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Stephen Tomasin and Madison Hughes are out with knee injuries suffered last week in Sydney, leaving holes in the lineup for this weekend in Hamilton, New Zealand. Those voids equate to opportunities for those who’ll combine to fill them. Former Cal 15s All-American Nick Boyer has been brought in to be one of those hole fillers.
Hughes was lost in the first game against Australia, while Tomasin went down in the final game of pool play, so the Eagles put together a great performance against defending Olympic champion Fiji without either, and won pool matches against Canada and Scotland sans Hughes.
Early indication is that neither tore nor ruptured anything in their knees, but they’re not expected to be available in the near term. Almost definitely out for Las Vegas and Canada, maybe back for Hong Kong and Singapore, and probably ready for Paris and London.
Through the years, the Eagles have been reliant on one or two players in key positions. If Zack Test had gotten hurt at any point through three coaching tenures, the Eagles would have taken big steps back. Same with Shalom Suniula. Now, you could argue Madison Hughes is a guy they couldn’t afford to lose while maintaining the same expectations, along with Perry Baker, Folau Niua and Danny Barrett.
But the Eagles didn’t let their standard slip without the captain in the lineup. They slid Maka Unufe into the scrumhalf role, and he provided a completely different set of attributes to the position. He added speed, aerial ability and x-factor, and he delivered well enough in the areas where Hughes is strong and he is weak for the team to not skip a beat.
Unufe broke onto the team under Al Cravelli as a flyer. He was the fastest guy until Carlin Isles came along, and the second fastest until Baker did. He might still be the third fastest guy. With the racehorses in the stable, he’s played almost exclusively at center, publicly. Behind the scenes he’s been working to expand his horizons.
“Maka’s worked really hard at bringing flexibility into his game. He’s been playing a lot up front in the forwards, and he’s more than comfortable as well doing all the lineouts, so it’s more a reflection on how far Maka has grown as a player and his flexibility,” said head coach Mike Friday.
“Outside of scrum time he will always be either first or second receiver on the first play, or playing back for the forwards as the first or second receiver to hold the outside channel. That’s what he did, and he did really well at it.”
Unufe, being so fast, agile, and with those hops, is a special athlete. Any team in the world would foam at the mouth to have someone with his measurables. But he’s struggled to get on the field consistently over the last few seasons, which has been a source of frustration for both himself and Friday, a coach who isn’t keen on leaving a Ferrari in the garage.
“It’s about Maka getting comfortable and confident doing new things, and that took some time. The other thing is he doesn’t do so well coming from the bench and complementing Martin [Iosefo]. I think the biggest positive in all this is we started to see Maka and Martin go for 14 minutes, which just brings up some real attacking variations for us.
“Maka fully understands if he’s asked to play that kind of impact role from the bench, or if he is asked to start and get on with it. We can show that he has probably taken that next step, and he is able and capable of doing that.”
In addition to expanding his skillset, Unufe has worked hard to get and keep his weight where Friday and assistant coach/strength and conditioning guru Chris Brown want it. Now that he’s there, he feels good, and when he feels good, he plays good, posits Friday.
“He knows how good athletically he is. He gets frustrated that sometimes, for whatever reason it may be, he doesn’t always deliver and perform. What he’s started to realize, if you look at now he is at a weight where he physically needs to be.
“Maka can fluctuate from 85 [kilograms] up to 95, and he’s worked so hard. This is the thing people don’t see, Maka’s worked so hard these last four months, and he’s been at a consistent 93 kgs. All of a sudden he’s got the strength, the power, the fuel and injection to be able to feel good.
“Maka feeling good, that’s what he’s about, and when he feels good and he’s light and strong and powerful on the pitch, then his confidence comes through. You see that more in his defensive stuff. That’s when you know that Maka is in a good place, because his second effort off the floor to get back in that defensive shape is there.”
Another fast guy who’s played a lot of wing and will have an opportunity to benefit from increased playing time is Kevon Williams. He came up through the ranks playing wing for New Mexico Highlands and the Denver Barbarians, but Friday figures he’s not quite fast enough to be a wing at the international level, and he’s invested in turning him into a halfback, a position he played in Sydney.
“Kevon did well as a halfback coming on, and he gives us something different when he comes on,” Friday said.
Don’t be surprised if you see him there in New Zealand. You might even see him at scrumhalf at the same time Unufe is playing prop and Baker or Isles is on the wing. That might make for the fastest seven in the world.
That’s all the exciting part. The scary part is Hughes and Tomasin were among the team’s best kickers. Niua’s trusty leg is still in play, but having to play nearly every minute of every game appeared to take a toll on the 33-year-old. Whether he is allotted much-deserved rest or the inevitable wear and tear rears its ugly head, him not on the pitch would mean a chink the Eagles’ best armor – restarts.
And anytime very talented, experienced, trusted reserves become starters, they leave a void on the bench. Matai Leuta has been around a while, but he is still green. Joe Schroeder and Chris Mattina are just dipping their toes, making their fourth and second tournaments, respectively. And the uncapped Boyer is a giant question mark.
Yes, he played at Cal, winners of five-straight Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship titles. But when you think of the stars of those teams, you think of Barrett, Seamus Kelly, Russell Webb and Anthony Salaber, not Boyer. He was more of a standout in 15s, where he was a bit of an oddity as a 6’2” scrumhalf. But Friday isn’t looking for Boyer to be a star.
“He’s got world-class work ethic. And what I mean by that is he will go all day every day, and that’s what I’m expecting from him. He will cut the gaps and he will cut the holes, and will allow our x-factor boys to make slight mistakes, like Maka can be slightly off or Martin can be slightly off in defense if this boy can do that job,” explained Friday.
“It’s scandal, because he’s only been with us three or four months, and that’s what I’m hoping to see here. He’s not ready, but I’m bringing him because we also need to give the likes of [Pinkelman] and Danny and Matai some time off in games if we’re up.”
The timing of these injuries also comes into play, as it coincides with the Americas Rugby Championship, for which Friday released Malon Al-Jiboori to gain a different experience with the 15s team. A number of other players who Friday might have called upon are now tied up with the ARC, too.
Ultimately, the result may be a slightly weaker team in New Zealand, and maybe Las Vegas, Singapore and Hong Kong, but a stronger one in time.
“Sometimes you’ve got to take some hurt at the coalface to get us where we need to be later down the track,” said Friday. “This is one of those times where we’re being put under massive duress because losing Stevie and Madison, who are two very consistent players, is hugely disappointing for us.”