USA 15s Head Coach Mike Tolkin’s job is not an easy one. Very few major international coaches have the issues he deals with in terms of getting players to be available for national team honors, including the double-whammy of pros who can be under pressure to stay with their clubs, and amateurs who can’t get away from jobs or school.
Even countries (Fiji is one) that have similar issues, the profile of rugby is so much higher, that asking a boss for time off the play the game is just that much easier.
So it is that Tolkin has had to get 33 players to fill out a roster of 28.
Most will be able to play in all three matches, but of the 33 named, 12 will not be available for all three games. That’s a pretty large number, and required some wheeling and dealing from Tolkin, especially at lock and flanker, where he has had to deal with the injuries to Brian Doyle, Lou Stanfill, Liam og Murphy, and John Quill.
Some of the mixing and matching is not ideal – Inaki Basauri comes in for the Georgia game, but that’s all; Peter Dahl for just the Maori, Samu Manoa for just Georgia and Russia – but is has to be done. What Tolkin has to be happy about is that this time he is drawing from a USA Selects team that performed quite well. He has depth now.
Some thoughts, then, on the players who are there, and who are not, and why.
Patrick Latu was slated to play in the USA Selects v. Golden Lions game that was called off last spring. Everyone says he deserves a shot, and perhaps has deserved a shot for a while now. He gets time in camp and a chance to play against the Maori. It would be nice to see more.
What you have to hope is that Latu shows well, and shows that his considerable size is not a detriment to his ability to cover ground at the international level.
Eric Fry is a player who is fighting for his spot on the team. With Titi Lamositele pushing for a starting position (remember how Lamositele tackled Canada’s speedy wing in the open field in the ARC, jarring the ball loose and setting up a try? Know many props who can do that?) and Nick Wallace playing ever better, prop is again a position full of competition.
And don’t forget Blake Burdette. Here’s a guy who knows what it takes and who played in the 2007 Rugby World Cup. He has been working enormously hard to get in shape. It’s unlikely he’s an 80-minute player, but 20 minutes? Sure.
At hooker, Chris Biller’s desultory work rate has caught up with him. He throws well in the lineout, and is quite good in the scrum, but has much more ability in the open field than he normally shows. At some point, a coach is going to take action, and that is what Tolkin appears to have done. The final nail was Phil Thiel proving he is fit enough and strong enough to regain the position. Thiel isn’t as fast as Biller, but he works harder and is excellent in tight.
Look for Tolkin to start Lamositele at least once in this tour. He needs a starting cap to get a pro contract at Saracens, and has easily done enough to earn one.
The prospect of Brian Doyle and Lou Stanfill being injured would have been, even six months ago, very disturbing. But somehow Tolkin has plugged the holes.
He probably will use Manoa in that role against Georgia and Russia, and Scott LaValla can play lock no problem, but the key was to get some other second rows in there. Graham Harriman isn’t fancy, but he got a lot of work done in the ARC. Tai Tuisamoa brings an extra grittiness and offensive firepower.
John Cullen will likely be in camp to observe, learn, and grow as a player.
No Nick Civetta? Well the former Notre Dame All American was out for about a year. Tolkin wants him playing and developing, and he’s doing that at Lazio.
Here, still, the USA has depth. John Quill our? Liam Murphy out? Peter Dahl can only play in one of the three games? Well, Cam Dolan was probably the best USA player in the ARC.
Kyle Sumsion may not be in Cullen’s position, and could well be asked to fill in against the Maori. That’s a tall order. Derek Asbun, who has to finish up some studies at the University of Cape Town, fills the same role for the other two games. They are a little thin in the back row, but your front line of Todd Clever, Scott LaValla, and Cam Dolan is pretty good.
No Danny Barrett? Barrett has some schooling to finish. He completes his degree work in November and has to do that. He will be in the mix for 2014.
No surprises. Mike Petri has to leave the tour early for work and Robbie Shaw will step in for him. Shaun Davies was another player who raised his game in the ARC.
OK, we were surprised to see Zach Pangelinan here – not because he isn’t a good player, but because it seemed like he was pulled in different directions and wasn’t making himself available. Well maybe now things have changed (?).
A few weeks ago it looked as if Toby L’Estrange was going to lose his job and Adam Siddall was going to take it.
Except … Siddall looks pretty good at center, and just fine at fullback, but while he didn’t grab that flyhalf position, it seems L’Estrange did. He has thrived in working with Billy Millard, and while the USA offense needs work, it’s improving with L’Estrange at the helm.
The surprise, and the dark horse, here, is Folau Niua. Tolkin likes him a lot. Niua is dynamic and tough and smart, and it’s actually a big surprise to see him committed to all three matches. You’d expect him to be brought back to the Olympic Training Center a week before the USA 7s team leaves for Dubai. It seems reasonable that Niua will be wanted on the 7s team. But he is on the list for all three games; what happens if he’s amazing?
There’s plenty of depth at center. Andrew Suniula, Seamus Kelly, Siddall, Chris Wyles … no issues there.
Joe Cowley is pretty poised for a young guy, and Siddall can play at fullback, too, and might be a more solid choice against the Maori. When Wyles and Blaine Scully show up, you might well see Wyles at center and Scully in the #15 jersey.
At wing, don't forget James Paterson is also hurt. Luke Hume has been electric at times for the USA, and Tim Maupin showed he’s got the goods in the ARC. Cowley, or Scully, or Pangelinan can play on the wing, also.
OK, so this, finally, helps us discuss the big shocker – Taku Ngwenya. The fastest man in world rugby, the superstar wing, is not on the squad. Why? Part of it seems to be that Ngwenya went off on his own game plan at times. Part of it is that the team as a whole seemed to think too much about setting Ngwenya up to score tries, and not enough about playing rugby as a group.
Has Ngwenya played badly? Is he a detriment to the team? Well that’s going too far. But if you’re building your team a certain way, maybe he doesn’t fit. If you’re trying to get time on the field for other young wings, maybe he takes time from them. It is a shocking choice, and at the same time, you can see the logic.
When you look at Samu Manoa or Chris Wyles, you see players who are changing games at the highest level. Manoa’s performance this past Saturday was brilliant. Ngwenya has to be brilliant, and is expected to be brilliant. Is he?
So there’s your team. It has a few guesses (Tolkin won’t know how Cullen, Latu, Sumsion handles a long national team assembly, for example). It’s a squad where the coach has made a somewhat scary commitment (dropping Biller and Ngwenya). And it’s a squad where Tolkin has been forced into some major changes. But at it best, it’s the squad, along with the coaches, needed to turn the program around.