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The two halfback positions are on the forefront of American rugby’s collective conscious heading into the World Cup, partially because the Eagles are unprecedentedly strong in a lot of other position groups, and partially because there are some intriguing story lines surrounding the guys who wear, or may wear, the nine and 10 jerseys.
Flyhalf is in so much flux largely because of injury. Adam Siddall is taking all of 2015 off as he recovers from consecutive concussions, and Toby L’Estrange is still not all the way off the shelf after breaking his leg last spring. He has gotten back on the field for New York Athletic Club, but USA coach Mike Tolkin says he still has a ways to go.
“He came to camp and wasn’t quite ready to play at this level yet, and we didn’t know when he was going to get there,” said Tolkin. “The game against Life he started to show some signs, but he’s just not ready for the jump yet into this level.”
That leaves Shalom Suniula and Folau Niua as the only two guys who’ve played any minutes at flyhalf for the Eagles the last couple of years who are still healthy, active and obviously on the radar. It’s not impossible to imagine Roland Suniula being called back to Team USA if Tolkin got desperate.
Niua, though, probably fits better into the team as a center, and Shalom has been waffling between nine and 10. Expect the former 7s captain to play flyhalf almost exclusively on the current South American tour.
“He really played well and developed well as 10 on tour. It’s always tough talking to Shalom, because I tell him we want to use you at 10, but right now you have to be ready as a swing man, and he’s had a great attitude,” said Tolkin. “We’d like to see him as a 10, and that’s where he’ll get the bulk of his playing time, if not all.”
Enter AJ MacGinty. He’s been the best flyhalf on American soil since debuting for NYAC in 2012, winning three club National Championships since then (2012 Super League with NYAC, and 2013 & 2014 DI with Life). The current Selects tour will be MacGinty’s first outing with the National Team, though he's been far from separated from the Eagle coaching staff.
“Whenever we went to camp, we had a few in Life, I’d speak to him,” said Tolkin. “He’d watch our trainings, he was kind of up on what we were doing, and having Dan Payne around was helpful in showing him the system, so it’s been a little bit of a drip feed to AJ. It’s been helpful to have that relationship where he’s gotten information, so he’s prepared coming in.”
The expectation, and hope, by most in the know would be that MacGinty takes pole position this tour. It’s basically a two-man race between him and Shalom, as L’Estrange can slot in other spots if and when he returns to full health.
The halfback position is an entirely different ball of wax. There is a growing mob of Eagle fans who think Mike Petri’s hold on the nine jersey is the single greatest injustice in American rugby history. That’s an entirely unfair stance. If Petri were playing overseas or had an accent or played for any club other than the one the head coach used to lead, he’d probably have fewer fingers pointed at him. Petri has been an incredible ambassador and soldier for American rugby, and on top of that he’s a good scrumhalf. (Dismount soapbox).
So the scrumhalf job is Petri’s to lose. The man many people want to usurp him is Tom Bliss, the former U20s captain and current London Wasp, but that isn’t likely to happen until sometime after the World Cup. Bliss, who is also England eligible, doesn’t currently count as a foreigner on the Wasps roster. The second he suits up for the Eagles, he becomes a foreigner in the eyes of the RFU and Premiership, making him less employable.
That puts him in a situation not entirely unlike the one in which Samu Manoa found himself for the 2011 World Cup. He was getting a shot overseas, and playing for the Eagles would have jeopardized his professional career. He then established himself as a world-class player worthy of a roster spot regardless of his international affiliation, and he returned to Team USA. Hopefully, that’s what Bliss is able to do, but he won’t do it before the autumn.
Robbie Shaw has re-signed with Bristol and is on tour with the Selects and making an earnest run at another World Cup. He hasn’t ever been able to overcome Petri for an elongated period of time, and there's no compelling evidence to suggest he will now. But he’s a trusty hand in the mix.
“Robbie showed good form overseas recently,” said Tolkin. “Looking at his games, he’s played well, so this will be his last shot to show what he’s got and to show if he’s taken some of the feedback, which obviously he has watching his recent games. We wanted him to be more aggressive with ball in hand and in the pocket.”
Kutztown’s Niku Kruger is on tour, but it would seem that’s really more of a look to the future by the coaching staff. It would take a pretty impressive coming out party in South America for him to make a legitimate run at a airline ticket to England.
Everyone knows Shalom can cover at scrumhalf, but perhaps lesser known is that MacGinty is a very skilled scrumhalf. The Eagles may be able to create some flexibility within their World Cup roster by depending on MacGinty or Suniula, whichever doesn’t win the flyhalf job, to cover scrumhalf, too.