USA Eagles draft in Test coach heavyweights as they face the unthinkable
Gary Gold, the USA Eagles head coach, has drafted in experienced coaches Mario Ledesma and John Plumtree in a bid to grab the final place at the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France by winning the qualifying tournament in Dubai against Portugal, Hong Kong and Kenya.
The tournament takes place in the Dubai heat over three weekends starting on Sunday with the USA Eagles taking on Kenya and Gold knows he is at the last chance saloon having seen his men fail to qualify for France by falling to shock defeat by Chile in a doubleheader in July. In response to that serious body blow, Gold has turned to Ledesma and Plumtree who have been working with the Eagles in Colorado and most recently on a three week camp in South Africa where they played friendly matches.
Ledesma, the former Argentina head coach, was the Wallabies forwards coach at the 2015 Rugby World Cup and is currently the consultant for the Dallas Jackals in the MLR. Plumtree was until July this year the All Blacks forwards coach before being axed having also held assistant coaching roles with Ireland and Japan during a long career in the sport
The ‘reward’ for the winners in Dubai is a place in Pool C, one of the toughest groups, alongside Wales, Australia, Fiji and Georgia at the World Cup. Gold said: “Mario and John will be staying with us until the end of the qualifying matches and it was one of the areas we identified after falling short against Chile.
“I was very keen to improve our defence and details around the forwards because at crucial times in the games with Chile we let ourselves down. I spoke to both of them and our paths have crossed many time and we have worked together. John came in a spent time with us when I was with the Springboks and Mario has a wonderful track record.
“I gave them both a call and luckily for us they were very keen and we don’t have that much money and they are doing it for basically the love of the game. Mario, I understand, is more of a consultant with Dallas in the MLR helping them put structures in place they felt weren’t there. That will take front and centre for him once he has finished with us.
“The pressure is on us coaches and it is huge to qualify for the Rugby World Cup and we have to make sure we do not heap pressure onto the players. If we are successful, it could be a great binding exercise going into the World Cup in France because, ironically, if we weren’t in this position the coaches and players would not have been able to work together for six weeks. Except for the 2019 World Cup we have never had the players for more than six days training.
“The European players didn’t join us until this week and the time in South Africa has been a great experience and brilliant for the American guys many of whom have not been out of the country let alone playing in places like Bloemfontein against the Cheetahs. For us to get training time together has been incredible.”
With America having been awarded the men’s Rugby World Cup in 2031 and the women’s tournament in 2033 it is vital for the profile of the sport in that country the Eagles are part of the 2023 Cup in France. Gold’s team will be favourites to qualify although he is wary of the back line threats posed by Portugal with a number of their players at France clubs. Gold will rely on the controlling influence of captain AJ McGinty who is now at Bristol along with Newcastle lock Greg Peterson, Toulouse prop David Ainu’u, Saracens pair of hooker Kapeli Pifeleti and scrum half Ruben de Haas and Agen’s Mikey Sosene-Feagai.
The conditions in Dubai will be a factor and Gold is hoping the time spent in Bloemfontein playing and training will pay dividends. He explained: ”The qualifying matches are over three weekends and it is going to be extraordinarily hot and that was the method in our madness for coming to Bloemfontein as we wanted to replicate the climate conditions – very dry and hot – and we played a couple of warm up games. Dubai is going to be hotter and around 35C . Some of the games are in the afternoon and we have worked very hard in hot conditions to prepare for Dubai and lets hope it works in our favour.
“The overriding lesson from the Chile games is that we made critical errors in game like being 19-0 up with an attacking line out just before half time but we gave away three successive penalties that lead to a yellow card and then they score two tries in four minutes and its 19-14. Silly discipline errors.
“The game has become incredibly tough in terms of refereeing interpretations at key moments with different outcomes. You have to adapt your game around being smart in the tackle to try and take the referee out of the game as much as possible but it is complicated trying to triple guess the interpretation.
“It is going to be a tough three weeks in Dubai but we have to be particularly hard on ourselves and not make silly errors. If you get a red at the start of the first game not only are you down to 14 men for the rest of the match that player is gone for the rest of the tournament. It has catastrophic consequences and a difficult minefield to negotiate.
“We have been able to get information on the three teams we play and we cannot take any team lightly and Portugal are very impressive. They have got practically an entire back line that plays in France and on paper they are a better attacking team than Chile. We don’t know how much time the other teams have had together and they have had World Rugby support and we cannot afford to slip up in any of these games.”
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