Pro rugby arrives in Seattle Sunday

Predicting the outcome of a game between two rugby teams in their first regular- season pro games in a new league’s first ever weekend of competition is a foolhardy task to attempt, something that would only occur in the mind of a journalist restless on the night before the game.

I plead guilty. Here goes:

The Seattle Seawolves have sold out Starfire Stadium in Tukwila for their game Sunday at 5 p.m. against the San Diego Legion. For Seattle, it’s the first pro rugby ever played in the city.

San Diego had a taste of Pro Rugby – in capital letters as a proper name – in 2016 when that effort had a one-year existence. The San Diego Breakers were part of that league, and Matt Hawkins, who has been a highly visible part of American rugby for more than a decade, was an assistant coach. He reappears in the Legion organization as the general manager. Anyone who has seen Hawkins play knows he is likely to have a hard-nosed team at Starfire on Sunday.

It’s hard to get a sense of the Legion’s roster from the team web site, which is by far the worst in Major League Rugby, but from reading the match reports of their pre-season games, some names stand out. Cam Dolan at Number 8 appears to be a forward who can run in the open and score. Nate Augspurger at scrum half, Ben Cima at center and Taku Ngwenya on the wing are described as backline “firepower.” Tadhg Leader, the place kicker, looks steady. The Legion beat Austin Elite, 32-24, and lost 33-17 to the Houston SaberCats, led by former Seattle Saracen coach Justin Fitzpatrick.

Seattle comes into game under player-coach Phil Mack, known up north as “The Little Magician.” He took over coaching duties after Tony Healy, also from Canada, ran into visa troubles. Whether three weeks running the team has been enough time for Mack to mold a winner gets put to the test Sunday. Pre-season competition has been limited to a 47-7 trashing of the Prairie Wolf Pack, apparently a team of masochists out of Calgary as they traveled on to an 80-12 drubbing Friday at the hands, feet, shoulders and whatever else MLR’s Utah Warriors chose to apply to the Pack’s backsides.

A track meet like the Seawolves’ win over the Wolf Pack has the benefit of showing what every move, play and stratagem looks like in perfect execution against little defense. It has the disadvantage of lacking the kind of competition that reveals what happens when opponents disrupt perfection and your team must pick up the pieces and innovate – the real beauty of rugby.

Asked to make a prediction about Sunday’s game, Seawolves co-owner and operator Shane Skinner was at his political best: “The guys have trained incredibly hard so I predict they are going to put out their best possible effort – 100% confident on that!”

Having seen the Seawolves at practice, I know Shane is correct. They are a hard-working bunch. Shane sets a good example that even a journalist should follow:

I predict both teams will play at full speed and will not disappoint the 3,500 plus fans at Starfire on Sunday. See you there.

 

Seawolves preview and rugby primer at https://www.seattletimes.com/sports/other-sports/rugby-anyone-seattle-seawolves-begin-play-in-new-pro-sports-league/

 

 

And now for the Rugby World Cup disappointments

The U.S. against Samoa. Are the Eagles condemned forever to be the team of the future?
The U.S. against Samoa. Are the Eagles condemned forever to be the team of the future?

There’s a flip side to the best rugby matches in Rugby World Cup 2015, and that’s the games that disappointed. Not surprisingly, all of those are the matches that involved the United States team — four losses and no bonus points in the standings, which means they never came within seven points of an opponent and they never scored four tries in a game.

The quickest way to list the disappointments would probably be to look at the margin between winner and the United States, and that would bring the South Africa game right to the top: 64-0 with the Springboks scoring 50 of those in the second half.

Next would come the Scotland game, a loss by 23 points, then Japan (10 points) and Samoa (nine points).

But did anyone expect the U.S. team to beat South Africa, even after Japan knocked them off the opening weekend? I didn’t. Maybe not lose by 64 points, but a win against the Springboks ranged beyond even my open optimism.

Samoa and Japan seemed the games that the U.S. could win, but giving up 15 points on penalties against Samoa doomed that chance of victory. More penalties and poor defense sunk the chance of a win against Japan.

So given my expectations, here’s how I would list those games from the most disappointing to the least:

Samoa

Japan

Scotland

South Africa

Stuart Barnes, writing in The London Times, listed his first to worst teams and somehow the U.S. made it up from the bottom to No. 15, but I suspect his disappointment in England’s performance and a general dislike of things French put those two teams below the U.S. along with Canada, Tonga and Samoa.

What Barnes said about U.S. rang true: “They are always touted as the coming team but seem to be in no great hurry and rarely looked like a cohesive team in their sorry sequence of defeats.”

