No country for mixing rugby and biking

The idea was to ride my bike across Montana and North Dakota and keep track of the Seattle Seawolves rugby team at the same time.

It was an idea doomed to fail.

The Seawolves vs. Austin Elite game on Saturday, June 9, was not carried on TV networks available in Jordan, MT, (pop. 386). Especially since the game was played on Friday, June 8, which shows you how out of touch I was after four days of bike riding (246 miles). I heard it was a nail-biter with Seattle winning, 20-19.

And Seawolves vs. Glendale Raptors on Saturday, June 16, while in Lisbon, ND, (pop. 2,124)? Forget it. Yes, really forget it. Seattle lost 33-11.

But I did get to see the U.S. team beat Scotland, 30-29, which bodes well for the national team going forward. Maybe a win or two in the 2019 Rugby World Cup? That would be welcome across the land – even in Jordan and Lisbon, should they hear of it.

About this bike ride: It was not my idea. My sister gets credit/blame for that. It’s her goal/obsession to ride across all of the lower 48 states. We did Iowa and Nevada in 2017. Arkansas, North Dakota and the rest of Montana were on tap for 2018. I promised to ride across Arkansas with her, but our plans fell apart due to other priorities.

I said I would be support and gear/guidance (SAG) for her on Montana/North Dakota. But when her riding partner backed out, what kind of brother would I be if I left her pedaling alone somewhere between Great Falls, MT, and Fargo, ND?

KT at truck
Kathy preparing lunch the first day at the SAG wagon.

SAG duties fell to the spouses, and Kathy and Don can never be thanked enough.

JB and Don
With Don along the way in Napoleon, North Dakota.

It all started on June 4 when Kathy and I started the drive from Seattle. . .

 

 

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.

United States has one last chance to show improvement and win a game

The United State rugby team gets its last chance to win a game in the 2015 Rugby World Cup when they take on Japan at Kingsholm Stadium in Gloucester on Sunday.

For Japan, a win would make their third place finish in Pool B look a bit healthier, but even with a five-point bonus win they would fall a point short of taking the runner-up spot from Scotland.

It could have been much more meaningful if on Saturday Samoa had defeated Scotland. Then a win by Japan over the United States would have put Japan through to the quarter finals. Or, the U.S. Eagles could have played spoiler to Japan and helped the Scots through. But Samoa couldn’t quite get it done, losing 36-33.

In the quarter finals, Scotland will play Australia, the winner of Pool A after defeating Wales Saturday 15-9. South Africa gets Wales in the quarter finals.

New Zealand and Argentina advance from Pool C, but won’t know their quarter final opponents until after the Franc-Ireland game on Sunday.

A win by the Eagles on Sunday would do a lot to restore some belief in the outlook by U.S. Coach Mike Tolkin that things are headed in the right direction for U.S. rugby. After the 64-0 drubbing by South Africa, fans could rightfully be skeptical of Tolkin’s optimism.

As he says in the video above, the U.S. did pretty well in the first half (as they did against Samoa and Scotland), holding a full Springbok team to 14 points from two tries that came only after they had to “work their way down the field.” Then, as he says, South Africa got going in the second half, scoring 50 points.

Tolkin sees the problem correctly — many young players in the lineup with little experience at the international or World Cup level. He saw good performance by individuals but not as a team.

For the game on Sunday, Tolkin is starting 13 players who were not in the South Africa starting 15. Only Samu Manoa at No. 8 and Zack Test, a winger, remain from the game played on Wednesday.

Tolkin said he was also frustrated with the four-day turnaround between the two matches and said he “was not alone in that.”

“I’m sure the Rugby World Cup will look at that.”

As for U.S. rugby, he says things will get better.

“Four years down the road, it will be interesting to see what happens in the game,” Tolkin said in calling for international rugby to continue investing in “tier two” nations.

As he said after the Scotland game, the U.S. side would improve with more professional experience.

“Half my guys will have to go to work on Monday,” Tolkin said, and that will not mean going back to play on professional teams in top tier nations. It will mean resuming jobs as plumbers, fitness trainers, etc.

But Tolkin says he thinks that is about to change and predicted professional rugby union competition in the Untied States “soon.”

I like the idea, but I remain skeptical.

