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Mike Tolkin originally wanted to have his 31-man World Cup roster settled by now. But he has until Monday to make a final determination, and it’s possible he’ll take advantage of Sunday’s clash with the Harlequins before submitting a list to World Rugby.
One of the situations that has likely helped put the brakes on a final roster is that of Todd Clever, who was cut amidst the Pacific Nations Cup last month. Tolkin indicated at the time of the controversial move, prompted by Clever missing two mandatory team sessions, that he would circle back with the former captain after the PNC and give him a chance to redeem himself.
Clever and Tolkin spoke, and Clever was not selected for the RWC warm-ups against Canada, Harlequins and Australia.
“I did speak with him, so he knows exactly where he stands and what’s going on with his situation,” Tolkin told Rugby Today. “Todd is on the 45-man training roster, so he would be eligible if we needed him. That’s been communicated to him, so he’s been given a training plan, and if we feel that we need him on this roster moving forward, then that’s the case, so he’s still in the pipeline.”
Clever declined an interview, but it seems clear whatever rift exists between him and Tolkin hasn’t been wholly repaired and the face of American rugby for the better part of a decade will miss out on his fourth RWC barring injury or a severe drop in form from a fellow back rower Sunday.
“Danny [Barrett’s] playing very good ball. Al [McFarland] off the bench has been solid for us, so they’re going to have to fight it out. Not by any means is it an easy decision. Both of them contribute great work rate, great athleticism from the six position, possibly eight if necessary,” said Tolkin, talking about the depth of his loose forwards in a battle for playing time even without Clever in the mix.
“Durutalo’s playing great ball consistently, and John Quill is right there. Quilly was probably our man of the November Tour. He played great, and there’s nothing really he’s doing wrong. It’s just Andrew’s playing at a great level. It’s nice to know Quill is right there. When we need him we know he’ll be ready. It’s just no easy decisions.”
Include Samu Manoa, who is finally available for selection and Tolkin likes at No. 8, and Clever’s chances of getting selected get dimmer.
“We were very happy with the way our back row played in the PNC. They all put in strong performances, and it’s difficult to say, hey you guys are off just to put one guy on when they’re playing well,” said Tolkin, referring to Clever. “Right now they’re all in form, and you throw Samu in the mix, he’s certainly not going anywhere, so if they keep up their form it’s going to be tough to break in there.”
Clever, 32, is hot on the heels of Mike MacDonald for the title of most-capped Eagle of all time, needing just four more appearances to eclipse Big Mac. Had Clever not missed that first meeting the week of the Samoa game, he'd have been on the bench that Saturday. And if he'd stayed with the team, he'd probably be either celebrating his record-breaking 68th cap by now or doing so in Philadelphia or Chicago in the coming weeks. If not, then surely during the game's biggest spectacle next month.
That would have been a fitting moment in the twilight of an international career for someone who's carried the torch so long for American rugby. Instead, Clever, 32, is likely to miss out on joining the exclusive club of those who've played in four World Cups, and a coveted record that at one time seemed practically his is in doubt.
It's notable that outlets such as Deadspin, ESPN and USA Today reported on Clever's being cut, and that Clever's appearance in the ESPN the Body Issue and subsequently at the ESPYs played a role in his dismissal. What other National Team member in history would have been given the media opportunities which contributed to him missing those mandatory team sessions, let alone garnered such attention for being released?
However Clever's international rugby career comes to an end, this chapter can't be looked at as anything other than an unfortunate one for such a celebrated and integral character in the story of American rugby.