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Gary Gold’s team is in its second week of training at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colo. in preparation for the summer test series, which kicks off Saturday at Denver’s Dick’s Sporting Goods Park against Russia. A couple of changes have been made to the assembly roster, but the team as a whole is strong, marking the first time in history the USA will field an entirely professional side.
The changes include Tony Lamborn and David Tameilau exiting and Greg Peterson and Vili Toluta’u coming on board. Lamborn and Tameilau had to pull out of the squad for unexpected personal reasons.
Callum Black’s contentious exit and replacement by Titi Lamositele was already known, but Gold has brought in another young prop in David Ainuu. An 18-year-old Washingtonian, Ainuu is following in the footsteps of Lamositele, also from Washington, by taking an academy contract overseas right out of high school.
The fully professional side wouldn’t be possible without the advent of Major League Rugby, the first-year competition trying to succeed where PRO Rugby failed in 2016. 17 from the summer camp hail from Major League Rugby – six each from Glendale and San Diego, two from Seattle and one each from Austin, Utah and Houston. Though these players have only been in fledgling full-time training environments for a handful of months, and the full on-the-field benefit of a domestic pro league will likely take years to realize, they’re pros nonetheless.
Gold says he hasn’t adopted a policy that you must be a pro in order to be selected, but that playing professionally when possible is strongly advised. He looked at some collegiate players, like BYU’s Calvin Whiting, but the Eagles are relatively well stocked in the midfield at the moment, so all pros it is.
“Let me put it this way, somebody not playing professional rugby hasn’t been left out for that reason, but it’s definitely going to help their cause,” Gold told Rugby Today. “One of the things we need to do in the U.S. is fast track how many games guys play, and as quickly as we possibly can within reasonable limits. Playing professional rugby is definitely going to help that, no question.”
To help alleviate the stress on MLR clubs who’ll miss out on some of their top players the next three weeks, Gold sent the assembled back to their respective teams for week seven. The summer squad was picked, though, after MLR’s second week of action, leaving players too little time to turn Gold’s head.
“The truth of the matter is we looked at MLR closely and studied every game, but we made the decision after two weeks, so it was certainly a factor that a couple of guys were playing MLR and that was a good thing, said Gold. “Buy-and-large, we pretty much knew the bulk of the squad going in, just some of the selections were maybe secured on the basis of the fact that the guys who were playing MLR certainly started quite well.”
Those were Gold’s words before Lamborn became unavailable, opening up a spot for Toluta’u, a former age-grade star who shouldn’t be unknown to the Eagle staff. However, few players have played better during the inaugural MLR season than the Hawaiian flanker. Surely that performance played into his selection.
For San Diego lock Siaosi Mahoni, his decision to play in the MLR was rewarded with selection. He was under contract with Narbonne in the French Pro D2 and chose to come back and play domestically.
“Whilst realistically in the professional era you’re not going to be able to expect that a lot from players, it really, really is a great thing when you’ve got a guy playing a good quality of rugby in Pro D2 in France, and he makes the move back and he’s playing on your shores, that’s a win-win situation,” said Gold. “I understand we’re never going to get all our players back, but when a player does that, it’s not policy, but it does make a big difference.”
Exciting for Eagle fans and Gold’s staff alike is the enthusiastic return of both AJ MacGinty and Samu Manoa, the two most high profile Eagles playing abroad. MacGinty led Sale with 144 points in the recently concluded season, good for a fourth-place finish in the race for the Gilbert Golden Boot, awarded annually to the league’s best kicker.
The Toulon forward is in his ninth calendar year as an Eagle, having earned his first cap in 2010. He’s got just 18 to his name, as he’s been largely absent since the 2015 World Cup. Manoa’s suited up for the USA just three times since then, never in the summer and never for Gold.
“Samu is someone who’s reached out to us and he’s made his intentions clear that he does want to be a part of it,” said Gold. “He wants to play a role now leading up to the World Cup, and that’s just a massive privilege for us that a player of his quality wants to make such a difference. Really, really excited about that.”
Two more veterans making their debuts under Gold are Glendale flanker John Quill and Vannes (French Pro D2) prop Eric Fry. Both are World Cup veterans hoping to make a return to the quadrennial next year, Quill for the second time and Fry for his third. The 25-cap Quill has been selected more recently than the 41-cap Fry, who was all but discarded under the John Mitchell regime.
“I have got to watch some film, and I’ve been very impressed. By all accounts, even though I haven’t met Eric yet, I think I’m more impressed by hearing what kind of guy he is. The Eagles mean a lot to him, playing for his country is important, and I think he’s got some great leadership qualities to bring into the group as well,” said Gold of Fry.
“The thing about experience is you can’t get it overnight. And the Pro D2 is a tough league, particularly for a tight forward. It’s a tough, tough league, and for Eric to have the experience he’s had in that league is brilliant.
“All these pieces coming together can only really help the group, having a guy like Quill back in the mix, Samu with his experience, and Eric, that’s all going to help play into the leadership.”