Both the USA and Canada have made a few changes for Saturday’s 2nd-straight test match, and the changes can give us some insight into what each coach is thinking and what the game will be about.
Four starters from last week are out: Mate Moeakiola, Phil Thiel, Mike Petri and Kevin Swiryn.
Three of these changes are obviously Eddie O’Sullivan wanting a direct comparison between player A and player B.
Moeakiola, a very effective runner with the ball but one who has struggled in the scrum, makes way for Mike MacDonald, who used to be thought of as that type of player, but is now a lot more of a tight-game man. O’Sullivan clearly wants to see what works best.
Biller and Thiel have been battling for the hooker position. Thiel played well last week, and Biller had a poor game against Russia in the Churchill Cup. This is likely Biller’s last chance to wrest the #1 spot from Thiel. As players they are slightly different. Thiel is not as quick as Biller, but puts in more work. Both have been fairly reliable at set piece.
Petri and Usasz have been alternating as starters for the last two years. Petri got the starts against Russia and Canada in part because he has always been given starts against teams that are pushing his pack backward. Petri has responded well.
The big differences between the two are that Usasz seems more demonstrable and vocal (although Petri has improved in that area), and Petri gets the ball out of the ruck more quickly.
The fourth change in the starting lineup may be a straight drop. Kevin Swiryn has not been in good form of late, and while his game against Canada showed flashes of his former self, he was up and down. Colin Hawley gets the start, and Swiryn, like Moeakiola, is not in the 22.
On the bench, there’s only one change (aside from the two previous starters moving to the bench), and that is Scott LaValla replacing Inaki Basauri.
That switch is because LaValla played very well on Wednesday, and also because LaValla brings more size and power to the game, over the more mobile Basauri.
O’Sullivan is clearly still asking questions.
There was plenty of talk in Toronto from Canada insiders about how last week’s Canada team wasn’t their best. It was mostly talk, as the Canadians might have preferred one or two players, but the difference was minimal.
For Saturday, Head Coach Kieran Crowley moves flanker Jebb Sinclair to lock with Brian Erichsen going to the bench. Adam Kleeberger takes Sinclair’s place at blindside flanker.
This is a straight swap of mobility for size. Erichson is a big, rangy, traditional lock. Sinclair is a tweener. Kleeberger is an out-and-out flanker with outstanding ability to cover the field.
So it looks as though Crowley wants his forwards to be quicker to the breakdown.
Sean White in for Ed Fairhurst was expected as Crowley gets time for both players. Jamie McKenzie gets his spot on the bench as the scrumhalf.
And the back three moves around. Phil MacKenzie moves from one wing to the other. James Pritchard moves to his preferred position of fullback, and Ciaran Hearn comes into the wing, with Matt Evans dropping out.
This is just a mix-up to see who performs best where. Hearn is more of an attacking wing than Pritchard, who is the team’s main goalkicker. Evans is dynamic, but at 23 is still young and figuring out whether fullback is the right place for him.
On the bench, the even younger Nathan Hirayama, who can play flyhalf and fullback, comes into the 22.
For the most part, Crowley is, like O’Sullivan, testing out players. But a little more than the USA team, Canada is also picking for the game itself. They have chosen mobility over size to combat the USA’s strong work in the rucks and the continuity game.
The USA wants to win this game, too, and it could be that the changes O’Sullivan made will help them do that. The 2nd and back rows are intact and the midfield unchanged, but with a new scrumhalf and new hooker, the Eagles will, once again, be looking for consistency in an inconsistent world.