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Mike Petri has come under fire of late. Blog posts have been devoted to anyone who writes anything positive about him, and in the online American rugby community, there seems to be a largely negative view of Petri’s play. That criticism hasn’t slipped past Eagle coach Mike Tolkin, who stands behind his scrumhalf.
“There has been, certainly over the last year, a lot of commentary about Mike and against Mike and talking points,” Tolkin ackowledged.
Petri’s style of play isn’t flashy. He doesn’t make a lot of big runs like a Piri Weepu or George Gregan. He isn’t the team’s goal kicker like Greg Laidlaw or Dmitri Yachvili, so it’s possible fans have a difficult time crediting a guy who isn’t gaining a lot of yards with his feet or putting a lot of points on the board.
“A lot of people look for scrumhalves that are runners and darters and take advantage of things, and that’s not Mike’s game, in the same way that Peter Stringer is not a runner or darter, but had a very good pass and was steady and was a rock in game management,” said Tolkin.
“He has good game sense. Occasionally a little hitch in his pass, but certainly better than any other choices that we have. And we know we have Shalom if we want to change the dynamic of the way we’re playing.”
The Eagles' attack was fairly stagnant against Scotland. The forwards were able to string together some multi-phase possessions, but line breaks were few and far between. Some assign Petri.
“That part is unfair, because that part comes just as much from 10 as it does from nine. Nine is in there digging, and he definitely is organizing, but 10 has to call guys around as well. 10 is a big part of organizing what the forwards are doing off attack. That’s something Shalom (Suniula) is getting more accustomed to, and he even addressed it this week,” said Tolkin.
“We need better penetration from our forwards in carries, and part of that is getting together in a system that they’re all on the same page, but some of that is they’ve got to do the job better. So there is some onus on them, no doubt.”
Tolkin coached Petri at Xavier High School and again with the New York Athletic Club. That connections has led to accusations of cronyism.
“The perception is I’m entrenched with Mike, we have a history, and I’m not changing, and that’s not the case,” Tolkin said.
Compounding the cries of cronyism is the fact that there wasn’t much competition for Mike brought into camp ahead of this month’s tests. Nate Augspurger, who’s spent the better part of the last two years playing 7s, was the only scrumhalf there. And Petri and Suniula were the only pure scrumhalves picked for the traveling squad.
Had either of the Eagles' frontline flyhalves, Adam Siddall and Toby L’Estrange, been healthy, Suniula would have been pushing Petri for minutes at nine. Instead, he’s starting at 10. Shaun Davies, Chris Saint and Augspurger are younger scrumhalves who’ve been in the mix at camp, but the coaching staff doesn’t think any are ready for test rugby. Tolkin would love to have brought in 7s Eagle and Dartmouth junior Madison Hughes or former Junior All American Tom Bliss, but both were unavailable.
“Mike has become a target of a lot of unfair criticism. If you look at any game he’s played in depth, there’s not a lot of mistakes there…You see a guy who makes his kick on the mark every time, a guy who has very good service off both hands, and guy who his teammates really respect. A big thing, as with any player, until you have someone better, then you’re not going to replace him.”