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While the Eagles will likely return several experienced players from the 2011 Rugby World Cup squad, there is always some turnover as amateurs look to pay their bills and longtime players consider hanging it up.
Key among Tolkin’s jobs will be to put together a detailed and fluid depth chart. In that list he will have to find those talented players hidden in low-profile colleges and clubs, or quietly honing their skills overseas.
Look at prop. Mike MacDonald is the most-capped USA player of all time. But is he the long-term guy? Same could be said of Mate Moeakiola.
The Eagles have Shawn Pittman and Eric Fry, two props who are still young and are building on their experience. Then there’s Will Johnson and Tony Purpura, two players who must have felt somewhat shabbily treated in 2011.
After that, there are gaps to be filled. There’s plenty of college talent and even U20 talent waiting to be selected, but not a lot of experience and athleticism (it’s usually one or the other). So where do Matt Crawford, Nick Wallace, Andrew Silverman, Vladi Mnatsakanov, Charles Koehler, and Seth Strauss fit in? What about Tim Paulsen, Darryl Hoeneker, Mikey Su’a, Andy King or Kevin Herrera?
They are out there; Tolkin just has to filter through them.
One shallow position is hooker. Chris Biller and Phil Thiel were the main guys last year, and it remains to be seen if they can be the guys going forward. Patrick Latu may be the option of the future, or perhaps Zach Fenoglio.
Fewer coaches seem to tout their hookers, and yet the position is enormously important. Maybe one of those props can think about it …
Lock is definitely in flux. Hayden Smith is apparently looking at the NFL. John van der Giessen may have decided that’s enough for now. That leaves the door open, somewhat, for the likes of Scott LaValla (a little short for an international lock, but an excellent player nonetheless), and Samu Manoa (whose new contract has no restrictions on his Eagles activities).
Consider also that Lou Stanfill is still around, and Inaki Basauri has been playing a lot of lock for his club in France. Then you’ve got Casey Rock now playing in Australia, Norris Goldberg, who spent time in New Zealand, Jason Law, now at Oxford, Graham Harriman, Nate Brakely, Brian Doyle … it does start to get crowded.
The key message for players is that the position is hiring right now.
Loose Forward. There’s little doubt that Todd Clever will be back. He could be back with most of the 2011 Back Row, including JJ Gagiano, Basauri, Nic Johnson, Stanfill and LaValla all ready to play. Johnson and Stanfill are back playing and working domestically, and that always makes you wonder if they can get time away.
This is a special time for Tolkin to put his stamp on the team, but deciding what kind of back row he wants. Eddie O’Sullivan usually went for size over speed. But maybe Tolkin will want a classic pitch-covering #7. Certainly Manoa could be the option at No. 8; we know plenty of Bay Area fans want to see that. We would like to see Cal grad Derek Asbun get a shot. He’s not a big man, but he puts in a ton of work.
What about Cam Dolan, Garrett Lambert, Shaun Poetgeiter, Tom Rooke, Sam Shackelford, and Taylor Mokate? There are a lot of loose forwards out there.
At scrumhalf, Mike Petri should be the first choice, but there has to be some depth and some youth in there, too. Robbie Shaw has been playing regularly overseas, while Tim Usasz has not. Expect to see a push from a group of young domestic players, including Shaun Davies and Chad Clark.
Flyhalf was certainly a position of contention because O’Sullivan a) picked one player to play the position with really no backup and b) created a game plan that set up a loss of faith in that player.
Nese Malifa is still young and still able to play international flyhalf. He just needs to be the right guy for the game plan. Volney Rouse should be considered, and another former St. Mary’s guy, Damien Fatongia, might be in the mix, too. Roland Suniula? He’s hurt again, so we don’t know. Some of the college players are a year or two away, but the Chicago Lions keep giving game time to Nick Viviani, and he can kick, too, so he should at least be looked at.
Center. What Tolkin should do it put the #12 jersey on Paul Emerick and the #13 jersey on Kevin Swiryn, keep Seta Tuilevuka in reserve, and just go with it. The problem with that plan is that Swiryn and Tuilevuka aren’t playing that much, and Emerick is likely not going to be the guy for the long-term. He’s three away from 50 caps, but then what?
American rugby is full of good centers. But we need to get the right combination. A healthy Mile Pulu, Gareth Jones, Blaine Scully, Thretton Palamo (!? Yes he’s playing football, still fun to talk about), Nate Ebner, all could be in there. There are probably a few more Polynesian-American players worth sifting through (we’re hearing some stories). James Paterson can play outside center, too.
With both Roland and Andrew Suniula injured or coming off injury, this is a position that could undergo plenty of changes.
At wing and fullback. Expect Chris Wyles, Taku Ngwenya, James Paterson and Kevin Swiryn to be around. This is a tough group to break into, and perhaps we will actually see them get a chance to have a run, now.
This is not a definitive list by any means. We’ve purposefully left names off so it won’t become a laundry list. But it shows the situation: the USA team has big questions to answer at hooker, lock, halfbacks, and center.
What Mike Tolkin chooses to do about those positions will have a huge
influence on the team in the next several years.