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Saturday’s loss to Samoa leaves us in an all too familiar place, finding the silver linings in another lost opportunity. Had the Eagles beaten Samoa, the team that just stood nose to nose with New Zealand, it would have been a great momentum builder for the summer heading into the World Cup. Instead, they lost and now the biggest news in American rugby is the fall of a former captain.
Still, the road to the World Cup is a long one, and there will be more losses, and hopefully some wins, along the way. With that in mind, below is a breakdown of who I thought strengthened their bids for a starting sport when the Eagles play Samoa in the RWC opener this fall, followed by those who have more work to do.
At the bottom of the article I’ve got the starting 15 that would take the field in the Samoan rematch if I were calling the shots.
Midfield – Seamus Kelly and Thretton Palamo had a good showing against Samoa. Kelly was able to be on the positive side of tackles as a ball carrier all night, and Palamo was most imposing on defense. Andrew Suniula and Folau Niua will still have their chances to factor in here over the course of the summer, as will likely Toby L’Estrange. But Palamo and Kelly were penciled in as my Rugby World Cup starters coming into the Pacific Nations Cup, and they bolstered their chances against Samoa.
Blaine Scully – I know, how can his stock rise much further? Scully, in my honest opinion, is the best American in the world not named Samu Manoa. And I’d entertain an argument that he’s in better form than even Manoa. His takeaways at the restarts were huge momentum builders for the USA against Samoa, and he was one of the most confident players in the game. If he continues to come on, and a wing like Test or Thompson pushes Ngwenya, perhaps we can finally afford to move Wyles to outside center and slot Scully at 15.
AJ MacGinty – He missed one makeable penalty and punted away a try to Samoa. He also had some offloads go for turnovers. The first two issues were squarely on him, and the offloads, it could be argued, will turn into half breaks once he gets more time with his teammates and they learn to run off of him. The punt that fell straight into the Samoan fullback’s hands and resulted in Alesana Tuilagi’s try was MacGintys’ welcome to international competition. That kick would have cleared the heads of any domestic back three, and now MacGinty knows it won’t on this level. Hopefully lesson learned.
MacGinty’s been quietly touted on the down low as the Eagles’ savior at fullback practically since landing on American soil. So expectations were high for him, but he wasn’t going to come in and be Johnny Sexton game one. If he were, he wouldn’t have ended up in the red, white and blue to begin with. What MacGinty did was keep Samoa honest with his boot, both for points and from hand (and that will get better as the international game slows down for him) and provide some of the most dynamic play in attack I’ve ever seen from an Eagle 10. His bravery to go for it will be rewarded once those around him get used to it.
Shalom Suniula – Before the PNC, the scrumhalf battle seemed like anything but on paper. Suniula did a pretty good job against Samoa, with only a few bad services. I think it’s safe to say the competition for the nine jersey is a little more open now than it was a week ago.
Greg Peterson – In only his fourth cap and third start as an Eagle, Peterson provided very little offensively. If the Eagles had more dynamic ball carriers around Peterson, his height might be worth keeping in the starting pack, but the USA needs more go-forward ball than was on offer Saturday. To get it, they probably need Peterson coming off the bench.
John Quill – I know this seems insane. He provided a couple of the USA’s biggest turnovers by being over the ball, but the same point about Peterson can be repeated here – Quill isn’t providing enough on defense to make up for his lack of offense.
Keep in mind we’re looking at the Rugby World Cup here, and judging stock based on what’s best for the team then. Samu Manoa will be back in the lineup, and there’s a chance Todd Clever will be back, too. What the Eagles need to do is see if Danny Barrett can win the seven jersey from Quill. He is much more dynamic on offense and he’s shown ball hawking abilities in 7s. Give him the chance to try and win that jersey, and if he does, your pack becomes leaps and bounds better. If he doesn’t, you know what you’re going to get out of Quill.
Todd Clever – This is the obvious one. Whether or not you agree with Tolkin’s decision to snip him from the PNC squad, this has now become a distraction. (I’ve seen some people complain that he was released because of the ESPYs. Keep in mind he missed a MANDATORY session the MORNING OF THE SAMOA GAME, too. He didn’t miss one session. He missed two…in the same week, and the decision to release him wasn’t made until after the second absence.)
Last week I asked Phil Thiel if the change in captaincy was a distraction. He assured me it wasn’t. Maybe that was him rallying around his team, or maybe it was genuine. Either way, it is now.
I cannot say with exact certainty why Clever lost the armband to begin with. I’ve seen speculation that it was about his rapport with referees or rewarding Chris Wyles – neither of those hold water for me. He was captain for seven-plus years. If he didn’t know how to talk to refs, that would have been dealt with earlier, and Wyles has been deserving of reward for nearly a decade.
I have heard vague rumors, albeit from reliable people in the know, that indiscipline was the reason Clever lost the captaincy – that whether it was one isolated incident or multiple, Clever lost the captaincy for a specific reason that had to do with his behavior. Now, I don’t believe every rumor out there, but in this instance I believe where there’s smoke there’s probably some kind of fire.
The hope for all American fans, and I know Tolkin shares in in this, is for Clever to take the punishment with humility and get back to being the badass that made him the face of American rugby to begin with. Taku Ngwenya found his way out of the doghouse with Tolkin, and Clever can, too. If he does, he’s in my starting lineup for the RWC opener.
Pat's Projected RWC Starters
1) Eric Fry
2) Phil Thiel
3) Mate Moeakiola
4) Scott LaValla
5) Hayden Smith
6) Todd Clever
7) Danny Barrett
8) Samu Manoa
9) Mike Petri
10) AJ MacGinty
11) Blaine Scully
12) Thretton Palamo
13) Seamus Kelly
14) Taku Ngwenya
15) Chris Wyles