After the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, where the US was 1-3(One win against Russia, one really gutsy loss to Ireland on the 10th anniversary of 9/11), Eddie O'Sullivan stepped down as the head coach of the USA Eagles. USA Rugby felt that the time was right to hire and American-born head coach, and they felt that they had the right man in choosing Mike Tolkin.
The June Tests were a chance for Tolkin to try a new system and bring out some new faces to compliment some of the veteran USA Eagles like Mike MacDonald, Chris Wyles, Paul Emmerick and Captain Todd Clever.
|Mike MacDonald and Todd Clever after USA-Italy at RWC 2011 in Nelson, NZ|
The First USA Eagles game was a very competitive 28-25 loss to Canada- the Auld Enemy- in Kingston, Ontario-The Canadians have held the edge over the USA in rugby for quite some time, but in the last 4 years, the Yanks do seem to be finally closing the gap on our neighbors to the north.
The second game against Georgia showed that the 25 points scored against the Canucks was no fluke.
One of the criticisms leveled against O'Sullivan was that the US played it pretty close to the vest as far as the style of play. (Read: Boring) It's understandable that the more risks you take, that the more you can get punished for errors. But if USA Rugby wants to expand coverage and appeal of the sport, the time has come to open up the game and let the boys play a bit. Particularly now that NBC/Universal Sports has been telecasting USA Eagle games here in the USA.
Against the very big and physical Georgians, who have an awful lot of their top players plying their physical profession in the French Top 14, Tolkin and his troops gave a large and vocal crowd in Glendale Colorado a lot to holler about in a nice offensive display in a 36-20 win.
For the third game against Italy, the Eagles would have to go from the high altitude and low humidity of Colorado to the low altitude, heat and humidity in Houston. The memory of Italy's 27-10 win in Nelson during the World Cup had to be fresh in the minds of a lot of the players-particularly those playing in the front row, who were going to have a tough day at the office against Martin Castrogiovanni and his front row mates. In Nelson, they have the Eagles fits in every scrum.
For Saturday's game at the new BBVA Compass Stadium, the Eagles and Italy were not going to get any break from mother nature: 92 sticky degrees at kickoff in front of 17,214 intrepid souls who braved the heat to break a record for a USA Eagles home crowd.(Not exactly feeling up Twickenham, but not bad progress, either)
Playing Italy was going to be a challenge, but the US did not help themselves by gifting the Italians an early try thanks to a poor line out on their 5 meter line, that did not come close to hitting it's target. Carlo Festuccia, the Italian hooker, was the recipient of the gift, fell on the ball and gave the Italians an early lead. (The line out proved a problem for the US most of the first half)
In the first half, the US showed that they could move the ball on the Italians and actually do well at the
breakdown against them. Paul Emmerick would cap off some nice work by fly half Roland Suniula and touch down for the Yanks. Fullback Chris Wyles added a conversion and a Penalty, and the US was creeping back into the game. Later in the first half, just when the US was looking good and the Texas crowd was finding its voice, the Italians created a score off their vaunted scrum; The formidable push crumpled the US scrum, and the Italian scrum half Edoardo Gori left the US in his dust. 20-10 at halftime.
Any thoughts of a US fightback in the second half were dashed to smithereens when Andrew Suniula laid out Bocchino on a late, dangerous hit that had him on the turf for several minutes. He was shown the red card by French Referee Jerome Garces. The US showed a lot of heart playing Italy tough a man down. A very difficult job was made impossible by Paul Emmerick also picking up a red card for dangerous tackle, meaning the US would finish with 13 men on the field.
The second half featured some really heavy hitting from both sides. Play was halted frequently as trainers worked on banged-up and cramping players. I was really impressed by the take-no-prisoners approach of Luke Hume, and Todd Clever embodied the spirit of a Captain by running hard, tacking hard and just being a general pain in the ass to the Italians.The long-maned Captain is a very worthy public face for the sport of rugby in the USA. Between the heavy hitting and humidity, the game was not a free-flowing spectacle in the second half. While playing two men down for so long of the second half, it was a moral victory for the US that Italy only scored 10 points in the second half.
So what to make of the 1-2 record if you are a USA Rugby fan? I saw real progress compared to what I saw in New Zealand. They were certainly a much more entertaining side to watch. I think it is still going to take American players getting picked up by European and SANZAR clubs to help us develop a higher level of professionalism and skill for American players. If it can happen in soccer(look at Clint Dempsey), it can happen with American Rugby Players. Todd Clever has already played in the Super 14, and Wyles and MacDonald have had good careers in England-but we need high school and college aged players getting that time learning the game at a higher level away from the US.
As an eternal optimist, I like to think the glass is looking half full for USA Rugby under Mike Tolkins watch.