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USA head coach Mike Tolkin is emptying his bench against South Africa, putting everyone in the 31-man World Cup roster who hasn’t seen action yet on the menu for tomorrow’s clash with the mighty Springboks. The move is in an effort to keep legs fresh for a more winnable contest against Japan on Sunday, and it’s stirred mixed reactions.
South Africa, nipped by Japan in the largest upset in World Cup history, and some say rugby history, is not leaving anything to chance with its selections. The Eagles, on the other hand, are fielding a team Tolkin, evidenced by his picks leading up to the RWC and in the first two rounds of the tournament, deems lesser than the USA’s best.
Is it actually a really weak side? In some areas, yes. In others, no. The back row may be the best the USA has, with the dynamic Danny Barrett taking over for Al McFarland and John Quill coming in for Andrew Durutalo. There are certainly many in the American rugby community who’d argue Barrett should have been starting all along, and Quill and Durutalo seem to be relatively interchangeable.
There are arguments to be made for the guys entering the backline, too. Brett Thompson, Zack Test and Folau Niua are all capable homerun hitters, but perhaps consistency is questionable. Andrew Suniula is a steady stand-in, and Blaine Scully is a frontline starter.
The drastic differences come in the front and second rows, as well as the halfback positions. Scrumhalf Niku Kruger has less than a half of international rugby to his name. Flyhalf Shalom Suniula is a far cry from AJ MacGinty. Matt Trouville is only at the World Cup because of Scott LaValla’s injury and Todd Clever’s ouster. Chris Baumann made his international debut in July and has just one start on record – against Tonga, when the Eagles ran out their Pacific Nations Cup version of Wednesday’s lineup.
South Africa beat the USA 64-15 at the ’07 World Cup. New Zealand punished the Eagles 74-6 last year. Australia 67-5 in 2011. Wales 77-3 in 2005. Ireland 83-3 in 2000. England 106-8 in 1999. Will the strength of South Africa’s side versus the weakness of the USA’s produce a result in the company of these infamous score lines?
Maybe. And for what? A chance to say we went 1-3 instead of 0-4? Will that result, one way or another, matter in the grand scheme of things? No. It will affect the USA’s post Rugby World Cup ranking, sure, but there is literally no other tangible effect.
An impact on the world’s perception of American rugby is possible, but certainly the gains of a win over Japan (who the Eagles beat this summer and boast a 13-8 all-time record against) wouldn’t outweigh the negative damage of a historically embarrassing loss to South Africa.
And who is to say that if the Eagles, going on 10 days rest, were to play their best tomorrow and Sunday, they couldn’t achieve the same result against the Brave Blossoms?
The question at hand is whether or not the potential of finishing 1-3 versus 0-4 is worth a potential pantsing by South Africa. I say no.