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Mike Tolkin's announcement of the 26 players to go to Uruguay for the World Cup Qualifier is notable, in part, because of who's not on it.
Some of the absences were anticipated. Shawn Pittman is still recovering from a concussion suffered in November. Adam Siddall was mentioned by RUGBYMag as potentially injured, and he, too, has some post-concussion symptoms.
Danny Barrett was not even invited to camp, not because he's a bad player, but because he was unlikely to get a lot of time with the 15s Eagles, and he was extremely likely to be playing a whole lot for the 7s team. With the USA 7s team losing several players to 15s in one way or another, they needed to keep someone.
Liam og Murphy wasn't selected because he is still coming back from injury. Same story, essentially, with John Quill – two openside flankers who Tolkin believes would be better served, at the moment, playing regularly with their clubs.
Nick Civetta is playing professionally at Lazio, but hasn't been brought into a USA assembly yet. Tolkin simply thinks he needs more time, and the Eagles are already deep at lock.
Now to the bigger head-turning decisions.
Graham Harriman wasn't picked because Tolkin preferred Hayden Smith and Tai Tuisamoa over him. John Cullen is essentially the same story. Derek Asbun is another openside flanker (a la Murphy and Quill) who could have broken in, but just didn't make the cut.
"It is extremely difficult to tell a really good player that he's not going," Tolkin told RUGBYMag.com. "But I told those guys, international rugby is very fluid, and they have to keep working and be prepared to start at some point."
The same conversation was had with Zach Fenoglio. The USA hooker has been playing very well for Glendale and seemed set to be one of the two hookers on the flight to Uruguay. But Tom Coolican beat him out. Tolkin said it was very close, and a difficult decision, but didn't go into details why.
However, it's not hard to speculate that to beat Uruguay you have to fire on set piece. Uruguay, who are coached by their greatest ever player – former Stade Francais prop Pablo Lemoine – will target the scrum as an area where they can influence the game. It's likely Tolkin chose Coolican in part because of his scrimmaging ability.
Three more players who have not been in camp are worth a note. Inaki Basauri has been injured and not playing at Tarbes. It's unclear if he's the type of player Tolkin wants, but it's also unclear whether Basauri's club has been helpful. Zach Pangelinan is having a very strong season for OMBAC at flyhalf, but Tolkin prefers other players there. And finally, James Paterson, is working on his career and coming back form injury. He's not out of it, but we haven't seen him in a long time.
The most high-profile absence has to be Taku Ngwenya. Last fall is was clear that Ngwenya wasn't picked on form. He did not play well for the USA in the summer, and it didn't help him that his club, Biarritz, is having a horrible season.
But Tolkin, despite getting good performances from Blaine Scully and Tim Maupin, especially, left the door open. Ngwenya, it seems, has closed it. He has not returned attempts by the USA team to contact him, and given that he has resisted attempts to have him play the game plan, remains less than spectacular on defense, and has seen his strike rate drop off to three tries in his last 11 matches (not what you'd expect from supposedly the most dangerous wing in world rugby), it's unlikely you will see Ngwenya in a USA jersey again.
Don't say never – things can change. But the story is that Ngwenya hasn't been communicating with the Eagle coaching staff, and neither side seems interested anymore.
Is that the smart choice? Well with Luke Hume being the maverick attacker, and Maupin and Scully doing what they need to do – make tackles, cover kicks, and break tackles – it seems the USA might be better off.
(Inaki Basauri is another guy playing overseas you might expect to see. Tolkin just prefers other players.)
Is Coolican the right choice over Fenoglio? Well Phil Thiel remains the starting hooker, and Coolican needs to be in the mix going forward anyway, so it seems a little risk, high reward move.
All of those flankers staying home? Tolkin is going with a big back row, but over time he may need a high work-rate, smaller guy.
And Cullen, Harriman, and even Civetta? Well, who would you bench out of these players who can suit up at lock: Scott LaValla, Lou Stanfill, Hayden Smith, Samu Manoa, Tai Tuisamoa, or Ca Dolan? Tolkin couldn't find anyone.