That statement reminds me of a story I did back in the 1960s while working for the Associated Press. The story was about transportation systems and what might be coming in the cities of Ohio, where I worked. I asked a Cincinnati transportation planner about the prospect of monorail as an answer to moving people efficiently. His answer: “Monorail is the transportation of the future and always will be.”

Right now that looks like the fate of U.S. rugby: The world’s forever future team.

Australia vs. Scotland the match of the RWC tournament

NZ with ball
Off they go again. The New Zealand All Blacks cut through the Australia defense in the Rugby World Cup Final. One thing that struck me as I edited my photos from this match: Richie McCaw, the New Zealand captain, is in almost all of them, always around the ball. He is reaching over an Aussie player in this picture, looking up at the ball carrier.

Before we left London, Kathy asked if going to the Rugby World Cup measured up to all my expectations — a question that surprised me since I thought the giddy smile on my face for eight weeks made my delight obvious.

Let me count the way, m’lady. Thirteen international rugby matches. Theater seats for London and Stratford-upon-Avon shows. Hiking the hills, punting the river, browsing through every sort of attraction covering history, art, religion, architecture and others realms of human achievement.

Yes, a definite success and then some.

Then we decided over a restaurant meal to break it down: list the top five favorite things we did while in England. We both ticked off five before the waiter got the first glass of water to the table. We were approaching more than 10 favorites apiece before our order was taken.

In keeping within the rules of naming only five, I tried to do categories, so that one of my five choices was “the rugby games,” another was “Oxford colleges,” another “plays.” Cheater, cheater, Kathy protested.

My answer to this was to offer to list five choices within each category, and of course I started with the rugby games I saw. My five favorites:

  1. Scotland vs. Australia in the quarter final: If you take the measure of excitement generated in a game by how many times the lead changes, this match goes right to the top of the list. Four lead changes. Australia took an early lead, but Scotland took over for most of the first half and was ahead by one point at the break, 16-15. The teams were never more than eight points apart and most of the time were within three points of each other. Australia got up early in the second half until Scotland climbed back up to a 34-32 lead with under seven minutes to go in the game. Then came the bad call from the ref, a three-point penalty kick by Australia with less than two minutes left and that was the end of the tournament for Scotland.
  2. New Zealand vs. Australia in the final: How can the culminating game of the tournament not be No. 1 on this list? It probably would be if the Scotland-Australia match hadn’t been one that had me jumping out of my seat and endangering my laptop on the media table in front of me. The final threatened to be a boring, let’s-play-it-safe, penalty- kicking affair through most of the first half. It wasn’t until the clock had ticked off more than 38 minutes that New Zealand put together a thriller try from the back of a loose ruck with Aaron Smith getting two touches and then skipping a pass to “he’s everywhere!” Richie McCaw, who made one more pass to put Nehe Milner-Skudder in for the score. The All Blacks got up 21-3 and it was starting to look like a rout until Australia put together two converted tries and pulled within four points. All Black Dan Carter stomped on the Aussie momentum with a drop goal at 69 minutes. Every winning team needs a player who can perform this score-from-anywhere-inside-the-50 tactic. Nothing is so soul-killing for a team to be scored against this way. And Carter wasn’t done. He added a penalty kick at 73 minutes and all that was left to complete the game was a mishandle by Australia, kicked ahead by Ben Smith and a bounce up into the hands of Beauden Barrett for one more New Zealand score and a conversion by Carter. 34-17 All Blacks.
  3. The other quarterfinal — South Africa vs. Wales: Another close one. Most of the scoring came on penalty kicks, but the tries turned the fortunes of the game for both Wales and the Republic of South Africa. It went like this: 3-0 RSA, 6-0 RSA, 6-3 RSA, 9-3 RSA, 10-9 Wales (nothing like seven points from a converted try to get you back in the game), 12-10 RSA, 13-12 Wales (drop goal by Dan Biggar gave the Welsh the halftime lead), 16-12 Wales, 16-15 Wales, 18-16 RSA, 19-18 Wales, 23-19 RSA (nothing like five points from a try to get you the win). RSA 23, Wales 19.
  4. Canada vs. Italy: Canada got up 10-0 to start the game, which included a try by DTH van der Merwe, who scored in all four of Canada’s losses. Owen Slot, chief rugby correspondent for The London Times, named him to his all-tournament team this week saying “his try-a-game tally showed consistency and the try he started and finished against Italy was outstanding.” Yeah-yeah, as the English say when in agreement. Too bad Canada couldn’t finish one more of some great movements. That would have given them at least a tie. But Italy won, 23-18.
  5. Canada vs. Romania: Canada again? Yep. For an exciting game, it’s hard to beat a 15-point comeback. Just too bad that it was Romania coming back for a 17-15 win. You can’t look away from the train wreck and you don’t want it to happen, but you have say afterwards that it was exciting.

