Saturday, November 1, 2014

International Rugby: Chicago test Underlines Scheduling Errors

Photo: Taiwan Mike photography 
The global game took a giant leap forward today as the USA Eagles hosted the New Zealand All Blacks at the home of the Chicago Bears NFL team. A fullhouse crowd of 61,500 at Soldier Field was treated to some impressive rugby with both sides looking to play positive rugby. It saw the home side punished when turning over the ball and combined with the New Zealanders clinical play the visiting country ran out comfortable winners by a scoreline of 74-6. Although the outcome demonstrates a gulf between the teams it also suggests that the previously unthinkable is not necessarily the case any longer. The coming years will answer the question as to whether or not a platform has been established for sustanable growth.  

The scheduling of the USA Eagles v New Zealand All Blacks was complicated from the beginning. With the All Blacks appearing in Europe on every weekend in the November international release window USA Rugby's only possibility of hosting New Zealand was today, November 01. The difficult decision was made and the authorities succeeded in promoting the match as Soldier Field was sold out.

The trade-off was that the Eagles are now not going to have access to Aviva Premiership players for the upcoming tests against Romania, Fiji and Tonga. Hayden Smith, Samu Manoa, Blaine Scully and Chris Wyles all started the match today but will not play in the others. Similarly Cam Dolan, who missed through a minor injury, will return to England. 

Getting these players for the fixture was an important part of the USA having the best possible opportunity at being competitive. Their availability, however, was short of what was required. Indeed, the media have reported constantly that too many of the USA's players are amateur the most striking difference between the Eagles' players and the All Blacks was time together. 

The All Blacks are fresh off facing Australia, Argentina and South Africa. Prior to that New Zealand took-on England. The USA, in contrast faced Scotland, Japan and Canada back in June. The cohesion of the New Zealanders play is built on much more than being quality, elite players. They, unlike the Americans, have mostly all been together since early June. 

By way of comparison many of the USA's foreign based players only arrived in the country on Monday and only linked up with the squad for training on Tuesday. Asking players to face the leading rugby team in the world on the back of three days training together and a captain's run on Friday is extremely incomparable to what Steve Hanson's players went through to prepare.

The difference in execution between the winning and losing team in Chicago can therefore be attributed not to skill factors but more so to time together. Indeed a number of the All Blacks twelve tries came from Eagles errors with clinical execution making the home team pay on numerous occasions. 

The defense of the home team was also caught off-guard, especially with attacking chip-kicks from the All Blacks finding resulting in the Eagles not responding quick enough to gather the ball, secure it and respond. Such errors are not based on the quality of the Eagles players but, rather, the lack of time together as a team. 

The failure to score a try in Chicago should therefore not be the talking point of the Americans performance. The talking point should also not be about the All Blacks ability to score which, at times, was done with ease. Instead the lesson ought to be that fixtures such as the USA v New Zealand can pack an NFL stadium and do so in an iconic stadium but the organizers need to have the match played at a time which suits both teams not just the All Blacks.

In the event that the fixture occur again in three or so years or if South Africa, England or another were to play it ought to be the third or fourth test match of the month and not the first. It should be played at a time in which the coaches have had their players together. Indeed the win over Canada in June is testament to the need to spend time together. 

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