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The USA Men's 15s team is now getting together, as the official test window for the World Cup Qualifiers begins Monday.
Samu Manoa is coming off a try-scoring performance for Northampton in the
LV= final, although his team lost to Exeter. Toby L'Estrange is coming off
a start for London Welsh in a victory over the Cornish Pirates in which he
helped Welsh to a key victory.
But most of the pro players overseas did not have games to play, and so will come into Florida rested for three days of work before the team travels to Montevideo.
The squad that comes in is primed to do well. Manoa, Todd Clever, and Scott LaValla are all in good shape, and playing well. Phil Thiel is the veteran who anchors a front row that, while hit by injury, is solid with Nick Wallace in excellent form. Cam Dolan has raised his game, and with Lou Stanfill and Hayden Smith back in the fold, and Kyle Sumsion and Tai Tuisamoa bring much to the team, as well. This is a very strong pack.
The only real question is who will play tighthead prop - will Eric Fry keep up his good form at London Scottish, will Titi Lamositele be the man, or will Ollie Kilifi keep improving?
In the backs, Mike Petri and Robbie Shaw are seasoned, intelligent halfbacks. Toby L'Estrange hasn't been with London Welsh long, but two starts for the team have been important for his growth.
With no Adam Siddall (post-concussion symptoms), Shalom Suniula will get the majority of his reps as a flyhalf, but he could have come in as a scrumhalf, too. Either way, his presence signals a desire by the USA to attack.
Tolkin chose three centers in Andrew Suniula, Folau Niua, and Seamus Kelly. All have been playing well. Blaine Scully might also be a center if needed, because Tolkin has brought in four wings - Scully, Tim Maupin, Luke Hume, and Miles Craigwell.
Craigwell might be on the outside looking in, but he has been playing solid 15s for a few years now, and now might be a chance for him to break into the game day squad.
Key to the team, though, will be the poise and confidence of Toby L'Estrange at flyhalf, and Chris Wyles at fullback. Secure play and smart thinking from those form the basis for a successful USA backline performance.
Who starts for this team?
It's hard to envision Phil Thiel not getting the start at hooker, or Nick Wallace not beinh loosehead.
Scott LaValla and Todd Clever should be automatic in the back row, and it's likely the halfback will be Petri and L'Estrange, with Andrew Suniula and Folau Niua at center, and Maupin, Scully, and Wyles the deep three.
The other big questions are:
Who starts at tighthead? Ollie Kilifi could well break in here.
How is No. 8/lock configured? What will probably happen is Cam Dolan will be No. 8, based on his performances in November, and Samu Manoa will partner with either Lou Stanfill or Hayden Smith in the second row. But you could see Manoa play at No. 8.
Will Seamus Kelly start at center? Probably not, but it's conceivable.
Who roams the bench among the backs? We will probably see Robbie Shaw and Shalom Suniula there, but Luke Hume, Kelly, and Craigwell will have to fight it out for one more spot.
Other Notes: Always fun to track this. Of the 26 players named, 12 played college rugby in the USA, and 14 played high school rugby in the USA. Eight got their first senior international experience in 7s, and 23 out of 26 were eligible for the USA upon birth - only three (Tai Tuisamoa, Hayden Smith, and Luke Hume) gained eligibility through residency.
Eleven different US high school programs are represented in this squad, with Jesuit of Sacramento, Chuckanut of Ferndale, Wash., and Xavier of New York City boasting two (Jesuit actually has three but Blaine Scully didn't play rugby while attending that school).
Five of the players played HS rugby in California, and four played HS rugby in the state of Washington.
Cal remains the most-represented college, with four players, but St. Mary's and Life have two and in all, seven different college programs are represented on this team.