    The All Blacks spread the field in defense, and Australia seldom got through it.
    The All Blacks spread the field in defense, and Australia seldom got through it. And once again, McCaw is right there, in front of the tackle being made by Brodie Retallick (No. 4)

Australia moves ahead to RWC Final against New Zealand

Drew Mitchell wound his way through the Argentina defense, breaking tackles and sending a pass out to Adam Ashley-Cooper for his third try of the game.
Drew Mitchell, No. 11, wound his way through the Argentina defense, breaking tackles and sending a pass out to Adam Ashley-Cooper for his third try of the game.

Penalty kicks aren’t enough.  Six of them didn’t do it  for South Africa against New Zealand Saturday, and five didn’t work for Argentina on Sunday against Australia.

Ashley-Cooper scores his third try of the game.
Ashley-Cooper scores his third try of the game.

A team needs tries to win, and Australia had plenty of them — three from Adam Ashley-Cooper alone and another from Rob Simmons, who started the scoring for Australia with an intercepted pass and a gallop in for a try just more than a minute into the game. Bernard Foley converted three of those tries for another six points and added a penalty kick for three more, giving Australia a 29-15 win.

Argentina had trouble moving the ball into Australian territory and could only collect penalty points on five kicks by Nicolas Sanchez.

Australia will play New Zealand on Saturday, Oct. 31, in the finals of the Rugby World Cup 2015. That Southern Hemisphere showdown will be back here at Twickenham.

Argentina will meet South Africa, who lost to New Zealand 20-18, in the Bronze Final on Friday night at the Olympic Stadium in London.

Australia plays in Argentina half, lead 19-9 at the break

Adam Ashley-Cooper scores his first of two tries for Australia in the first half. The Wallabies lead 19-9 at half.
Adam Ashley-Cooper scores his first of two tries for Australia in the first half. The Wallabies lead 19-9 at half.

Australia’s Rob Simmons got the scoring started early in their semi final match against Argentina in the Rugby World Cup with his interception of a Puma pass. A second row grabbing a pass in the Argentina back line and galloping in for five points — not something you see everyday from a tight-five forward.

Bernard Foley converted the try as he would do again at 10 minutes into the game when Australia took advantage of a silly attempt by Argentina for a quick penalty that resulted in an Australian scrum, clean ball out to the backs and Adam Ashley-Cooper away to score in the corner.

He would score another try 10 minutes before half, but Foley could not convert.

Argentina played most of the half in their own territory and could only manage three penalty kicks by Nicolas Sanchez and go into the second half down 19-9.

Argentina fans and players spirted, but Aussies lead 14-3 early

The Argentina fans are the happiest I’ve seen in the tournament, lots of singing and dancing before the game here at Twickenham for this semi final match in the Rugby World Cup.

But the Pumas gave up an early converted try on an interception by Aussie second row Rob Simmons. At 10 minutes into the match, Australia has clean ball out from a set, finds the overlap and Adam Ashley-Cooper scores in the corner. Bernard Foley kicks the conversion and Wallabies lead 14-3.

South Africa has the halftime lead over New Zealand, 12-7

South Africa has good ball out from their scrum.
South Africa has good ball out from their scrum.

Early in this Rugby World Cup 2015, New Zealand blemished their wins with mishandles, some penalties and a very few missed tackles. But it hardly mattered as the All-Blacks swept away the competition in Pool C and then destroyed France in their quarterfinal game, 62-13.

But it matters today, especially the penalties: four of them that resulted in kicks by South Africa’s Handre Pollard to take a 12-7 lead.

The game has been a choppy sort of affair, not the smooth running dominance the All Blacks have shown in previous games — when they weren’t mishandling. Today’s game has been interrupted by NZ miscues, most of them at the loose play although they have also been guilty of collapsing a scrum.

The penalty with the most potential for damage came within two minutes of halftime when Jerome Kaino, trying to get on sides at a loose scrum played the ball from an offsides position. The referee ruled it a deliberate kick and served Kaino with a yellow card.

The All Blacks will be without him for about eight minutes in the second half. He scored the only try in the game, converted by Dan Carter for New Zealnd’s 7seven points.

