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Monday, June 25, 2012

USA Eagles June Tests: Some Positives for USA Rugby

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.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Scotland: The Flag-Bearer of Northern Hemisphere Rugby?

Scotland did not have a great 2011. A poor 6 Nations followed up by not getting past the first round at RWC 2011 in New Zealand, where their inability to score tries would cost them dearly.

2012 did not start well for the Scots, who did not win a single match in the Six Nations in a Wooden Spoon performance.

The great thing about sport is that sometimes, it can throw logic and conventional wisdom on it's head.

After the second week of June Internationals taking place in the Southern Hemisphere, France, England, Wales, and Ireland have yet to win an international. Wales and Ireland came close against the Walabies and the All Blacks, and France was edged out by the Pumas in Argentina. Close, but as the saying goes, close only counts in throwing horse-shoes and hand grenades.

The unexpected standard bearer of Northern Rugby has been none other than the Scots, who shocked the Wallabies 9-6 in brutal conditions in Newcastle, and then defeated Fiji 37-25 on the strength of two Tim Visser Tries. A win next week in Samoa would give the Scots a perfect June International performance. (Samoa warmed up by beating Japan this weekend).

People can talk about luck for the Scots at catching Australia in their first game and taking advantage of appalling conditions, but the bottom line is that Scotland succeeded where Grand Slam Winners Wales have lost-twice.

Andy Robinson, the head coach of Scotland, has to be thrilled with the results, as more than a few people were surprised he kept his job after the woeful performance in the 6 Nations. The wins in Australia and Fiji have probably at least taken the heat off Coach Robinson.

All of that said, who would have guessed that at this point of the June tours, that Scotland would be the only Northern Team with not just one win, but two in test matches. Truth can be stranger than fiction.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

18 Months of Good Luck...

For a little over the past 18 months, my wife and I have been on the road, part of it related to working as a travel nurse, part of it having taken a couple of vacations.

A funny thing has been happening in most of the places my wife and I have been visiting: Good things seem to be happening to the local sports teams. Don't believe me? Consider the following:

During my 8 months working in Dallas, the Mavericks won their first-ever NBA championship. The victory parade went right by our apartment in downtown Dallas.
We went to Australia and New Zealand in September. Both Countries made it to the Semi-finals, and the All Blacks got an 800 pound monkey off their back by bringing home their first Rugby World Cup since 1987....
When we got back to the US, I worked in Delaware-the one place where our Mojo did not seem to work, nothing great happened to any significant sports team in The First State....
We then spent three months working in New Mexico, their Men's Basketball team won their conference title and made it to the NCAA Basketball tournament.
My wife and I went to Europe for 4 weeks. We stayed in Barcelona, and although Barça did not win La Liga, they did win the Copa del Rey-They are going to need a bigger trophy case.
We spent 4 days in Montpellier. Their Soccer/football team had NEVER won a French League Title. That all changed when Montpellier won their last match in Auxerre to insure that they would win their first league title. My only regret is that I missed the victory celebration at La Place de La Comédie in Montpellier...
I got to London one week AFTER Chelsea had become the first London Club to ever win The UEFA Champions League-so my wife and I could not take any credit for that.

I just moved to Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Kings, an NHL franchise for 45 years had never lifted the Stanley Cup-the grail of Professional Ice Hockey in North America. By beating the New Jersey Devils in game 6 by a score of 6-1, the #8 seed in the West became the first 8th seed to lift the Stanley Cup. This touched off a huge celebration in downtown LA, where over 200,000 people flocked today to witness the victory parade and celebration.
With my permanent job here in LA, and my depleted bank account from overseas travel (Which I would do again in a heartbeat), All I have to say that all good things have to come to an end-but it has been quite a ride!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

England: Rugby History, Friends, and Other Thoughts

It's been awhile since I was last able to post anything. In the last couple of weeks, I finished off my European trip with my wife, went back to the US, packed some belongings, and my wife and I have driven from Minneapolis to Las Vegas, in route to moving to Los Angeles. I have had so much I have wanted to write about, but simply have not had the time. Well, since my wife is at a meeting of Twilight fans and writers here in Las Vegas, I can finally sit down at the keyboard.

Going into the England leg of the trip, I really wanted to see Twickenham and its museum-mission accomplished.
Bringing out my inner child at Twickenham
I really wanted to meet Ferdy, of fame. I know Ferdy and her husband have been living and working in London, and I really wanted to meet her and introduce Ferdy and her husband to my wife, like I was able to do in New Zealand during the RWC when I was able to meet Slugso and Scotty, two other rugby-centric bloggers whose work I enjoy a great deal. Well, Ferdy and her  husband Jay met us at a great pub called The Prospect of Whitby. Not surprisingly, we all hit it off really well, and we are able to have not one, but two very pleasant evenings together.
Nursedude and Ferdy, together after all of these years!Add caption
As much fun as the travel has been, I cannot begin to express how great it has been to meet my fellow rugby bloggers and find out that they are even nicer in person than you even imagined. There really are nice people involved with the sport. Luckily, my wife is very sociable, and enjoys meeting new people, as well. My one regret on the trip is that I was not able to get together with Total Flanker. Well, hopefully in 2015, we'll be able to share a fine English-made beverage together and talk about some rugby....
So much beer to sample in the UK, so little time...
The other thing I really wanted to do was to hit the Webb Ellis Museum in town town of Rugby, and to see the Rugby School. Again, mission accomplished. I really enjoyed touring through their museum as well-who said a sports fan cannot get some history and culture while on vacation?
The Shard-soon to be the tallest building in Western Europe
During this trip, I spent 3 weeks on the continent, and one week in England. The thing that really struck me on this trip, was that as nice as people were in France, Italy and Spain, it seemed like there was a lot of uncertainty and fear and loathing in the air. Even in France-where people have an attitude that they live better than anybody else, there was a lot of apprehension in speaking with people. A lot of people are worried about the economy and if the Euro  crisis is going to drag a lot of people down with it. Contrast this with the vibe in England. I know they are concerned about economic matters as well, but I think between the sunny weather, Chelsea winning the Champions League, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the upcoming Summer Olympic Games, London just exuded a very positive and up-beat vibe. I saw construction going up everywhere in London. The mood in the pubs seemed to be an almost party atmosphere. My wife and I just had a blast, and we are very much looking forward to getting back to England for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Da Redhead and I WILL make it back to London in 2015.