Bryan Habana delivers a pass in the game against the United States. He scored three tries in the game to tie Jonah Lomu's record of most tries scored in the World Cup (15).
Bryan Habana delivers a pass in the game against the United States. He scored three tries in the game to tie Jonah Lomu’s record of most tries scored in the World Cup (15).

Five big days ahead for the U.S. rugby team

Beat South Africa today, and then Japan on Sunday. That’s the task ahead for the United States Eagles in the Rugby World Cup if they want to assure themselves a place in the 2019 tournament in Japan.

Advancing through Pool B to the quarter finals is now out of reach for the Eagles, but getting a RWC win and saving face is still possible for the U.S.

Knocking off the Springboks is a tall order although it’s been done. Japan surprised South Africa and the world by doing so in the first weekend of the tournament. But since then South Africa has shown they have moved beyond that loss, defeating Samoa and Scotland convincingly.

U.S. Coach Mike Tolkin has made several changes in his lineup. He may be resting his best players for the Japan game on Sunday, the last game before the quarter finals start the next weekend.

Tolkin said after the loss to Scotland that he still thought the U.S. could win games in the tournament. We’ll see.

Most of the pools have been sorted out for what teams will advance to the knock-out rounds. But there are still some games this weekend that will have a big impact on what comes next:

Pool B: Samoa vs. Scotland on Saturday. The Scots would love to have this win and a bonus point for scoring four tries. It’s their last game of pool play and they trail South Africa 11-10 in the standings. Whichever team goes out the winner will play the runner up in Pool A.

Pool A: Australia vs. Wales on Saturday. Right now they are tied in the standings with 13 points a piece. Going out as the pool winner would probably mean meeting Scotland in the quarter finals instead of South Africa. That would be my choice.

Pool C: New Zealand plays Tonga and Argentina plays Namibia. Barring an even bigger surprise than Japan over South Africa, the All Blacks and the Pumas will win and go out 1-2.

Pool D: Italy vs. Romania on Sunday will probably determined who takes third place in the pool and wins a guaranteed trip to the 2019 RWC. The stakes are higher for this time around in the game between France and Ireland on Sunday. They are tied with 14 points apiece, and the pool winner will likely face Argentina in the quarters, much preferable to taking on New Zealand.

USA vs. South Africa starts in an hour and 15 minutes.

U.S. coach frustrated by team’s second-half effort

Mike Tolkin, head coach of the U.S. rugby team, didn’t like the Eagles’ second-half performance in their loss Sunday to Scotland.

Speaking at the post-game media conference, Tolkin blamed the failure to sustain a winning first-half effort on poor lineout play, too many penalties and Scotland’s ability to keep the U.S. from pursuing the planned approach to the rest of the game.

Chris Wyles, the U.S. captain, told the media he didn’t think Tolkin’s assessment was too harsh.

Second-half letdown isn’t new to the Eagles. The U.S. stood 14-8 behind at the half against Samoa in its first game in the Rugby World Cup before giving up 11 points in the second half and only scoring eight more in the eventual 25-16 loss.

So what is it that leads to second-half letdowns? Tolkin blamed it on the lack of professional experience on the part of many U.S. players.

“Without professional play in the U.S., players don’t get those week-to-week tough games to harden them,” Tolkin said.

Which raises the question of how U.S. players can get the kind of professional play that Tolkin is talking about. The formation of a professional league within the U.S. seems a daunting task.

Where would the games be played? To collect admissions, control of the gate is needed, but most U.S. rugby games are played on open fields. So stadiums are needed. Does that mean playing on the narrow fields of American football stadiums?

Building stadiums for rugby seems an unlikely financial event at this time although some clubs are beginning to secure their own grounds. The Glendale, Colo., Raptors and Atlanta Old White come to mind.

Absent professional play in the U.S., prospective Eagles will continue to find it in other lands, where they compete for spots with players from Pacific Island nations.

Even if Tolkin had his choice of 15 players from the top clubs in Europe, Australia, South Africa or New Zealand, he would have the problem of getting them all on the same field enough times for them to jell as a unit. Another daunting task given the competing professional schedules and the practice needs in the run-up to the World Cup.

