Though the final score was not unreasonable, 14-32, Old Glory showed very little of their former brilliance against Atlanta on Saturday. It was a thorough defeat, even though Old Glory was very nearly at full strength. There were some positives, but at this point the negatives are undeniable and unavoidable. As the team looks towards next year, having been officially eliminated from playoff contention, there will need to be some sort of change: in mentality, in strategy, and possibly even in personnel.
As always, Old Glory got off to a slow start. Atlanta punched in a try just three minutes in to take a lead they would never relinquish. It was followed by another ten minutes later and penalty a few after that to put the home team up 17-0. Rugby ATL dominated these opening minutes, with possession, territory, and pressure all in their favor.
Old Glory did start to build up some pressure, and eventually Thretton Palamo was able dash over for five, which Robertson converted. However, another Atlanta score put them up 22-7 at the half.
Old Glory did allow another try in the second half, about eight minutes in, but overall they started to play a better game. They managed territory much better, and defensively they didn’t allow themselves to be overrun. However, they still weren’t doing enough to convert those positives to points.
A second Atlanta penalty kick gave them a 32-7 lead with just five minutes to go. However, Old Glory weren’t quite done yet. D’Montae Noble, who came on around the 60 minute mark, was once again a sensation. One last drive, sustained by a couple Atlanta penalties, let Callum Gibbins dive over for a last try to make the final score 32-12.
1. The team is missing something with the forwards
This is going to be a bit of a winding point, but stick with me. The team seems to be missing a certain je ne sais quois with the pack. A certain extra punchiness, an extra level of physicality. It’s affecting every part of their game, and once you see it you can’t unsee it.
Take defense, for example. Last year, and in fact the beginning of this year, OGDC was known for having an excellent goal-line defense. The defense became as stiff as a board within five meters, and while teams would sometimes score, they’d often require a dozen phases and several restarts to do it. That defense hasn’t shown up in a while. Instead, these days once a team makes it into the 22, there is almost always a try not long after.
But it’s not just an issue on the goal line. The number of line breaks that come through the middle recently, with a forward coming right off the ruck and smashing their way through, has been shocking. And often, because they are able to gain the front foot, they can offload to a support runner and keep things going. There seems to be no attempt to keep opponents on the back foot, allowing them to make the gainline with concerning ease.
On attack, there’s also a problem with our forward pods. Perhaps it’s simply a lack of creativity, as our forwards tend to just smash the line and fall, without offloading or trying to gather momentum. Often, the forwards are catching flat-footed, with no speed whatsoever, meaning they get hit before the gainline. The predictability here is a problem, as it allows the opposition’s forward to spread out into the back line. Then, when inevitably we have to pass out to the backs, they are facing a defensive overload and have no space to work with.
I’m not a coach, so I don’t know what the solution is here. I don’t even really know what the problem is. But I can see the symptoms, and I think that whatever lies at the root of this forwards problem is at the heart of Old Glory’s struggles.
2. Scrums were (mostly) good, lineouts were (mostly) bad
I want to give some credit to the forwards. At scrum time, they were mostly very good. Atlanta either went backwards or lost their feet in every scrum in the first half. The only annoyance I have is how infrequently Atlanta got penalized for it. Old Glory’s starting front row is on par with any in the league. After the youngsters came on in the second half, there was one terrible scrum. However, they managed to settle it down and were good enough. Considering their inexperience, I’ll take that as a win.
Lineouts, though, have been atrocious, and not just when the subs were on. The number lineouts that were not straight, incorrectly timed, or overthrown was simply unacceptable. Sure, Atlanta did a good job challenging almost every lineout. Sure, Stan South was injured after he was really finding a groove as a jumper. Sure, Mikey Sosnene-Feagai was just coming back from an injury. Still, an inability to consistently execute a lineout makes it very difficult to score, especially off of penalties kicked to the corner.
3. Playing the territory game requires taking territory and keeping it
Jason Robertson, star though he may be, had a bad game kicking for territory. When he was inside the 22, his kicks rarely made it within 10 meters of half way. Outside the 22, he struggled to give it any real distance, usually giving Atlanta possession around midfield.
Playing the territory game, where you kick to give up possession but gain territory, only really works if you actually gain territory. Otherwise, you are just giving up possession. And if you’ve been struggling all match to keep your opponent from going forward, then they won’t have a problem making up whatever small amount of territory you did manage to gain.
A good touch-finding kick for territory is difficult, a work of art. But like most art, when done badly it has very little value.
4. The young backs impress again
I feel like this is a takeaway every week, but that’s because it keeps being true. D’Montae Noble has been the best player on the field whenever he’s been on the last few weeks. His tackle-breaking runs, his aggressive defense, everything about him is electric. It feels like a waste to only give him twenty minutes every match.
Sam Cusano has been a lot less flashy but very solid. He came on early in this match to replace DTS, and it took me a while to notice. He seamlessly stepped into the role and handled it well, which is impressive.
Mike Dabulas is similar. Atlanta put a lot of pressure on the Old Glory back three this week, pressuring them with well-chased kicks. Dabulas handled that pressure well, showed good decision-making, and even put in a few good touch-finders. It was clear in this match why he was selected for the national team.