Pride and pace key to Eddie's Eagles
POOL C THE UNITED STATES:OF ALL the days of the year Ireland are to be pitted against the USA, one could hardly imagine there being a more emotionally charged occasion for an American team than the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 atrocities.
Those shocking images having reminded everyone of where they were that day, no national anthem in the tournament will carry more resonance for its players than the playing of the Star Spangled Bannerin New Plymouth on Sunday.
American sports teams abroad are innately patriotic in any case and rugby is littered with examples as to how emotional energy can count for so much.
It still oughtn’t to bridge the obvious gulf in class but then again, similar thoughts prevailed at this juncture four years ago. Ireland’s confidence has taken a hit in a winless August and, in a curious juxtaposition, Eddie O’Sullivan can help his team take some heart from the manner Ireland struggled under his command against Namibia and Georgia in 2007, the first of which also fell on the second weekend in September.
Nonetheless, regardless of which team Declan Kidney selects, it’s hard to see where the USA can really apply pressure on the Irish team. Their undoubted strength is in the back three/four where they can play a quartet of seasoned professionals, including possibly the fastest man in rugby, Biarritz flyer Takudzwa Nwenga.
Kevin Swyren plies his trade with Agen and James Patterson with the Otago Highlanders, while Chris Wyles has played at fullback and outside centre for English Premiership champions Saracens.
When you factor in the forceful athletic ability of veteran outside centre Paul Emerick, who has the ability to break the line against any opposition, USA can cause most teams trouble if they defend with their bodies on the line, which they assuredly will on Sunday, and strike on the counter-attack or off turnover ball.
However, knowing how well prepared, if structured, his teams tend to be, it’s hard to imagine too much adventure under O’Sullivan (who was also assistant coach to the Eagles when they came across Ireland at Lansdowne Road in the 1999 World Cup).
The memory of Nwenga skinning Bryan Habana on the outside in the pool stages in 2007, on foot of which he went to Biarritz, is also a reminder as to how non-professional players from teams such as the USA will again see this tournament as a potential shop window.
However, they have not been helped by their schedule, which twice pits them into playing games within five days of each other, and as the Eagles will assuredly be targeting the Russian game in New Plymouth next Thursday, it will be interesting to see how much O’Sullivan tempers an understandable desire for his team to front up against Ireland by perhaps keeping some of his frontliners back.
Judging by their Churchill Cup exploits, where they lost to Tonga before beating Russia in the plate final, the Americans’ most glaring weaknesses are at halfback and frontrow. Their halfbacks simply lack presence, particularly at outhalf where they have struggled to replace the twice World cup veteran playmaker Mike Hercus.
Nese Malifa is a tricky Sevens player out of Auckland but struggles to impose himself, primarily as he lacks a strong kicking game. Jonathan Sexton or Ronan O’Gara will be able to kick long for position, safe in the knowledge the Eagles will struggle to get out of their own half.
At scrumhalf they will probably go with Mike Petri, who has a swift pass but has not really been a threat around the base at this level. That said, Petri is a very proud New Yorker and so the day will be particularly significant for him.
The Eagles’ scrum has been a disaster area in recent years. Anybody who watched a youthful, fourth- or fifth-string England Saxons pack demolish them in the Churchill Cup back in June can only wonder what will happen in this department against more battle-hardened packs. Because of this deficiency they struggle to get front-foot ball for their talented outside runners.
They will also be looking to avoid five-metre scrums on their own line, and this after two scrum coaches having come and gone in the past nine months trying to rectify this acute problem.
Seasoned veteran Mike MacDonald will probably start at loosehead, and he has played Premiership rugby for the past few seasons with Worcester and Leeds, but while tighthead Shawn Pitman is a very effective ball carrier he has struggled to contain opposing looseheads.
The Eagles’ well-organised lineout is their main source of possession, featuring as it does former Aussie basketball player Hayden Smith (Saracens) and the ex-Trinity man Scott LaValla, a player who has just signed with Michael Cheika’s Stade Francais after being overlooked by the Irish provinces, though Ulster were reputedly very keen on him.
Alas, the Eagles have been dealt a severe blow in this department as the giant Tongan-born Samu Manoa has decided to stay with his new club, Northampton, rather than play in the World Cup. Manoa is a big athletic man whose bulk will be sorely missed, and his presence would also have enabled LaValla move to his best position at blindside flanker.
The other key man is hard-working, athletic backrower and captain Todd Clever, with his distinctive mane, who has played Super rugby with the Lions in South Africa and is now based with Suntory in Japan and gives the Eagles another viable lineout option.
Clever’s heavy workload may explain why the Eagles’ backrow looked a little one-paced in the Churchill Cup. The All-American University products appear to have dried up a little with a switched emphasis to the more amateur club game, but like McDonald and Emerick, Clever hails from that system and all three will be playing in their third World Cup.
