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It’s the beginning of a long period during late winter and early spring where Tolkin and his coach staff will be on the sidelines at a variety of games and tournaments looking for talent. With a front line group of national team players that is quite good to very good, Tolkin now has to turn his eye toward developing depth, and perhaps finding a special talent who could be fast-tracked to the Eagles.
Coming up for the USA team this year is a non-test clash with Canada in May. That will be a perfect time for Tolkin to test some domestic players who haven’t received any, or much, time with the full Eagles squad. Someone like Graham Harriman, or Shaun Davies, or John Quill could get a lot out of that game. However, unlike with the ARC, Tolkin is expected to insert some veteran leadership in the lineup (such as SFGG’s Chris Biller).
Interestingly, Todd Clever would be potentially available for this match, but it remains a question as to whether that game would make sense for him, what with five games in June and the two World Cup Qualifiers in July.
In addition, there is still talk of a major touring side coming Stateside, so it will be a busy time. Tolkin will have domestic players in camp for a long weekend in the spring, and then they will assemble again for the Canada non-test in May.
And then right after that the full Eagles will be assembled for the summer tests.
With so much going on, Tolkin will probably look to rest some players. Those who have been playing professionally will have to get some time off. England Premiership Final is in the last week in May, the French Top 14 final is a week later. It’s not unreasonable to think that players such as Chris Wyles or Taku Ngwenya might be caught up in all that.
As well, Tolkin appears to be feeling that some other USA players who cannot play as frequently as we might like. Some players will need a game off, and to give them that rest, he needs depth.
Where does he have it, and where does he need it?
Need: Prop. Shawn Pittman and Eric Fry are the top guys, but after that things get thin. Certainly a healthy Mike MacDonald would be a wonderful addition, but he is not a long-term solution. Players like Nick Wallace, Matt Crawford, and others need to step up. Will Johnson is back on the field, could he play a role?
Not Bad: Hooker. Chris Biller, whose lineout throwing was virtually perfect in the November test matches, seems to be the #1 guy. After him, though, there is some ability. Derek Asbun is still able, and so is Zach Fenoglio, who both are overseas now. Coming out of the college ranks are some very useful #2s.
Need: Height at Lock? Maybe not. This was an issue we at RUGBYMag used to talk about, but the Eagles toured in November with a bunch of loose forwards who topped out at 6-5 (instead of the 6-6, 6-9 we hope to have at some point), and they did just fine. Having a group of athletic, smart, tough rugby players helps.
And lock in general is OK. Lou Stanfill would probably prefer to play No. 8, and Scott LaValla pans out as a great #6 for the Eagles, but can lock up, as well. Brian Doyle is back healthy and eager to regain his spot. And there are a couple more domestic prospects. Thanks in part of Dan Payne’s smart work in the lineout, a lack of height has not hurt this position.
Not Needed: Back Row. The USA always has a bunch of good back row players. The challenge for Tolkin will be to sift through those to find the really good ones. This is also a position where the 15s team is in competition with the 7s team, as loose forwards make excellent props in 7s.
Oh, and by the way, we haven’t mentioned Samu Manoa much, but he’s still a strong possibility. The Northampton Saints star could well be able to play for the USA in the World Cup Qualifiers. Imagine having Manoa, Todd Clever, Scott LaValla, Lou Stanfill and Brian Doyle as your 2nd and back row!
Needed: Scrumhalf. Mike Petri and Robbie Shaw have a nice rivalry going now. Shaun Davies is pushing, and then … ? That’s the big question, who else can provide the speed, intelligence, and passing ability you need to be an international #9?
Not Needed (sort of): Flyhalf. A position of great need just a year ago, flyhalf is actually a position with the potential for depth. Toby L’Estrange did well enough to be the incumbent there. Roland Suniula can still play the position. Young Gearoid McDonald got his feet wet and continues to be a possibility, and Zach Pangelinan has been playing really well of late. Don’t forget former USA U20 Will Magie or Army’s Will Holder, and it’s likely Dartmouth’s Madison Hughes will be switched to that position, too. That’s a lot of good flyhalves.
Needed: Center. It’s Andrew and Paul and that’s all, y’all. Roland Suniula can play there, too, of course. But where are the next generation of centers? Some of the them - Sebastian Rodwell, Jack Tracy, Dean Gericke, Zac Mizell – could make the leap, but the gap between the top two or three and the rest looks large to us.
Note Needed: Wing/Fullback. Obviously we’re not saying the Eagles can stand pat, but they do have solid depth at this position. Taku Ngwenya, Luke Hume, Zach Pangelinan, Chris Wyles, and don’t forget James Paterson is still around, and so, too, could be Mike Palefau and even Miles Craigwell or (think about it) Carlin Isles … breaking into this group will be tough. Our guess is that Tolkin will want a player he can depend on to do the important stuff well, and not worry too much about breaking off an 80-meter run.
Many of these question-mark positions will be answered in the coming months, and especially after that first USA v. Canada non-test match, but also through June. The USA has a lot of rugby to play in 2013, and will need a lot of good players to take the field for them.