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For the third time in four years, Team USA is playing outside the November test window. That means some of the team’s best players won’t be available. Also for the third time in four years, that game is against the All Blacks. All Blacks is rugby for best team in the world.
In 2014, the match was against the All Blacks proper, who shellacked the Eagles 74-6. Saturday, as they did in 2016 resulting in a 54-7 defeat, the Eagles face the Maori All Blacks, essentially New Zealand’s JV team. As evidenced by the slight difference in score line, New Zealand’s JV can beat most nations’ varsity.
“They do have the ability to run away with it. They are that good,” USA head coach Gary Gold said. “Before you know it, you look up at the scoreboard and you’re 30 points down, and that’s when it becomes a tough day.”
The decision to routinely book the All Blacks for a big stadium outside the test window is the rugby version of scheduling the best team in the state for your homecoming game while all your seniors are away for a field trip. That’s reflected in the USA’s lineup for Saturday.
When the initial squad was named for the fall tour, not a single uncapped player was on the list. Saturday two are starting – Lindenwood senior Chance Wenglewski at loosehead prop and Gannon Moore at outside center.
One is cause for concern in a problem area for Gold, while the other might offer a glimpse of hope. Wenglewski’s hit every rung of the age-grade system, playing for the HSAAs, U20s, MCAAs, the Selects in the Americas Pacific Challenge and now the Eagles.
Listed at 6’2”, 235 pounds and cut like a back rower, Wenglewski is type of guy you’d have lead the team off the bus for an away game. He was recruited to Lindenwood for football and rugby simultaneously, and he was standout wrestler in high school, too. He’s more athletic than most props.
But there’s one glaring problem. He can’t scrummage. He primarily played in the back row in high school, and he’s entering year four in the transition to prop. At every level, he’s struggled to keep his feet in the scrum.
That could present a big issue Saturday. Lining up directly across from the 21-year-old is 36-year-old Ben May, who has more than 100 Super Rugby caps to his name.
“It’s going to be a big challenge. They’re a very good pack. They’ve got a particularly good scrum,” said Gold.
“I know Ben May quite well. He and Ash Dixon are very experienced players obviously playing top level Super Rugby as well, so we’re going to have our work cut out for us. There’s no question of a doubt about that.”
The scrum is one thing. The Maori’s speed is another.
“Our biggest challenge tomorrow is going to be being able to live with their pace. These are guys who ordinarily on any stage in World Rugby play the game at a higher pace than anyone else does,” said Gold.
“I don’t think that’s a secret, and I don’t think that’s disrespectful to anyone else. We’re going to have to manage the pace of the game. We’re going to have to slow their quick ball down. We’re going to have to make sure that we make good defensive reads, and we’re really going to have to defend for significant periods of time.”
Moore just may help in that effort. He started playing rugby in high school before putting it away to set records as a running back for DII Southwest Minnesota State. After college, he picked rugby back up again with the Kansas City Blues and flirted with a shot at the 7s Eagles.
He’s spent the last two years playing at the Mitre 10 Cup level in New Zealand, the competition that breeds All Blacks. Moore’s best shot at establishing himself with the Eagles might be at wing, but he’ll be wearing 13 Saturday. If anyone can help keep pace with the Kiwis, it might be the guy who’s spent the last two years running them down on a regular basis.