Thursday, June 12, 2014

International Rugby: Q & A with Ted Hardy

Fresh off hosting Scotland last weekend the USA Eagles are preparing for a home match against Japan in Los Angeles this coming Saturday. A chance at defeating a higher ranked country at home and doing so in an official IRB tournament should serve as staunch motivation for the North Americans. Japan's victory in Canada sees the Asian country ranked an astounding two places higher than a Tier One nation, Italy. A win in at the StubHub Center would therefore go a long way to making up for the disappointments against Scotland this past weekend. With the USA set to play against both Scotland and Japan at Rugby World Cup 2015 Argentina 2023 caught up with Ted Hardy to get his views on the state of the team now, rugby in the country and what the coming future may hold as England 2015 approaches.

Did the USA under perform against Scotland or is the team still not up to the standards to compete against Tier 1 opposition?

Yes and Yes. I do believe that the USA underperformed against Scotland this weekend. The USA always seems to improve with game time, so I didn't have the same lofty expectations as were being reported by most media outlets. Although, I believe it should have been a closer game. I fully expected something more like 24-12 as a final score. Were it not for some muffed scoring chances by Scotland, the score would have been much less flattering. Scotland could have easily scored a couple more tries in the first half. They should have had at least one more try were it not for the knock on by Visser at the goal line. I think the defensive effort the USA put in during the 2nd half is more indicative of what they're capable of on defense. Offensively is where the USA really struggles against higher ranked competition. In their three test matches against Tier 1 opponents in the last three years (Italy, Ireland, Scotland) they have scored one try and a total of 28 points. Hard to win big international tests with those kind of numbers. In comparison to our biggest Tier 2 rival, Canada, the USA has only scored one try in our last three test matches against the Canadians.  

I don't believe they are close to the standard of even fringe Tier 1 teams. Defensively, I think the USA can compete when they're on point. Offensively, the USA doesn't have any answers. They need to work on getting back to beating teams like Canada, Japan, Tonga, Samoa, etc. before they think about taking down a Tier 1.

In certain areas the U.S Eagles were competitive in others not so, notably the scrum. What is being done to resolve this ongoing issue that has hampered the U.S?

There isn't anything being done systemically to improve our scrum. I know coaches at the National team level are doing everything they can to improve our scrum, but they are working with a finite amount of player resources. The scrum is really a concept that should be started at the grassroots level so we can bring up players that are adept in scrummaging techniques. There really should be an American template for the scrum and it needs to be taught at all levels. Right now, there is so much emphasis on pushing 7s at our youth levels that none of our kids are getting enough time to learn the art. Youth show a lot of interest in the scrum, but a three-man scrum is not doing them any favors. Most of our youth are lucky if they get to be in a 8-man scrum before high school let alone get a lot of time perfecting their technique. This needs to change.

The scrum has always been an issue for the USA. For as physical the USA should play, being great in the scrum should be a given. However, coaches have generally opted to go with more mobile props in lieu of ones that can anchor a scrum. I think competition is also a major issue. Most of our Eagle-pool props don't face the caliber of front rows domestically that they see at the international level. I don't believe fixing our scrum issues is going to be an overnight thing. It could take years. 

Do you feel Samu Manoa's non-availability is to rest him after the Aviva Premiership season or is USA Rugby looking to obtain him for the test in Chicago and will USA Rugby be able to obtain the release of all professional players?

I don't know of the status of USA Rugby's negotiations in regards to player release for the All Blacks match. I suspect they will get some players released but not all of them.

As for Manoa, it was a combination of things. I'm sure he was in need of a rest. The last few weeks, he was coming out of games around the 60 minute mark when he was playing all 80 earlier in the season. I had wondered if he was carrying some sort of nagging injury. His wife also recently gave birth, so this was an opportunity for him to spend some time at home. He is expected to play against Japan and Canada. 

Speaking of Chicago - it is virtually certain to set a new attendance record but is it too soon or not to be hosting a fixture of this magnitude?

This is a tough one. It's hard to imagine 40,000 in an NFL stadium watching rugby not being a good thing, but we must be careful. If the All Blacks destroy the Eagles it is not going to be a good advertisement for rugby in America. The whole concept behind the All Blacks coming to America is to grow the game. Odds are is that 98% of the people in the stands for the game are going to be rugby diehards coming to see the All Blacks. If only rugby faithful go to the game and it doesn't make any more than a blip on our sports radar, then was it worth it?

