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And while I know this weekend’s lineup for the USA is not a final statement, but a final tryout, I still am excited about the ideas.
First off, and most important, Paul Emerick at inside center. As RUGBYMag.com’s Pat Clifton said in the most recent RuggaMatrix America podcast, and as many others have pondered over the past couple of years, this seems a logical place for Emerick to go. He is a powerful runner, who carries defenders with him, and he can tackle.
Partnering Tai Enosa with Emerick is an interesting choice. Not praised for his defense, Enosa is a supremely elusive runner, and his slicing up of the Canadian defense in the late moments of last weekend’s match showed that.
It’s unlikely this is the grand midfield pairing, of course, but it’s good to see it tested out before the World Cup.
The second big selection is James Paterson at wing. I must confess I am surprised to see Paterson start, rather than on the bench, but in the end, if he’s fit to play, he’s fit to play a full game.
The rest of the lineup is a mixture of players secure in their selections, and players who need one more chance to make the right impression.
Nic Johnson has done enough to show he’s probably the starting No. 8, but JJ Gagiano needs some time in the back row somewhere, and No. 8 is as good a place as any, although one wonders if Lou Stanfill and Gagiano will switch places at times at the back of the scrum.
Pat Danahy is one of those players who has one more big chance, while Kevin Swiryn is on the wing hoping to return to his form of 2009-2010.
Eric Fry, it seems, has a World Cup place sewn up. The question is, how much playing time will he get? He gets to control that question on Sunday.
On the optimistic side, this is a team of quick ball and quick thinking. Paterson and Enosa both are quick-footed and look for work. So if Emerick can make the gain line and successfully offload, then those guys should cause some damage and score some tries.
The forward group is quick to the ball and eager, and Petri has quick service. So perhaps this time the Eagles can finish attacking moves because they get to the breakdown quickly, win it quickly, pass it out quickly, and catch Japan napping.
Japan, for their part, is a tougher, more physical team than the one the Eagles beat in the 2003 World Cup. Their locks are huge, and their back row, while relatively short, is mobile, and led by N0. 8 Takashi Kikutani is very tough in the breakdown.
Their backline loves space and will get it by trying to run Kikutani and flankers Sione Vatuvei and Tadasuke Nishibara up the gut, along with shifty scrumhalf Tomoki Yoshida, a veteran of 23 caps, also probing the interior channels.
If they attract too much attention, the backline will reap the rewards: Murray Williams at flyhalf, Ryan Nicholas and Alisi Tupuailei at center, and Takehisa Usuzuki, Hirotoki Onozawa and Taihei Ueda in the back three.
This is not a hugely experienced Japan team. Their threequarter line has three players with over 20 caps – Yoshida, Nicholas and Onozawa, with the last of those entering the summer with 60. Tupuailei has 14, while the other three have barely six among them.
Up front, they are a little more grizzled. Thompson, Ono and Kikutani all number over 30 caps (sometimes way over), while two of the front row are pushing 20. But Vavutei and Nishibara, and Nozomu Fujita in the front row, have less than ten each.
So it’s a test for both teams, with players trying to prove themselves among players who will be required to lead.
For the Eagles, more than anything, fans will want to see tries for all the effort. If they see that, they will see improvement, and, perhaps, a new vision as to how this lineup should be put together.