Early in the first semi-final game, South Africa ahead 9-7

Three penalty kicks by South Africa for infringements by New Zealand, but the All-Blacks have the only try and a conversion.

Scored by Jerome Kaino, a wing forward, after what the radio announcer called a “basketball pass” over the head of South African defenders.

New Zealand guilty of more penalties in this game than would have been expected and their defense has been suspect at time. Most of the penalties have come at the loose play — offsides in most cases.

Rugby World Cup: Who can complain? Unless you’re from Scotland, of course

What a weekend of rugby at Twickenham Stadium.

One hundred and eleven points scored in two games and a difference of only five between the winners (South Africa and Australia) and the losers (Wales and Scotland). Both of these quarter-final games in the Rugby World Cup were decided in the final five minutes. (Not so in the other two quarter finals: New Zealand disposed of France 62-13, and Argentina had a surprisingly easy time against Ireland, 43-20)

South Africa was down 19-18 with five minutes to go when a try by Fourie du Preez gave the Springboks the margin they needed to beat Wales on Saturday.

Bear with me while I relive it:

Statue of a lineout at the entrance to Twickenham Stadium.
Statue of a lineout at the entrance to Twickenham Stadium.

Time: 7:45 Penalty kick by Handre Pollard. Score 3-0 South Africa

11:03 Penalty kick by Pollard. 6-0 South Africa

13:52 Penalty kick by Dan Biggar. 6-3 South Africa

15:35 Penalty kick by Pollard. 9-3 South Africa

17:37 Try by Gareth Davies, conversion by Biggar. 10-9 Wales

19:31 Penalty kick by Pollard. 12-10 South Africa

41:12 Drop goal by Biggar. 13-12 Wales

HALF

47:00 Penalty kick by Biggar. 16-12 Wales

51:45 Drop goal by Pollard. 16-15 Wales

60:26 Penalty by Pollard. 18-16 South Africa

63:25 Penalty kick by Biggar 19-18 Wales

74:25 Try by Fourie du Preez. 23-19 South Africa wins

Obviously helps to have a high-percentage kicker on the field. Pollard missed two penalty kicks, and Biggar had one hit the upright and fall back into play. In between all the scoring by kicks, there was some furious loose play and some exciting runs. Both tries scored came from remarkable ball handling, especially the Wales try after Biggar gathered in his own kick and made the pass to Davies as he was tackled.

Both teams played hard; the clock ran out with South Africa ahead.

No complaints.

Plenty for Scotland. Papers Monday morning screaming about how the Scots were robbed “at the death” and bringing special attention to the post-game dash into the tunnel and out of the public eye by referee Craig Joubert.

Scotland had the lead over Australia, 34-32, with less than two minutes left in the game when Joubert called Scotland’s Jon Welsh for being offsides. At worse, it looked like accidental offsides to me, which would have been a scrum to Australia. Mick Cleary in The Daily Telegraph on Monday dissects the play this way:

Scotland throws to the back of a lineout but David Denton can’t handle it. My friend Eddie, who went to the game with me, points out that had Scotland secured the ball in the lineout and kept possession for less than two minutes, they would have won.

But they didn’t. Instead, the ball was knocked forward by Scot wing forward John Hardie. The ball careens into Australian Nick Phipps and then to the ground. Welsh falls on the ball and is called for being in an offside position. As Cleary says in his report, “Joubert ruled that . . . Welsh was in an offside position following the initial knock-on by John Hardie.” But if Phipps was intentionally trying to play the ball — after the match he said he was — and then knocks it forward, that puts Welsh onsides — he’s in front of the Australian player.

To me, it looked like the ball bounced off Phipps and went to the side of Welsh, who turned and fell on the ball from the Australian side of the play. But after Phipps touches the ball, it’s in open play and Welsh can play a loose ball from any direction.

Robbed at the death, I say.

Indulge me now while I relive it:

Time 8:29 Try by Adam Ashley-Cooper. Score 5-0 Australia

12:51 Penalty kick by Greig Laidlaw 5-3 Australia

18:00 Try by Peter Horne, conversion by Laidlaw. 10-5 Scotland

20:12 Penalty kick by Laidlaw. 13-5 Scotland

29:36 Try by Drew Mitchell. 13-10 Scotland

32:21 Penalty kick by Laidlaw 16-10 Scotland

38:36 Try by Michael Hooper. 16-15 Scotland

HALF

42:00 Sean Maitland is called for intentionally knocking the ball forward. Scotland playing with 14 men for 10 minutes.

