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The USA victory against Georgia didn't move the Eagles up in the IRB Rankings, although it did help drag Georgia down, and it didn't mean the Americans qualify for anything or secure any sort of championship, but it was still significant.
It was a victory, after all. It was a close victory against a tough
opponent in their home stadium. Going into the game, Georgia was ranked 16
in the world, and the USA 18, so it was a victory over a higher-ranked
opponent, as well. The game was tight, which actually makes the victory
more useful for everyone - Georgia weren't weak, and the Eagles needed to
show poise and determination to win.
So all of that is nice, but needs a backup. This weekend to be exact.
That shouldn't be hard. Captain Todd Clever says the players are behind the new approach - it's an exciting brand of rugby and the USA defense is starting to produce results. The Eagles gave up two tries, both the result of missed tackles (that's not the fault of the system), and most of the rest of the points came from penalties far from the tryline.
(I don't want to get too much into the refereeing, but it was abysmal when you measure consistency - penalties against the USA for collapsing the scrum on their own feed, and penalties for going to ground on uncontested rucks, while Georgia was free to do the same un-penalized. Referees have their interpretations, but they have to be consistent. There I feel better.)
Offensively, clearly the Eagles were doing a better job, and they showed they have the skills to get the ball wide and play an expansive game. Why they weren't doing it earlier is a mystery.
If all of that is in place, then the only real question is the lineup, and you know I have been having fun predicting the lineup. (For the record, I was 100% correct on the starting 15 for the Maori All Blacks, but then was undone by an injury to Scott LaValla. I was far less correct in the Georgia game, again undone by injury but also Mike Tolkin's options. I had six of the seven backs right and 4-8 right also.)
So here's what Tolkin has to consider:
1. The entire team played well and did the job, but they weren't perfect.
2. I thought Eric Fry played better than he has, and did so after finding out he'd start at the last minute, but there are other considerations to deal with.
3. Derek Asbun stepped in and did a very nice job at openside flanker.
4. Adam Siddall practically screamed "find space for me!"
5. The center pairing of Andrew Suniula and Folau Niua seemed to work together well enough.
Props: Titi Lamositele has to get a start. Nick Wallace has been playing great. Shawn Pittman was held out due to injury, but should be OK for this week. Eric Fry had a good game, for the most part.
So I figure it's Lamositele and Wallace to start, and Pittman on the bench with Fry.
Hooker: Phil Thiel is the guy.
Lock: Is Scott LaValla able to play now? That's a big question. So far, every lock has performed well. Samu Manoa should start, and if LaValla is healthy, he will start, maybe here or maybe at #7. Tai Tuisamoa is back and Graham Harriman continues to play well. All of these guys are good options.
Flanker/No. 8: Cam Dolan has done exactly what he needed to do, especially at the base of the scrum. Todd Clever has blossomed with the position change. I liked what Derek Asbun did in the Georgia game, but John Quill remains an option, and what about putting Scott LaValla here? If LaValla is fit enough to play, he's fit enough to start; it's just a question of where.
Scrumhalf: Robbie Shaw is more experienced, but Shaun Davies has done more of late to earn that start. Give it to Davies, who, like Lamositele, could use the start to help get a pro contract.
Flyhalf: There's some thought that Toby L'Estrange might be OK to play, but Adam Siddall, as we said, has done plenty to warrant selection. Now, he did struggle with two defensive plays that led to Georgia tries, but overall he's a good tackler, a good runner, passes very well, and kicks extremely well.
Center: Andrew Suniula was Man of the Match against Georgia, and he deserved to be. Folau Niua played well also. But you might see a small change here, such as Seamus Kelly coming back into the starting lineup. Also, it could be that Chris Wyles goes in at center to get more touches, and Siddall moves back to fullback.
Wing: I was surprised that Tim Maupin started against Georgia. I think he has played well. I would think Luke Hume might regain the start against the Russians, but you might also see another shakeup - Zach Pangelinan or Joe Cowley.
There's no reason to not have Blaine Scully start given how he played against Georgia. Now healthy and playing regularly as a professional, he is a new man.
Fullback: Chris Wyles or Adam Siddall here, probably. Now, Wyles does quite well at fullback, and his superb run to set up the go-ahead try in the first half against Georgia just spells out his ability to change a game. But it's also true that he could stand to see the ball in his hands more. With the game on the line, who would you like to be passing the ball to?