves around the fact that, with all the resources at their disposal, the Eagles will be a power to be reckoned with at some stage in the next... well, however long it takes. On the down side, that shock defeat has given a kick in the rear to all top-tier nations who will be on their guard from now on, Scotland included, Scotland especially. So what does Tolkin make of this today’s opposition?

“They didn’t have a great Six Nations but they’re a disciplined unit,” he says. “You have to work hard against them to make things happen. We’d like to get a few mismatches, as we think we have a few mismatches on the team. Working hard against them and playing good fundamentals will be key.”

The mismatches Tolkin talks about presumably refer to the sheer pace that the Eagles boast within their squad, but he is sure to fire the likes of giant No.8 Samu Manoa into the Scottish midfield and hope that the twin locks Hayden Smith and Greg Peterson also throw their weight around to good effect.

The Eagles coach insists that Scotland will face a physical challenge, which we knew, but he promises to mix things up with the weapons in his backline which are potent enough. Irish stand-off Alan “AJ” MacGinty will pull the strings and kick the points and Thretton Palamo’s physical presence will worry the lightweight Scottish midfield.

If they can carve out any space the wingers Takudzwe Ngwenya and Blaine Scully are excellent finishers. At full-back skipper Chris Wyles is an underrated, intelligent player having plied his trade in Saracens’ colours, and... and... that’s about that.

It’s still difficult to see how the US can win this one unless fatigue in the Scots ranks gives them a big helping hand. They will worry Scotland, and the final score will be a lot closer than it was on Wednesday, but the Eagles won’t beat them. At least not yet.