US Eagles seek elusive win in Rugby World Cup qualifier against Canada
RugbyNation.com: Excellent review of how important the next Canada vs. US game is for the USA. USA must win this next game.
Video: Click on the link to watch a great video clip from their last game.
As the first of two World Cup qualifiers against Canada approaches, American men’s rugby has about it a definite sense of momentum. Unfortunately, that momentum has mostly been in evidence off the field.
With rugby sevens to be played at the 2016 Rio Olympics, talented athletes have been attracted from other sports. Attempts to establish a professional 15s competition continue, if as yet without fruition; New York and San Francisco are sending teams to this weekend’s World Club Sevens, in London; a record crowd watched the Eagles’ June Test against Ireland in Houston; and in May a very well connected audience congregated in Philadelphia for the Global Rugby Forum, an ambitious discussion of the future of the American game. That was followed by a step towards the necessary establishment of men’s rugby as a genuine college sport, as NBC announced that it will broadcast the final of the 2014 Varsity Cup.
On the field, though, the Eagles have had a challenging time. They began 2013 with a 16-9 defeat by Canada in Edmonton, in the Pacific Nations Cup, which Canada finished as runners-up, to Fiji. Mike Tolkin’s team finished last, beaten in Los Angeles by Tonga (18-9) and by Fiji (35-10) and Japan (38-20) in Nagoya and Tokyo. In the middle of that schedule, an Ireland team missing 10 British and Irish Lions escaped from the BBVA Compass Stadium with a 15-12 win.
In Houston and elsewhere, it was fair to say the Eagles had problems, not least in scoring tries and scrummaging. Nonetheless, their coach remains optimistic.
“Despite a disappointing summer,” Tolkin says, “we feel confident in our team. We have been making some adjustments to the way we play, but overall, we feel that we are a good team. Results are always vital in Test rugby; however, we can’t rush through building and developing a program. We need to keep going to work each day and improve each time out.”
An improvement on the Eagles’ last display with a full-strength team might well be enough for victory over Canada – it’s worth noting that while the Eagles, with the tough-tackling flanker Samu Manoa leading the way, stayed within three points of the Irish and kept their own line intact, the Canadians conceded six tries to a team that was even further depleted, and lost 40-14.
The US do not, however, have to get the win on Saturday, at Blackbaud Stadium in Charleston. The playoff against Canada is over two games (the second is at BMO Field in Toronto on 24 August), and it will be the winner on aggregate score who will qualify for England 2015. Nor would an aggregate defeat be a disaster – the loser will go on to another two-legged playoff, against Uruguay. (Even the loser of that will have another life, in a repechage competition with teams from outside the Americas.) But life will be a lot simpler if the Eagles can get past the Canadians.
They haven’t done that too often of late – or indeed ever, Canada having won 36 of 49 meetings since 1977, with one tie – but there can be no doubt the Eagles have the talent to prevail this time. Against Ireland, for example, Tolkin fielded a back row of Todd Clever (who plays in Japan and has played Super Rugby in South Africa), Scott LaValla (who plays for Stade Français in Paris) and Manoa, who has blindsided any number of unsuspecting unfortunates in England with Northampton. Tolkin rested most of his top players for the PNC defeats but apart from the centre Paul Emerick, who thanks to a persistent ankle injury has announced his retirement from the game, they will be back to face the Canadians.
Asked if this summer’s tough schedule has benefited his players, particularly those who do not play for clubs at the highest level, Tolkin replies: “Without question. The quality of the opposition improved from November [when the Eagles beat Russia and Romania], and we experienced it for the first time this summer with a lot of young players. After a little time off, the lessons have sunk in and we are all ready to bring a better game out against Canada.”
Key to that game – as to any game of rugby played by any team anywhere in the world – will be the generalship of the two teams’ fly-halves, the quarterbacks of the union game. Tolkin is encouraged by the progress shown so far this year by his pick in the position, the Californian-born, Australian-raised New York Athletic Club prospect Toby L’Estrange.
“Toby is a very good play maker and has excellent skills and devotion to our squad and to the game,” Tolkin says. “He would be one of the players who learned a lot from his experience this summer.”
When it comes to determining US rugby’s progress on the field, Tolkin, L’Estrange and the more experienced heads around him – and indeed everyone concerned with the American game – are about to learn a whole lot more.
USA squad, v Canada 17 & 24 August: Forwards: Chris Biller, Trevor Cassidy, Todd Clever, Peter Dahl, Cam Dolan, Brian Doyle, Zach Fenoglio, Eric Fry, Robert Garvis, Graham Harriman, Scott LaValla, Titi Lamositele, Samu Manoa, Shawn Pittman, Lou Stanfill, Phil Thiel, Nick Wallace, Travis Whitlock. Backs: Chris Chapman, Shaun Davies, Luke Hume, Seamus Kelly, Toby L’Estrange, Taku Ngwenya, Folau Niua, Mike Petri, Blaine Scully, Robbie Shaw, Roland Suniula, Andrew Suiniula, Chris Wyles
Canada team to face USA, 17 August: James Pritchard; Matt Evans, Ciaran Hearn, Nick Blevins, DTH van der Merwe; Harry Jones, Phil Mack; Andrew Tiedemann, Ryan Hamilton, Jason Marshall, Jebb Sinclair, Jamie Cudmore, Tyler Ardron, John Moonlight, Aaron Carpenter. Replacements: Ray Barkwill, Tom Dolezel, Doug Wooldridge, Tyler Hotson, Nanyak Dala, Sean White, Nathan Hirayama, Phil Mackenzie.