43:00 Try by Mitchell, conversion by Bernard Foley. 22-16 Australia

47:00 Penalty kick by Laidlaw. 22-19 Australia

53:12 Penalty kick by Foley. 25-19 Australia

58:12 Try by Tommy Seymour. 25-24 Australia

64:16 Try by Tevita Kuridrani, conversion by Foley. 32-24 Australia

67:48 Penalty kick by Laidlaw. 32-27 Australia

73:21 Try by Mark Bennett, conversion by Laidlaw. 34-32 Scotland

78:10 Penalty kick by Foley. 35-34 Australia wins.

Besides the bad call at the end of the game that gave the win to Australia, I think that all yellow cards given for an intentional knock on are too harsh. Even if the player knocks the ball forward intentionally, I think it should be a penalty kick only. For one thing, that would take refs off the hook in deciding whether the play was an intentional foul. And yellow cards should be reserved for dangerous play, not mishandling.

You have to love tries that pop up out of nowhere, usually the result of an alert player taking advantage of the other teams’ mistakes or capitalizing on their own good play. That was the case for two Scotland tries. Finn Russel gathered in an Australian kick he blocked and then tossed the ball up to Tommy Seymour who was in good support and went in for the try.

Mark Bennett scored his try by stepping in front of an Australian back, intercepting the intended pass to that back and dashing in for a score under the post.

Worth the price of admission, robbery and all.

What's rugby without rain? It fell at Twickenham on Sunday 71 minutes into the game.
What’s rugby without rain? It fell at Twickenham on Sunday 71 minutes into the game.

Here’s what USA Coach Mike Tolkin said after the loss

Your faithful reporter missed the post-game media conferences after the U.S. loss to Japan. The game ended at 21:35 (as they say over here), and the last train to Oxford and the apartment left at 21:59. So there wasn’t really any choice about it unless Kathy and I wanted to sleep in the Gloucester streets overnight.

She didn’t.

We rushed to the train station.

So the quotes here of what was said at the media conference come from the Rugby World Cup media site.

You will see that USA Head Coach Mike Tolkin is optimistic to the end, which may not sit well with some readers. I have said in earlier posts that I was skeptical about such optimism and whether it was justified given that the Eagles did not win a game or earn a bonus point in the Rugby World Cup standings. U.S. rugby fans keep being told to look ahead four years to the next World Cup, and judging from Facebook comments on earlier posts quoting Tolkin, that is no longer satisfactory.

I report here the quotes from the Rugby World Cup. That doesn’t mean I agree with them, as seems to have been the impression of an earlier post.

On where the match was lost:

“It was pretty clear we made some simple errors,” Tolkin said, “and whenever we scored we allowed Japan straight back into the game. We had momentum and then let it slip at critical times which was disappointing today.”

On the development of tier-two nations:

“I think it’s certainly a big stepping stone; the margins of victory have been far lower than previous tournaments. There haven’t been the massive blowouts in certain games and every game has been tough, so I think it will be interesting to see what happens in 2019 with tier-two teams.”

On his team’s World Cup performance:

“I think it has been the best we’ve ever performed. We have been consistent in every game and showed moments of brilliance and periods of good play, unfortunately our game management and other areas let us down.”

I thought Chris Wyles, the team captain against Japan, had a more realistic and pragmatic outlook. Here are his quotes from the Rugby World Cup media site:

On the team’s performance against Japan and the tournament overall:

“It came down to consistency, which is the story of our World Cup. Playing some good rugby, but not for the full 80. Credit to Japan, it shows what you can do if you have four years to prepare.

“We were in it against Samoa, good first half against Scotland, and showed some glimpses tonight against Japan. Disclpline throughout has been an issue for us, pushing the boundaries when we need to stay composed.

“No excuses, but it’s difficult with some of our guys playing domestic rugby in the States, and we need to find a way to get everyone on to a level playing field.”

On the ability of USA to compete at a higher level in future:

“There is a lot of talk about our potential, and it is up to us to find the formula to make that happen. We haven’t come away with a win, and we had one win at the last World Cup. So we have to find that formula.”

On being involved in the first try against Japan, and scoring a try himself:

“Any time you play in a World Cup it’s an amazing experience – until you’ve played in one you won’t understand it. But you want to win, not just take to the pitch and lose games against the top teams. So we’ve got four years in front of us to prepare for the next one.”

So now it is on to the quarter finals with Australia and Wales from Pool A meeting South Africa and Scotland from Pool B; New Zealand and Argentina from Pool C meeting Ireland and France from Pool D. Should be some good games in there. We will be at six of them.