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With a potential for as many as six changes from Rio, the Eagles team taking the field in Dubai has endured a bit of a face lift from the Olympics. Missing are some players who’ve gone on to do other things and perhaps some who might have been expected to still be in the fold.
Obviously and expectedly, Nate Ebner has returned to the NFL and Chris Wyles has returned to duty with Saracens. But where are Carlin Isles, Ben Pinkelman, Garrett Bender and Zack Test? Pinkelman and Isles are recovering from injury. Isles was close to being healthy for Dubai and South Africa, but not quite there. Head coach Mike Friday is hopeful to get Pinkelman back by Las Vegas.
Test and Bender are taking some time off after the Olympics. Test has been consistently playing on the circuit for seven years. Since making his debut in Hong Kong in in 2009, he’s literally missed just four tournaments. In that time, he’s played in a remarkable 62 tournaments of a possible 66. That doesn’t include World Cups, Olympic qualifiers, Rio and Pan-Am Games.
“He made a personal decision to try and get himself in the best position to prolong his career and keep playing at the highest level by taking an extended break, like many athletes do after an Olympic cycle,” said assistant coach Chris Brown of Test.
“I guess for rugby’s it’s a little different, because you’ve got a World Series to play in, and we didn’t know how that cycle would work and how it would affect us all. He decided to take an extended break, and he’ll be back available after Christmas.”
Bender’s string of tournaments isn’t as long as Test's, but he has been incredibly reliable over the last couple of seasons.
“Garrett Bender played every tour for the last two years, and even when he was injured in a couple of the tournaments,” said Brown. “He covered a lot of ground for us, so he made the decision, and we’re fully supportive and we’re hoping that he’ll choose to come back in January and choose to compete for a spot again.”
Another missing name is Nate Augspurger, who was the Eagles’ go-to backup scrumhalf the last couple of years. He was a surprise scratch for the Olympics, and he’s turned his focus to 15s. Brown referred to him as retired from international 7s, though Augspurger’s left the door open in interviews for a possible return. For now, at least, it appears he won’t be in the mix.
The shuffle has left the Eagles a little light in the forwards, a position group which looked very strong heading into the Olympics. Covering there for Dubai and Cape Town is Andrew Durutalo, who didn’t play on the Series last season but did play in the Olympics. He’ll only be available for these first two tournaments before heading back to Japan to prepare for his second season in Super Rugby.
That means you’re probably going to see a lot more of Martin Iosefo as a forward. He’d previously played predominantly at center, but like Test, Ebner and Thretton Palamo, he’s capable of swinging into the pack, too. Matai Leuta may also play in the scrum more, too.
“I think Martin’s future in the 7s format is more up front. Outside of set play, he’s more of a broken play player in a way,” said Brown. “If he’s playing up front he drops to that back side and when we play back in that opposite direction it becomes a center role with ball in hand. So we’ll be looking to play Martin a lot more up front, and Matai as well.”