I believe it will be worthwhile, but more so as an experience for American rugby fans and a reward for their faithful service to the game. I have my doubts as to whether the game will do much to grow the game in America. It is a great opportunity for American rugby, but only if they get out there and show it to the masses. The "build it and they will come" strategy only works for rugby diehards. Most of the population of America don't know who or what an All Black is. 

In total 10 of Scotland's 23 players, or 43.47%, were not born in Scotland. By way of comparison all but 3 of the Eagles (Hume, Smith and London) are from the U.S. while the Suniula's are American Samoans. What kind of an indication is this for the growth of U.S. rugby and for future possibilities?

I think it is very encouraging. There was a time period, not long ago, where the strategy was to bring in every overseas eligible player they could get their hands on. The increasing number of Eagle hopefuls coming from our college ranks is a great thing and says a lot about how much the college game has evolved in the last decade. If you look at the number of players that are in the Eagles' player pool that are coming from the college ranks as compared to club rugby, it is overwhelmingly in favor of college rugby. This shows me that rugby is beginning to fall into the traditional American sports pathway of youth to high school to college to elite. Clubs still have their place in American rugby, but I think the shift has begun.

Players are coming to the game earlier and earlier. Where most players used to be introduced to the sport in college, they are now going to college with at least a few years of rugby experience. In another five years, we'll see a shift again from where players got their introduction to the sport in high school, they'll now be going to high school with a few years of rugby experience. All of this will help drive a more skilled player base. 

Some players needed replacing in Houston after picking up injuries. How changed will the team be to face Japan?

I don't expect much in the way of changes. I believe Phil Thiel will be back, but Andrew Suniula will not which could make for some interesting options in the centers. Chris Wyles could always move forward from fullback, but more likely is that Niua (who came on for Suniula against Scotland) will slot in at inside center. He played fairly well against Scotland so I expect that he'll get the nod. 

Would it be better for the team to have Chris Wyles in the centres where he can have a greater impact on play?

I think the USA's lack of depth in the back three is why Wyles has not played more in the centers, but I agree. I think we're missing out on some of his play making ability by not playing him in the centers. The emergence of Seamus Kelly may also have something to do with it. Long term, I think Kelly will end up at inside center, but he's cutting his teeth at outside center where Wyles would make a good option. 

What is your prediction for this Saturday's game in California?
The one thing that excites me about the game against Japan is that the USA always seem to be able to score points on Japan. If their defense holds strong, they could be in for an upset. That said, the Japanese side keeps getting better and better. Their comeback on the road to beat Canada last week was no small feat. I think it will be a much higher scoring game than against Scotland. Japan 30 USA 24

The U.S will face Scotland and Japan at the World Cup and also meet Samoa and South Africa. What is required to win two or more of these fixtures?

I don't know if we have the systems or players in place to have the capability to win two or more games at RWC 2015. I do believe some momentum would do the team a world of wonders though. As individuals, the USA plays very well. They all represent their pro clubs well, but when they come together something is missing. Getting a taste of victory and figuring out how to finish a game could make the USA a dangerous opponent. Finishing the June tests with a victory, having a strong November, a good showing next June, and then a good buildup to the RWC is achievable. They need to win some games though to build that momentum. If they can go into the RWC with some momentum then anything is possible. More than likely, we'll just be another "minnow closing the gap on the big boys" story line. I really hate that too. It's patronizing. 

What do you feel about the idea of Argentina hosting Rugby World Cup 2023?
I love the idea. The IRB needs to keep exploring other markets to host the RWC. Personally, I'd like to see them try more markets, but I do realize that the RWC is a major revenue generator for the IRB. So, I think we're more likely to see the event alternate between producing markets (such as England and other Tier 1 nations) and new markets. I think giving the 2019 event to Japan was a big step for the IRB. If the event is successful, then it increases the likelihood of them trying other new markets like Argentina or even the USA.

Ted Hardy is a writer and editor at Rugby America. He started covering rugby in January of 2008 and has since published over 1000 articles for a variety of rugby enws outlets. Aside from Rugby America, Hardy has also written for The Bleacher Report, This Is American Rugby and a handful of other rugby news sites. He can be followed on twitter @RugbyAmerica 

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