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Written By: Adam McQueen
The USA Eagles kicked off their Summer Series in scintillating fashion on Saturday, dominating the visiting Russians 62-13 in Colorado. The Eagles strung together numerous passages of quality rugby, punctuated by a flurry of late tries that will fill Gary Gold’s team with confidence to upend the heavily favoured Scotland this weekend in Houston, Texas.
Russia showed no signs of early match jitters as winger Mikhail Babaev burst across the line for the game’s first score in the third minute, slicing through the Eagle’s defense with a deft inside line. However, this would prove to be one of the only positive moments of the game for the Russians.
The Eagles quickly responded through their try-scoring machine Joe Taufete’e. The Worcester Warriors hooker capped off a crisp American counterattack, spearheaded by center Paul Lasike bumping off several would-be Russian tacklers. Lasike’s form in Major League Rugby has been impossible to ignore, and Gold’s trust in the Utah Warriors captain paid dividends – his ball-running magnetized the Russian defense off of set pieces and established a clean platform for the Eagles attack to work from all match long.
After a Russian penalty kick off a bone-jarring Samu Manoa hit brought the score to 10-5 in Russia’s favour, the Americans began to seize control of the game. Several phases of physical dominance were capped off by Glendale Raptors flanker John Quill, who rumbled over to give the Eagles their first lead in the 19th minute in front of his home crowd. The Eagles would continue to send waves of pressure, resulting in Paul Lasike squeezing through the Russian defense for their third try of the game.
Two pieces of individual brilliance would contribute to the next American tries before the halftime whistle. First, diminutive scrum half Shaun Davies climbed the step ladder to retrieve a high Russian kick and scurried through a disorganized defensive line. The Eagles swiftly recycled possession and zipped the ball across the pitch for Taufete’e to stroll in for his second score of the game. Winger Marcel Brache then scored what was arguably the try of the match, dancing between four Russian tacklers before diving for the corner flag to extend the lead to 34-13 at the break.
Brache’s transition to the wing - his preferred position with the Western Force - adds a new dimension to the Eagles attack. The second half had barely begun before Brache had bagged another try, collecting a grubber kick from AJ MacGinty that had slipped between the hands of the Russian fullback.
However, the next twenty minutes was strewn with errors as the Eagles seemingly had the game in hand and substitutes trickled onto the field. Although the slow, methodical Russians were unable to capitalize, Gary Gold will need to address the lapse in concentration ahead of facing a Scottish side that will punish the Eagles at any given moment.
The Eagles replacements managed to find their footing in the latter stages of the game.
After Brache punctured the line once more, substitute center Dylan Audsley was able to spring his San Diego teammate Nate Augsperger free for a sudden score. Augsperger’s injection of pace into the final quarter game is the very reason there have been murmurs that he is better suited to being a spark plug off of the bench, behind the steady hand of Shaun Davies.
Not to be outdone by his Legion teammates, eight man Cam Dolan lumbered through a tired Russian defense five minutes later that brought the Eagles to the half century mark. Captain Blaine Scully closed out the scoring, collecting a dazzling offload from lock Nick Civetta to complete the comprehensive victory.
Barring the brief spell in the second frame where the Eagles seemed to hit the snooze button, Gary Gold will find a lot of positives to take away from the performance.
Individuals such as the aforementioned Lasike and Taufete’e, the returning Samu Manoa, as well as John Quill, were all notable players that put in strong shifts. However, more importantly from a team perspective was the Eagles' ability to minimize errors and retain the ball with precision. They were no doubt buoyed by the calming presence of returning fly-half AJ MacGinty, who steered the ship with accuracy. Nevertheless, the Eagles constantly attacked the right areas of the pitch, and Gary Gold put personnel in the correct positions to excel.
The Eagles will now prepare for a formidable Scottish team that has bolstered its lineup considerably following a blowout 48-10 victory over Canada in Edmonton. Veterans Stuart Hogg, Peter Horne, and Tim Swinson return to a team that has infused age with experience. Youngsters George Horne and Adam Hastings will make up the halfback pairing.
The Scottish pack dominated the Canadians at scrum time and ground them down with driving mauls, and will now reintroduce the likes of Jamie Bhatti and Zander Fagerson.
The Eagles will need to hold up in this area if they have any chance of pulling off an unprecedented upset. Another area that Gary Gold will look to improve upon is at the breakdown – the Eagles did not contest rucks against the Russians and seemed content on allowing the Bears to beat themselves. However, the same policy will not work against Scotland who happily sent waves of runners through the Canadian defense at will.
It may be the greatest moment in American rugby history if the Eagles can topple the sixth ranked team in the world this Saturday. It is a tall order. However, the USA seems better suited than ever before to have a crack at a tier one nation.