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To do that, they will have to improve dramatically in a number of key
areas. Some personnel changes will help for sure, but so will better
performances by the personnel who have been playing so far this year.
Here’s a look at the forwards:
Shawn Pittman. His strength is his work rate around the field, and defensively he was, generally, very good. Solid as a lifter in the lineout, and active around the field, he has good handling skills and is a useful player. The scrum struggled mightily at times, so no one can get much of a good grade on scrums, but what I did see was someone trying really hard to get it right under difficult circumstances. I’ll take it.
Eric Fry. Struggled. I think he looked tired and I am not the only one. He
has been playing almost solidly in a professional environment for about 12
months. Now, you props will remember how your appetite remains the same
even after you stop playing, and you suddenly gain 30 pounds. Well it can
go the other way, too. Fry’s activity as a pro ramped up considerably, but
I get the feeling he didn’t raise his calorie intake to compensate. As a
result the onus of many of the scrum issues fell on him, and he did run
into problems. He also made some errors in open field. I think he just
needs a rest, but he may find himself playing a bit less, too.
Nick Wallace. Got to play, which is good, and really got stuck in, especially trying to help in the scrums.
Phil Thiel. Good to see him back.
There are no other comments, really, to give, because Mike Tolkin ran with Fry and Pittman almost exclusively. Wallace, certainly, will have a role going forward, and Mate Moeakiola is likely going to be back after serving a suspension for a red card (and missing his hearing because he couldn’t find the place where the hearing was being held – no, seriously). There are a lot of young, talented props coming up. But right now, with Mike MacDonald injured, it’s Fry, Pittman, Moeakiola, and to a certain extent Wallace and Thiel. Moeakiola could very well get a ton of minutes.
Chris Biller has been playing his best rugby these past 12 months. His lineout throwing is really good, and he is more active around the park. However, I think he can do more. He is physically gifted enough to do more. Watch the major internationals, and you will see players battle and fight for every inch. Biller doesn’t do that. When he is hit while carrying the ball, he is solid; he takes the hit, but his legs don’t keep moving. He doesn’t barrel on and I think he can. He has the ability to really be a top class player in the open field, and if he were a full-time pro playing against tougher opposition than the East Palo Alto Bulldogs, he might realize what it requires to get there.
Zach Fenoglio. I like him, but my problem is that the USA lineout does not operate as well with him on the field as it does when Biller is on.
Lou Stanfill. What a warrior. When he came off the field against Japan he could barely walk. He is getting up there in years, and will never, ever take a backward step, but he was used too much this spring. Tolkin had said he last year he was considering resting players like Stanfill. It didn’t happen, mostly because there was no one else to put in at lock. He is a terrific servant to American rugby, but he can’t be playing 60-80 minutes three times in a week, which is what he was asked to do.
Brian Doyle. Quite possibly one of the best and most consistent players on the USA team at the moment. We need him, badly. He is the only big lock we have who knows which way is up. He is a tough cookie on defense and good in the lineout. The scrum? Well, let’s talk about that. Again, the scrum suffered, and positions 1-2-3-4 and 5 all take the heat for that.
Graham Harriman. Won’t keep beating the drum of trying to get international experience. Time overseas is one thing, but consistent understanding is another. Harriman is just new to all of this.
There aren’t a lot of locks of international caliber in the USA. Most are converted loose forwards, and that’s where Tolkin should look for depth. However, it’s worth noting that Nick Civetta has signed a pro contract in Italy, and the locks on the All American tour to New Zealand were all impressive. We just have to find a place for them, and more than that, have to find some really good competition for them.
I think the 2013 ARC will be a good competition for some of these guys, but it’s too late for the World Cup Qualifiers. For the Canada games, it’s Doyle and Stanfill, and then if we have to sub in for either, moving Scott LaValla or Samu Manoa from a preferred position as a flanker into the second row.
Todd Clever. Played really well. Aside from his frustrating miscommunications with Robbie Shaw in the scrums v Canada, he was on top of his game – good as a runner, and leading the way as a tackler.
Scott LaValla. I think fatigue caught up with him a bit. He had moments where he was outstanding, and moment where he was making uncharacteristic errors. Dropping the ball in contact is something he cannot do, but as an open-field player, and in tight, he is very strong. A little time off in July will be good for him.
John Quill. Ran the ball with passion against Tonga. Had moments, but got injured against Fiji. We’ll see more of him.
Peter Dahl. He was expected to be the grafter, the ball-poacher. Not sure if he did that job, but he did help cover the area a #7 needs to cover. It is a big man’s game, though, so the smaller man has to be physically strong – very much so – as well as fit and fast.
Samu Manoa. Believe the hype. No, really. Despite being really unfamiliar with the pattern of the USA team, he made a major impact in the one game he played in – against Ireland. Are the Eagles in with a shot to win without him in that game? I don’t think so. Put Manoa on the squad against Canada and you have a much better chance to overturn them.
Note that Inaki Basauri is an option here if he is healthy. Overall, the USA back row is their strongest and deepest unit. I am not sure they, as a group, played like it this spring. Liam Murphy got some minutes, as well, and is in the mold of Quill and Dahl. Murphy also had some running with the ball, but I don’t care about that; I want to see these guys tackle forever and steal ball. Cam Dolan? Not yet. The front line is too good.
This, then, is what I think we will see as the starting lineup for the forwards:
Loosehead: Mate Moeakiola
Hooker: Chris Biller
Tighthead: Shawn Pittman
Lock: Brian Doyle
Lock: Lou Stanfill
Blindside Flanker: Samu Manoa
Openside Flanker: Scott LaValla
No. 8: Todd Clever
The only surprise there is Pittman moving to tighthead, Fry going to the bench, and Moeakiola starting at loosehead. I may be wrong here, but I think Fry might get a rest in the first match. I may be wrong. Fry may remain and Moeakiola will be the guy coming off the bench. I DO think this is the time to use experience and toughness, and Mate, a veteran of two World Cups, brings that, .
The rest of this picks itself, frankly. The big question might be, who is on the bench? Do you pick experience or the enthusiasm of youth? I go with experience:
16. Zach Fenoglio
17. Eric Fry or Mate Moeakiola
18. Phil Thiel
19. Liam Murphy or Peter Dahl
20. Inaki Basauri
If Basauri is healthy, he provides so much in the air, and in versatility, that he should be there. Thiel can play hooker or prop, and can give you 15 good minutes if you need it.
All of these guys are really good players. Some are exceptional players. I expect some R&R in July to help them, and I expect the injection of experience to help, as well.
This group can lineout like nobody’s business. They are good in the open field, and really good on defense. To make all of that work, they have to be much, much better come scrum time, they have to stop turning the ball over, and they have to be patient and stop trying to make the big back-breaker play every time.