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The USA backline suffered from player turnover; certainly unity suffered, and so did confidence. Let’s look:






Scrumhalf
Mike Petri/Robbie Shaw. Both of these men are good players, but were in a bad situation for June. Shaw had suffered a pretty nasty concussion earlier in the season, and Petri had been out almost all spring with a broken thumb. Neither had played much.

Shaw, as has been documented in these pages, was getting the ball out to the runners too slowly. Petri was a little faster, and did a good job getting to the breakdown quickly. But neither really played their best.

And if you’re going to mix in the box kick as a crucial part of your pattern of play, then you better box kick well. I think the whole box kick plan is an issue for the Eagles – not enough height or no enough distance, not enough chase, and a better understanding for everyone about how it should be used.

Faster ball, be a threat to run, and take charge. We need that from a scrumhalf.

Shaun Davies. I like Shaun Davies a lot. He provides competition at this position. He is an excellent runner of the ball, and a scrumhalf who has good acceleration is supremely useful.


Flyhalf
Toby L’Estrange. L’Estrange played on a low level of confidence this spring. That didn’t seem to make any sense, because he had played so well in November, but there you  go.

Head Coach Mike Tolkin was working with L’Estrange to get him to work on the aspects of his game that needed work – kicking from hand and kicking from the tee. Well how about this – let him be a devastating running flyhalf who is a great passer and solid defender. When he did that against Japan, the offense throttled up – the USA’s loss to the Cherry Blossoms wasn’t because of issues at flyhalf.

Andrew Siddall. Played at center and fullback, but could be flyhalf, too. Good goalkicker. I would actually like to see him at 12 and he and L’Estrange trade places a little.

Will Holder. Has so many wonderful skills. But he has to play better defense. His defense, especially his commitment to the tackle, is his biggest issue. Zach Pangelinan is another potential USA flyhalf. He can run, he can kick, and he continues to garner experience running a backline.

Volney Rouse. Rouse won’t be on the Eagles. He’s been given several chances, and, for reasons many fans don’t fully understand, has not been brought back. He has been the starting flyhalf for the most consistently good club of the last five years, but something about his game (coaches have said defense, work rate, and other issues) means he is not being picked.

AJ MacGinty. He has not been capped but could well be in the mix eventually. Don’t forget the likes of JP Eloff, Madison Hughes, and Colton Cariaga. Some really good talent coming out of the college ranks.

In this position, I think Toby L’Estrange is the man for Mike Tolkin. And I think L’Estrange would benefit from knowing that. Some players respond when told they could lose their job. Others respond if they are told “here’s your jersey.” I think L’Estrange is the latter.


Center
Andrew Suniula. At times he can dominate a game. I would have liked to see him dominate the game against Japan, and had the Eagles seen the ball in minutes 38-52, he might have. He’s playing well, but, as I said above, it might be interesting to have Adam Siddall as a 2nd-five-eighth instead of Andrew Suniula as an inside center.

Andrew SIddall. Played very well, especially defensively, at #13 against Japan.

Seamus Kelly. We have seen him play with such confidence and maturity that it’s easy to forget he’s still young. He made mistakes as a newbie for the Eagles this June. To be expected, and forgiven.

James Paterson. Seeing as he seems never to get the ball at wing, why don’t we try to see him at center? Maybe then the USA backs will skip him and send it wide faster.

Paul Emerick. Not every fan likes Paul Emerick as a player, and I guess you could point to his many cards or his supposed substandard passing, but Paul Emerick plays for you. No back plays with less fear of making a mistake and more desire to help his team win. The minute he is healthy to play, I am stitching a #13 to his back. Simple as that. I went into some significant details earlier about what he brings to the team, especially in the pick-and-go arena. Read that if you want; I just say we need a game-changer in the backs, and Emerick is the guy.

At the next level there are some good players coming through. You know I like Zac Mizell, Tim Maupin,  and Dean Gericke. Mike Haley is a possibility and there are others coming out of college to consider. But if we’re talking about playing Canada, the list of options is this: Suniula, Siddall, Emerick, and Kelly.


Wing
Taku Ngwenya. He looks for work, but that can only get you so far if your teammates run you out of room before they pass to you. He did not play the entire series with the USA team, and that won’t be the case for August.

Luke Hume. At his best Hume is a passionate, angry, exciting player who can take charge and sometimes make tries out of nothing. But there’s another side to that coin, when he wants to take charge so much he doesn’t pass the ball at critical moments. Overall I’ll take the package, but if he looks to pass just that one extra time a game, we could be seeing more tries.

James Paterson. As I said, we didn’t see much. No room. He’s been out of a game a bit for a while. Is the right side or the left best for him? Fixing slow ball all along the backline should help.

Now depth at this position is an interesting thing, because here’s where some 7s players might, possibly, have a chance to break in. How great would it be to have Brett Thompson get a look at wing at some point, or Maka Unufe? I am not sure we have a lot of astounding depth after that group.


Fullback
Chris Wyles is perhaps the most successful overseas American – by that I mean a guy who was born in the USA but learned his rugby overseas and currently plays overseas. While those kinds of players have often been flashes in the pan, if that, Wyles has been an important part of American rugby since late 2005 and wears the Eagle jersey with pride. He is a really, really good fullback, and perhaps his only failing is when he decides he needs to fix an underperforming team all by himself.

Can’t blame him for being frustrated. Still Wyles is a very polished and intelligent player with a variety of skills.

Blaine Scully is back playing and I think this year so far has been a difficult one for him, as he battled back to fitness from a rupture Achilles tendon, and then dealt with other injuries. Getting fit is one thing, getting back into the pattern of playing first 7s, and then 15s, was difficult. All those little aspects of positioning, decision-making, and working with teammates require time.

Zach Pangelinan is a good option here, but normally plays flyhalf with OMBAC, so that makes for a transition if he plays fullback for the USA. I really like Joe Cowley, and think he has come on very strong this year. The Life University undergrad has a big future.


So if you have a starting backline it is probably this:
Scrumhalf: Mike Petri
Flyhalf: Toby L’Estrange
Left Wing: Luke Hume
Inside Center: Andrew Suniula
Outside Center: Paul Emerick
Right Wing: Taku Ngwenya
Fullback: Chris Wyles

That is a very, very nice backline, but one that has to work together better than it has of late, and has to execute. All of the experienced players have been guilty of going off the reservation when frustration sets in. They have to be the patient, mature ones.

On the bench, Robbie Shaw looks to be the guy and could even start. Adam Siddall or Zach Pangelinan are good subs because they can play flyhalf, and elsewhere, too.

Seamus Kelly, James Paterson and Blaine Scully might all then fight for the remaining space on the bench. And of course if Emerick is not fit any of these guys might actually start.