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Eagles head man John Mitchell has chosen a 35-man player pool for the upcoming Americas Rugby Championship. Nine players, as opposed to the 24 new caps handed out in the same competition last year, are hoping to make their international debuts.
Despite the competition falling in World Rugby’s Reg. 9 window, when clubs are required to release their players for international duty, several overseas Eagles will again be missing much of the tournament. First-choice flyhalf AJ MacGinty (Sale) and co-captain Blaine Scully (Cardiff) are available for only the Uruguay game, lock Nick Civetta (Newcastle) is available for Uruguay and Brazil, Cam Dolan (Cardiff) will miss Uruguay but make the rest, and No. 8 David Tameilau (RC Narbonne) is on offer for just the Canada, Chile and Argentina XV contests.
Some overseas pros aren’t in the 35-man squad at all, like Thretton Palamo (Bristol), Joe Taufete’e (Worcester), Samu Manoa (Toulon) and Titi Lamositele (Saracens). As Six Nations runs concurrently with the ARC, many European clubs lean on their non-European players in that window, leaving the USA at less than full-strength. Technically, they have to make those players available, but the Eagle brass know drawing a hard line might jeopardize their contracts.
Several domestic players are also only available for bits and pieces of the tour, as jobs, school and other commitments make it difficult for amateurs to play full-time international rugby five weeks in a row.
Some notable players who are available for the entire tour include scrumhalves Nate Augspurger and Shaun Davies. The former has been Mitchell’s top choice thus far, while the latter is hoping to earn his first cap since 2013. Also looking to break a long drought is prop Anthony Purpura, who hasn’t been capped since 2010 under Eddie O’Sullivan.
Co-captain Todd Clever is available for the whole tournament, as is fellow flanker Tony Lamborn. They’ll likely log considerable minutes over the course of the competition. Given the lack of second row and No. 8 depth, Clever could be moving all around the pack. Prop Chris Baumann, hooker James Hilterbrand, and utility back Mike Te’o are guys who’ve been selected plenty under Mitchell who will also be on-call all five weeks.
A couple of eye-catching inclusions are Zack Test, who chose to participate in the ARC instead of the HSBC Sevens World Series, Spike Davis, who’s been sniffing around a cap in 7s or 15s for some time but not yet been rewarded, Calvin Whiting, the talented youngster from BYU, and John Quill, a 17-cap flanker who is making his first foray under Mitchell.
The area of weakness seems to be the midfield, as only Bryce Campbell has ever started in the centers under Mitchell. Shalom Suniula, Andrew Suniula, Chad London, Marcel Brache, Palamo, Lorenzo Thomas, Mike Garrity and LeMoto Filikitonga are the others who have started under Mitchell at center, and none of them are in the squad. Old Blue’s Ryan Matyas, along with Eloff, Te’o and Whiting, could fill the void by committee.
The wing will be filled by committee, too. Luke Hume has plenty of experience and is a handy player. He'll be available for just Canada and Chile. Test is looking to nail one of those spots down. Davis is a freak athlete who will be a mismatch with ball in hand on the wing, even if his understanding of some of the position's finer requirements aren't quite up to snuff. His aerial skills and kick return abilities are also relatively untested. Te'o and Matyas could factor in on the wing, too. The questionmark is Andrew Turner. He's brand new to the Eagle setup, having come from a short stretch with the London Scottish.
Even considering the moving target that selections will prove to be, and the lack of experience and bodies in the midfield, the Eagles have the firepower to win the tournament. They did last year, too, with a greener side, scoring resounding wins over Chile and Canada and a draw with Argentina XV. But upsets at the hands of Uruguay and Brazil ruined the party. With a touch more experience and hopefully more consistency, the Eagles should be expected to finish no worse than second.
Below is a look at what the starting lineups for each match could look like. The Eagles will be strongest against Uruguay, which could be the toughest contest outside of the Argentina XV game. It'll be interesting to see if Mitchell opts to put the hammer, Campbell, at 12 or 13, given his midfield mate, whoever it ends up being, will probably be someone who could play a skill position.