There’s still South Africa and Japan to play in this World Cup, but it’s hard not to look ahead to 2019 when the World Cup is in Japan. For now, it looks like developing players in the States and serving as a farm system for professional leagues in other countries may be the U.S. best hope for making it through pool play in a World Cup, which isn’t going to happen this time around despite Tolkin’s statement Sunday that the Eagles still intend to win in the two remaining games in Pool B.

In the first half, aggressive tackling by the U.S. caused several mishandles by the Scotland team.
In the first half, aggressive tackling by the U.S. caused several mishandles by the Scotland team.

U.S. leads Scotland at halftime but can’t hang on to win

Titi Lamositele of Bellingham is on top of the loose ruck as the United States has the ball out against Scotland
Titi Lamositele of Bellingham is on top of the loose ruck as the United States has the ball out against Scotland

The United States rugby team led Scotland 13-6 at halftime in their Rugby World Cup match but could not hold up to the Scot’s spirited attack in the second half and went down 39-16.

The Eagles are now 0-2 in pool play with South Africa and Japan left to play. Scotland has won both of their games and leads Pool B halfway through the competition. The top two teams will advance to the quarter finals.

Titi Lamositele of Bellingham bulled over for a try to lead the U.S. to a their halftime advantage on Sunday at Elland Roads stadium in Leeds, England. At 20 minutes into the game, the Eagles won the ball from a lineout, had it out to the back line where No. 8  Samu Manoa filled in to crash through the Scots’ defense. Stopped about five yards out from the try line, the U.S. won several loose rucks before Lamositele took the ball and pressed it into pay dirt.

The U.S. scored first just past a minute in the game on a penalty kick by Alan MacGinty. But Scotland took advantage of mistakes by the U.S. to take the lead 6-3 on two penalty kicks.

The Eagles’ hard hitting seemed to put the Scots off their game, and several mishandles kept them out of the try zone.

But in the second half, Scotland found ways to score from all over the field, from the back line on the outside, then from an inside back move. Then the forwards pushed over a try before Scotland got one more from their backs. The U.S. had steady possession at the end of the game, but their best chance was lost when Olive Kilifi of the Seattle Saracens lost control of the ball when tackled hard five yards out from the line. The knock-forward resulted in a Scotland scrum and a clearing kick to get out of trouble.

But

MacGinty added one more penalty before the half, which ended with the U.S. up 13-

Bellingham player leads U.S. in first half against Scotland

Hard tackles like this one by Thretton Palamo led to mishandling by Scotland in the first half.
Hard tackles like this one by Thretton Palamo led to mishandling by Scotland in the first half.

Titi Lamositele of Bellingham bulled over for a try to lead the U.S. national rugby team to a 13-6 halftime advantage over Scotland Sunday at Elland Roads stadium in Leeds, England.

The Eagles’ hard hitting in their second match in the Rugby World Cup seemed to put the Scots off their game and several mishandles kept them out of the try zone.

The U.S. scored first just past a minute in the game on a penalty kick by Alan MacGinty. But Scotland took advantage of mistakes by the U.S. to take the lead 6-3 on two penalty kicks.

But at 20 minutes into the game, the Eagles won the ball from a lineout, had it out to the back line where No. 8  Samu Manoa filled in to crash through the Scots’ defense. Stopped about five yards out from the try line, the U.S. won several loose rucks before Lamositele took the ball from the ruck and pressed it into pay dirt.

MacGinty added one more penalty before the half, which ended with the U.S. up 13-

Barbecue in England? It’s on the weekend itinerary

American rugby fans can expect to be outnumbered in Leeds this weekend by the supporters of Scotland.

“Scotland will be the biggest group for Leeds with the U.S. a close second,” said Charlotte Rutherford, PR and Marketing Manager at Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership.

Leeds is one of the closest game venues to Scotland in the Rugby World Cup, and Rutherford said the city will be filled with Scots arriving to cheer on their team in Sunday’s match against the USA Eagles.

Canada will play Italy on Saturday at Elland Road Stadium, the first rugby union international to be played there.

Rutherford noted that for the CEO of USA Rugby, Nigel Melville, having rugby union in Leeds is like a homecoming for him as he was born in Leeds.

Rutherford said Leeds is a compact city so that fans can visit a lot in a short time. But if you only have time to visit one thing, Rutherford suggested the Henry Moore Institute. The “VisitBritain” guide to the tournament says the institute celebrates sculpture and is named after Leeds College of Art’s most famous graduate. It says the institute is “part of the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle, which is the largest collection of modern sculpture in Europe.”

