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John Mitchell has named his 23 for Romania, and it’s a curious selection, indeed. In total, it includes six new starters from the Maori All Blacks match and eight new additions to the 23-man squad. Four new caps are in the starting 15 – Nick Civetta, Bryce Campbell, Martin Iosefo and Madison Hughes. Two more could be earned off the bench by Dino Waldren and Matai Leuta.
There were always going to be changes, as availability continues to be a moving target for the USA. And anytime a team loses to by 47 at home to an uncapped side, a shakeup is warranted. However, no one would have predicted the squad Mitchell's favored.
The most resounding omission from the starting 15 is Samu Manoa, who was picked for the bench. The storming No. 8 is widely considered the best American in the world. He was unavailable for the Maori game, like all but two European pros, because it fell outside of the Reg. 9 window.
Left off the 23 entirely is Cam Dolan, the Cardiff forward. With a team as strapped for second rows as the USA is right now, it’s shocking that Dolan isn’t starting, let alone in the 23. Both he and Manoa are more pure back rowers, but they have plenty of experience at lock, which Saturday’s side lacks.
Mitchell is starting his only true locks against Romania. Manoa can fill in off the bench, but no one else would seem to fit the bill. James Hilterbrand and Dino Waldren are front rowers, and Langilangi Haukpeakui is too short. Todd Clever, who is starting at openside, may be the emergency lock, though he hasn’t played there in a long, long time, and only sparingly ever.
The uber-emergency lock might be Eric Fry, who was named to the bench despite being left off the initial November Tour squad. Fry has played international rugby exclusively at prop, but he was an All-American lock at Cal. Mitchell’s apparent on-again-off-again relationship with Fry altogether is puzzling.
Fry started in Mitchell’s first two games as head coach, which yielded his most impressive results, during the Americas Rugby Championship – a tie with Argentina XV and a bonus-point win over Canada. Mitchell then excluded Fry, the USA’s most-capped active prop, from the initial 34-player June assembly. Midway through it, after Fry and his Sacramento Express practiced with the Eagles, he brought him back in, like he’s done here.
Another surprising omission is Taku Ngwenya, who was named to the initial touring squad. He came off the bench last weekend for Brive in the Top 14.
Altogether, there are eight bonafide pro players, who ply, or have very recently plied, their trade in the best leagues in the world, named to the November squad but not starting against Romania – Manoa (Toulon), Dolan (Cardiff), Haupeakui (Glasgow), Ngwenya (Brive), Fry (Narbonne) Tony Lamborn (Hurrcanes), Marcel Brache (Western Force), and James Hilterbrand (Waratahs). All of them could just as easily be starting over someone who plays domestic amateur ball. Perhaps there are some unknown injuries sprinkled in here or there, but none that have been made public.
This isn’t the first time an Eagle coach has sat overseas pros in favor of domestic talent, but the amount Mitchell’s picked over is alarming. Frankly, so is Mitchell’s record to date. His Eagles are 3-4-1. Two of those games are non-rankings matches, the tie with Argentina and the blowout at the hands of the Maori All Blacks.
In full rankings tests, he’s a slightly better 3-3, though the tally is fattened with wins against Canada, Russia and Chile, all of whom were ranked below the Eagles at the time of competition. One loss, to Italy, was promising. The other two, to Uruguay and Brazil, were upsets. The Brazil (then-ranked 42nd to the USA’s 16th) loss is literally the biggest rankings upset in World Rugby history.
Given those meager statistics, it would seem to make sense for Mitchell to start what he thought was his best 15 and dress his top 23 for Saturday’s clash with Romania, currently ranked one slot above the Eagles. But, it appears, guaranteeing test success isn’t high on the priority list.
Men's Eagles | v. Romania
1. Titi Lamositele
2. Joe Taufete'e
3. Chris Baumann
4. Nate Brakeley
5. Nick Civetta
6. Al McFarland
7. Todd Clever(C)
8. Andrew Durutalo
9. Nate Augspurger
10. Will Holder
11. Martin Iosefo
12. Bryce Campbell
13. Thretton Palamo
14. Blaine Scully
15. Madison Hughes