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The Eagles begin an incredibly busy four-month span Saturday when they take on Samoa at 7 p.m. PT at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, Calif. On paper, the game looks like an uphill climb as the Americans been convened in camp for only a handful of days.
“The biggest thing we’re always trying to do is gain consistency. We have a lot of people that come from different places, and we come from all over the world,” said hooker Phil Thiel.
“Some guys are here in the States, and we’ve been playing together now for a couple of tours, which has been nice to have the domestic guys to push our level, but you bring in some of the guys that we haven’t seen for a while, the pro guys, and they really bring the level up.”
On the flip side, Samoa is fresh off last week’s historic match with the All Blacks, a 25-16 win for New Zealand. It was the All Blacks’ first-ever test in Samoa, and the home team showed incredibly well in defeat.
“They did a great job. They played their style of game, and it was real hot, and it was the first game for the All Blacks on their home soil so they were pumped up for it. They played a great game, and it’s great to see them do so well in that game and we’re excited to play them on the weekend,” said Thiel.
“Obviously, the island teams are going to bring a great brand of physicality to the game, and it’s just something you have to prepare for. You have to come out and be ready to be physical yourselves, because they do bring a lot of that style.
“Just watching them play the All Blacks, the All Blacks are who they are, and nobody’s going to hide that, but they did a great job against them with that physicality, and you can just prepare for it and be ready and be excited about it.”
This weekend’s game isn’t really the whole focus of the team, nor is even the Pacific Nations Cup. Every match between now and September is about the World Cup, which the Eagles open Sept. 20 against Samoa.
The RWC training squad has a mix of experience. Todd Clever looks like a lock to make his fourth World Cup appearance. Four more guys, Chris Wyles, Louis Stanfill, Mike Petri and Takudzwa Ngwenya, are looking to make their third. Another eight, including Thiel, who retired after 2011, are trying to make their second World Cup.
“I’m older. I took like a year-and-a-half off after the last World Cup,” said Thiel, reflecting on the differences between 2011 and now.
“I got pretty fat, and came back in 2013 at the beginning of the year, and Coach Tolkin was kind enough to give me an opportunity when he knew I was back and told me I could grow into the role that I’ve gotten into now as a vet, and that’s the biggest thing, just being more of a veteran player, having been around longer, seeing new guys come in.
“We have a really exciting group, and we had an exciting group in 2011, but we had a tough pool and we, for the most part, did perform well. But we’re really excited about this year coming around just with a great group of veterans that have been through multiple World Cups, guys that have really gotten to stay around for a while, and also some really young exciting guys coming in.”
One difference between the last seven years and now is the captaincy. Tolkin decided to take it from Clever and give it to Wyles – a move that could shake the resolve of a timid team.
“That’s something that we don’t really even think about that much. We’ll rally behind Chris just like we rallied behind Todd, and we’ll rally behind Todd and other players as well, each other,” said Thiel.
“The monicker of captain is an important thing, but at the same time the guys that have gotten to wear that shirt – Todd the last seven years and now Chris – are such professional people they would never, ever let that be a distraction or skip a beat and they’re also awesome guys, which is why they got to be in that position. To be honest with you, we haven’t even let that touch us, and it just happens to be that a different person sits next to Coach Tolkin and speaks at the microphone after the game.”
Saturday’s match will be streamed live on ESPN3, as will the Canada vs. Japan match the same day and the rest of the Pacific Nations Cup.