There’s one other rider. Most of the aforementioned, foreign-based professionals were unavailable for the Churchill Cup, and like other tier-two countries, the Eagles should be at their optimum level of performance when they play Ireland.
Coming together for strength and conditioning work in early August, they have had their longest training period since the last World Cup as well as two warm-up defeats to Canada and most recently a 20-14 defeat in Japan.
In some respects, the Eagles remain possibly the last of a dying breed as they party hard and play hard. Not alone is this a financial sacrifice for most of them, but many effectively put their life on hold for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
That, coupled with the date that’s in it, again makes much of their formline in between World Cups somewhat misleading.
Ireland v USA: The history
May 31st, 2010
USA 10 Ireland 27
(Santa Clara University, California)
Having struggled to put Canada away the previous weekend, a second-string Irish selection again failed to fire as Eddie O’Sullivan’s Eagles threatened to ruffle a few feathers among the inexperienced tourists. Mike Hercus missed four penalties for the Eagles and a late Rory Best try provided a flattering gloss to the scoreline.
IRELAND:G Duffy; B Murphy, D Cave, I Whitten, I Dowling; I Keatley, P Stringer; T Buckley, R Best, M Ross; B Casey, M O’Driscoll; J Muldoon, N Ronan, D Leamy. Replacements: D Hurley for Cave (22-30 mins), D Ryan for Muldoon, E Reddan for Stringer (both 60 mins), T Court for Ross (62 mins), R Caldwell for Casey (64 mins). Not used: S Cronin, N O’Connor.
November 20th, 2004
Ireland 55 USA 6
On a dirty old afternoon it wasn’t until the last 25 minutes that Ireland cut loose with 35 points. Tommy Bowe and Denis Leamy were handed international debuts by Eddie O’Sullivan.
IRELAND:G Murphy; S Horgan, B O’Driscoll (capt), K Maggs, T Bowe, D Humphreys, G Easterby; M Horan, F Sheahan, J Hayes, D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell, S Easterby, E Miller, D Leamy. Replacements: P Stringer for G Easterby (67 mins), S Best for Hayes, L Cullen for O’Connell (both 69 mins), A Foley for S Easterby (72 mins), G Dempsey for O’Driscoll (67 mins).
June 10th, 2000
United States 3 Ireland 83
(Manchester, New Hampshire)
Stung by defeat in Buenos Aires the previous week, Ireland ran riot. Centre Mike Mullins landed a hat-trick of tries, and there were two each for debutantes Geordan Murphy and Guy Easterby. Ireland could have hit 100, but the 13-tries remain a record for an Irish team.
IRELAND:G Murphy; J Topping, M Mullins, R Henderson, T Howe; R O’Gara, G Easterby; J Fitzpatrick, K Wood (capt), P Wallace, J Davidson, M O’Kelly, S Easterby, E Miller, D Wallace. Replacements: D Humphreys for O’Gara (57 mins), K Maggs for Henderson (51 mins), A Ward for D Wallace (53 mins), R Casey for O’Kelly (half-time), F Sheahan for Wood (half-time), M Horan for P Wallace (57 mins).
October 2nd, 1999
Ireland 53 USA 8
Brian O’Driscoll marked his World Cup debut with a try but this match belonged to Keith Wood, the captain crossing for four tries. Despite the scoreline, a lack of genuine continuity suggested Ireland would have problems against Australia and struggle to get out of the group.
IRELAND:C O’Shea; J Bishop, B O’Driscoll, K Maggs, M Mostyn; D Humphreys, T Tierney; P Clohessy, K Wood, P Wallace; P Johns, J Davidson; T Brennan, A Ward, D O’Cuinneagain (capt). Replacements: M O’Kelly for Davidson (half-time), E Miller for Brennan (59 mins), E Elwood for Humphreys (60 mins), J Fitzpatrick for Clohessy (65 mins), J Bell for Maggs (72 mins), R Nesdale for Wood (78 mins), B O’Meara for Tierney (78 mins).
January 6th, 1996
United States 18 Ireland 25
(Life College Stadium, Atlanta)
As close as the Americans have come to beating Ireland, although the appalling conditions played a huge part in restricting the visitors’ game plan. Ireland slugged it out in the quagmire before a 79th-minutes Paul Burke penalty put the result beyond doubt.
IRELAND:J Staples; R Wallace, J Bell, K McQuilkin, S Geoghegan; E Elwood, C Saverimutto; N Popplewell, T Kingston, P Wallace; G Fulcher, N Francis; V Costello, D Corkery, P Johns. Replacements: P Burke for Elwood (49 mins). NOEL O’REILLY