Rutherford also suggested the Leeds Art Galley, which the guide says has a broad range of exhibitions.

For food, Rutherford was downright enthusiastic about Red’s True Barbecue. BBQ in England?

“Each year Red’s takes a pilgrimage to a Southern U.S. state and brings back what they have learned and shares it.”

See you there.

Rise of second-tier rugby nations still seems a dream of the future

U.S. in action against Samoa.
U.S. in action against Samoa.

What to make of Japan’s 45-10 loss to Scotland Wednesday?

Last Saturday after defeating South Africa 34-32, the Japanese were giant-killers, hailed as the vanguard of second-tier rugby nations moving up to compete with the best in the Rugby World Cup.

That did not appear the case on Wednesday. Japan held the Scots to a 12-7 halftime lead and then added another penalty to make it 12-10 soon after the break. But from then on it was all Scotland, as they ran in try after try, picking up the bonus point for scoring at least four in a match.

Japan had little possession, lacked a defensive answer to the Scots and even at the end could not score a face-saving try despite multiple phases with the ball. That was a change from Saturday when they chose to go for a try and a win rather than a penalty kick and a draw. They succeeded then but didn’t have the power or finesse to do so Wednesday.

So what happened? Was the Saturday game a fluke? A very bad day for the Springboks and a tremendous day for Japan? Or maybe South Africa is not the powerhouse of years past?

On Wednesday, the Japanese were playing on four days rest after a bruising game against South Africa. They may have surprised South Africa but lost that element against Scotland.

Scots were playing their first game of the tournament Wednesday. They will face the United States on Sunday with only four days rest, but much of the second half against Japan saw many reserves on the pitch. The Eagles can’t count on much of a break from Scotland’s short turnaround.

Mike Tolkin, the US coach, said after the Sunday loss to Samoa that he wanted fewer penalties and a more steady game from the Eagles in their next game. The Eagles will need all of that and more this coming Sunday in Leeds.

After looking at the four tournament pools, it’s hard not to come away with impression that the second-tier teams still have a ways to go, despite what Japan managed last Saturday.

How things stand:

Pool A: Wales and England each have five points in the standings. They play each other on Saturday.

Pool B: Scotland has the lead with five points and plays Samoa on Saturday. Samoa and Japan each have four points, South Africa has 2 and the U.S. none.

Pool C: New Zealand and Georgia each have four points. The All Blacks play Namibia tonight. Georgia, which surprised Tonga in their first match, plays Argentina on Friday. Hard not to see New Zealand taking control in this pool.

Pool D: France clobbered Romania 38-10 on Wednesday and has nine points to lead the pool. Ireland picked up five points in its 50-7 win over Canada last weekend and play Romania on Sunday. The Irish could take the pool lead with a four-try performance on Sunday. With two teams advancing from each pool, this one seems a likely candidate to come down to the last pool match on Sunday, Oct. 11, when the French and Irish meet.

Japan’s win scrambles Pool B prospects

Not sure that Australian scrum half Nick Phipps would still say this about the U.S. rugby team now, but before the Wallabies beat the Eagles 47-10 on Sept. 5, he told The Guardian: “They should cause a couple of upsets at the World Cup. They have some very big, dominant forwards. They have some really big, tall timber in the second row. They also have a couple of centers that are hard runners, and are quite skillful in the offload area as well. They have got threats all around the park.”

The Eagles will need to use all those threats on Sunday as they face Samoa in their first Rugby World Cup 2015 match. A win over Samoa would not be an upset as they have come within a try of beating the Islanders in previous matches. But a win could set up the U.S. to do well in Pool B, which was set topsy-turvy on Saturday with Japan’s upset win over South Africa, previously the heavy favorite to win the pool.

Even with a win on Sunday, it would still be a tough road ahead for the Eagles. Japan is obviously not going to be an easy win on October 11, and before then the U.S. will face Scotland and South Africa, who will be looking to pick up the extra pool points that come with scoring four tries in a match. The way this Pool B is starting out, it could be decided not just on wins and losses, but on getting the advantage through scoring more tries.

It’s set up for a very competitive couple of weeks.