The USA and Portugal have warmed themselves up in Dubai. The two tournament favourites have blown away Kenya and Hong Kong without much of a huff or a puff. Although their success being the same, the Eagles and Os Lobos have shown very different strategies in winning their first two rounds. Friday will be the deciding and ultimate matchup, as power plays width and strength goes up against speed. I sit in hope and confidence that the USA Eagles can outmuscle Portugal and become the twentieth and final member of Rugby World Cup 2023.
Minus an uncomfortable first twenty minutes against Kenya in game one, I take great confidence watching the Eagles, as they show brains and brawn to be match winning traits over the first two weeks. A key to winning any rugby match starts with the set piece, and the Eagles have shown a consistent delivery in this area. It comes as no surprise, with Gary Gold’s introduction of new coach, set piece maestro, Mario Ledesma. You can clearly see from the TV cameras, focusing on the coaches’ box, the former Argentinian international lives and breathes every scrum and maul.
That consistency has clearly bred confidence, and confidence subsequently has bred variation. The Eagles smashed through Kenya and Hong Kong in their drive but also kept their opponents guessing with peels around the front and back of the lineout. Dylan ‘The Butcher’ Fawsitt got all Eagles fans jumping up in excitement against Kenya, as the Rugby New York hooker lassoed his barrelling frame round the tail of the lineout, crashing over for the first of his three tries.
You know it is going well when either side of the ball, the set piece is proving successful. The front row has plenty of competition, headed up by Utah Warriors’ Paul Mullen, winning penalties at a regular occurrence. Although not his usual position, Cam Dolan’s switch into the second row has proved a masterstroke in the lineout. The Eagles veteran’s athletic ability, heavily disrupted Kenya and Hong Kong on their own ball, something I am sure the Portuguese will be very wary of.
With a strong set piece comes power, and the effective use of power comes from good rugby brains. I have no doubt Eagles attacking coach, Steve Brett and experienced half backs AJ MacGinty and Luke Carty have set the gameplan up simply and clinically to promote the use of their powerhouse runners. None more so than former NFL, Chicago Bears fullback, Paul Lasike. Having the big man return to the midfield has put fear into the opposition eyes. Lasike has been handed front foot ball and has given the Eagles a guarantee to go forward. With the wave of hungry ball carriers coming around the corner in the next phase, the ever-impressive Old Glory DC number eight, Jamason Fa’anana-Schultz, has proved how powerful simplicity can be so effective.
With quick ball, Bristol Bears’ top operator, AJ MacGinty, attacked at the line, probing his players into space for some audacious tries against Kenya and Hong Kong. Out wide, the inexperience of Mitch Wilson and Christian Dyer has been held together nicely by my San Diego Legion teammates, Nate Augspurger on the wing, and Marcel Brache in the centres. Wilson in particular has blossomed into the fullback role, showing his pace in the wide channels and following up play brilliantly. The backline is connecting, offloading and creating chances. The team has the destructive weapons to wreak havoc on the Portuguese this Friday, it will just need that extra bit of accuracy to fully take advantage of the opportunities they’ll no doubt create.
However, as much as for my optimism, Repechage viewers will rightly question whether the USA Eagles have been properly tested defensively so far this tournament.
Portugal must be given full credit and the respect they deserve. They have been electric over the first two weeks and will be a real test! Whilst power and brawn may be on the Eagles’ side, Os Lobos have dynamism and speed. I can hear the voice of Gary Gold in this week’s preview meeting, yelling, “do not kick easy ball to their back three!”
Speedster, Manuel Cardoso Pinto, formerly of French side Narbonne, has been cutting through defences throughout the first two weeks. Scoring tries for fun, the winger was even described by commentator, Rupert Cox, as having the ability to “run through puddles and you wouldn’t see a splash.” Fullback, Nuno Sousa Guedes has been the hot stepper of the tournament, running from deep with a devastating change of pace. For the Eagles, kicking accuracy is going to be imperative, with the defensive kick chase being massively vital! Kenya and Hong Kong’s counterattack did not test the USA the same way the likes of Pinto and Guedes will do on Friday night.
Portugal will also take confidence in their own set piece with driving power and variation illustrated brilliantly against Kenya last Saturday. The Portuguese pack certainly have some French club rugby know-how, with a good handful of their starting eight playing in the Pro D2, led superbly by Top 14 Perpignan hooker, Mike Tadjer. Across the backline, Os Loboshave Narbonne centre, José Lima, playing alongside talented captain, Tomás Appleton. Whilst not as big in stature compared to the Eagles, Os Lobos’ head coach, Patrice Lagisquet, a former French international, has clearly got his side playing with a laissez faire attitude, fizzing the ball from width to width, feeding the speed out wide.
For the Eagles, defence will be as important as their powerful attack. But more than anything, good discipline will be fundamental in helping book a spot in France. Failure to do so will allow Carcassonne’s scrum half, Samuel Marques, to punish the Eagles with his quality goal kicking. Even worse, losing a man to foul play could spell disaster against Os Lobos’dynamic threats. The Eagles must treat the referee like royalty!
Portugal have their dangers and will rightfully be given the utmost respect, but I hope, and believe the Eagles, with their brains and brawn, can produce a disciplined match winning performance on Friday. Whatever the tactics, it’s all about the result. All that matters for us, the USA Eagles, is to be at the Rugby World Cup in 2023.
(Article as featured on The Rugby Network)