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Four games next month, five in the Americas Rugby Championship next spring, and three or four more over the summer are all that separate the Eagles from their World Cup opener Sept. 26, 2019 at 6:45 a.m. ET at Kobe Misaki Stadium. With the countdown to Japan subtly ticking in the back of their minds, the Eagles assembled in Chicago Wednesday.
Not everyone is there. The overseas pros with club responsibilities won’t arrive until Sunday or Monday, but the staff is bunkered alongside a dozen or so players. With conditioning underlined on the to-do list, the coaches will push those present hard through the end of the week before giving them a couple of days off.
Even though the team isn’t whole, not a minute can be wasted, as the entire team has a finite amount left together before the world is watching.
“There’s a lot of stuff we can do. The priority will be conditioning, but heightening skill levels, a lot of tackle technique stuff, so really try and put them through the paces, make it a match intensity week,” head coach Gary Gold told Rugby Today.
“By the time we hit Monday of test-match week, hopefully they’re at least a bit jolted back into some form of shape. We’ve been monitoring them, so we’re not expecting anyone to come in unfit, but there’s a difference between aerobically fit and being rugby fit.”
The extra time is welcomed in the wake of news that star flyhalf AJ MacGinty has undergone shoulder surgery that rules him out for the rest of the year. Gold has a contingency plan in place, with the Wills – 26-year-old, 16-cap Magie and 24-year-old, four-cap Hooley, waiting in the wings.
“Those two are the contenders, no question of a doubt about that,” said Gold. “They’re the contenders for 10 and 15. It’s probably fair to say they’ll probably take up those spots, but we want that experience and they’ve done really well for us in their respective positions in the [Americas Rugby Championship].”
Both of the British flyhalves are capable, but neither is MacGinty. Most of Magie’s caps have come off the bench, and Hooley’s played almost exclusively at fullback for the USA. One of them was always going to start against the Maori All Blacks in the first game of the tour, as it’s situated outside the designated window in which professional teams have to release their players for international duty, so even a healthy MacGinty wouldn’t have been an option. But the few extra days of reps and meetings this week, before the whole team arrives, will help over the long haul.
“It’s a massive challenge,” said Gold of the Maoris. “I saw their team, and they’re coming over with a handful of All Blacks. It’s going to be a formidable, formidable task, so it’s very disappointing there’s such a high-profile game that’s been organized outside the window, but I suppose those are the cards that were dealt. It’s just frustrating.”
Another position where opportunity is knocking is wing. Marcel Brache, like MacGinty, is injured and unavailable. If he were healthy, he’d surely be starting, either at center or wing. Blaine Scully is returning from a throat injury and will lock down one side of the field, while Nate Augspurger and Ryan Matyas contend for the other jersey.
Added after the original tour squad announcement are Luke Hume and Gannon Moore. The 30-year-old Hume has a logged a lot of miles, earning 20 caps along the way, but he can still scoot.
Moore is younger than Hume, but not by a lot. He has an interesting story – played high school rugby in Nebraska before starring at running back for DII Southwest Minnesota State. He picked rugby back up with the Kansas City Blues after college, and he’s been chasing a cap ever since. The last two years he’s been playing in New Zealand’s Mitre 10 competition.
Outside of flyhalf and wing, the team is about as strong as it possibly could be. That’s important to Gold, who’s all too aware of the dearth of assembly time before the flight to Japan.
“Every game is actually really critical,” said Gold. “I’m seeing this tour as a massive step in the direction of our preparation for the Rugby World Cup.”
It’s a dress rehearsal of sorts. This is the last time the team will cross so many time zones, navigate multiple airports in multiple countries, and face this caliber of competition before Japan. And the atmosphere at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland’s backyard, will be the most World-Cup-like the Eagles will see before then, too.
“It’s exactly what we need just under a year out from the World Cup. We need it to be as tough as it’s going to be, and it’s going to be a benchmark for us,” said Gold.
“We did well in June with the challenges we faced there, but that was at home. This is a good opportunity to test yourself away from home and in foreign countries that probably aren’t going to make it easy on you from a logistical point of view, and I think that’s a good thing from a practice point of view.”