It’s less than six months to the World Cup, and for top players in the USA this is the great event of their rugby lives.
Players will do almost anything to achieve the dream of making the third-biggest sporting event in the world. They will quit jobs, pass up promotions, sell their homes, pretend that nagging injury isn’t going to become much, much worse later, and put up with a load of difficulties from coaches, administrators, and everyone else to get there.
|Top to bottom: MacDonald and Manoa (Ian Muir), Pittman for London Welsh (Muir), Smith for Saracens (Muir), Johnson (Luis Vidales), and Clever going for the high ball (Georgia Rugby Union)
And it’s worth it. Playing in the World Cup and, for those precious few USA players who have experienced this, winning a game is a special, special moment.
So who will experience that special moment and who won’t? USA Head Coach Eddie O’Sullivan has essentially four months to really decide, during which time players could suffer injuries or drops in form, or new players could emerge (remember that in March of 2007 Chris Wyles and Taku Ngwenya were afterthoughts).
Here are our thoughts as to which players seem to have a lock on a place, and which positions still have a door or two open. (And we’re only going to say it once so we don’t have to keep saying it … barring injury …):
Prop. Not that long ago O’Sullivan and his coaches had some tough selection decisions to make. Then some of those decisions were made for them. A year ago Jake Sprague and Brian Howard were possible Eagles, but Sprague got sick and Howard had to choose a livelihood over rugby.
O’Sullivan did get to make one major decision, as he dropped Mike MacDonald on form and then brough the Leeds prop back in. Big Mac finalized joins a quartet that includes Shawn Pittman, Mate Moeakiola and Will Johnson – all like World Cup players.
Eric Fry has an excellent chance (although what he’s going to do for games if his club is suspended one wonders).
There’s the possibility that Anthony Purpura or Tala Esera could push their way in, but all the other hopefuls, it seems to us, are either too green, or not what O’Sullivan is looking for.
Should O’Sullivan try for a scrum specialist in this group? It might be a good move – make sure the scrum has a fallback guy. But in the last ten years virtually every time a USA coach has had to choose between scrum-first or mobile-first for a prop, he has picked mobility.
Hooker. No one has really been considered other than Phil Thiel and Chris Biller. Thiel has the added plus of being able to play prop, too. Is anyone else even close? Maybe Chicago Lions #2 Phil Abraham or Chris Baumann, who is with Glendale.
(If you want evidence of the long-term cost of not having a national all-star championship, the lack of international depth at hooker is it. Hooker, more than any position in the forwards, is less about the raw numbers – height, weight, squat and 40 – and more about the totality of play.)
Lock: We’re only going to list three players here: John Van der Giessen, Samu Manoa and Hayden Smith, because the rest get their own category. These are the only really dedicated locks (even so Smith plays some flanker and many would consider Manoa a No. 8) on the national team. Why? Well Bruce McLane spelled it out on a RuggaMatrix show in the fall. It is very hard to have a guy who only plays lock on the Eagles unless he starts. If he’s on the bench, then he needs to be someone who can play lock, flanker or No. 8.
Having said that, though, the World Cup is a different kettle of fish. The squad is 30 players, not the 26 usual for other tours. With so many big games in such a short period of time, you need cover at second row just as you need it elsewhere.
So if you were to look for another lock, who would it be? Anyone who reads these pages regularly knows we like Brian Doyle at NYAC, and lately Carl Hanson at Olympic Club has shown some great form. And the other name worth bandying about it the ageless Alec Parker. Parker may be old, but he is very smart and can put in a valuable 25 minutes on the test stage.
As for the three who seem set, Smith has been playing very well. He’s physical, intelligent, versatile, and good in the set pieces. Van der Giessen isn’t quite as big as Smith but works enormously hard and provides great leadership. Manoa is just a tough guy to deal with for the opposition. He has the ability to dominate in open play.
Locks who are loose forwards, and loose forwards who are locks: O’Sullivan has gone for these tweeners more often than not, because he can do a lot with them and he knows he’ll get plenty of work out of them no matter where they go. The three locks/loosies are Lou Stanfill, Nic Johnson, and Scott LaValla. Each is a little different. Johnson, in our opinion, should be given the No. 8 slot and left alone. LaValla has all the tools, is probably the best lineout jumper of the three, and could well be captain of this team in the 2015 World Cup. But when everyone’s healthy he will find it hard to break in past old, more experienced players. Stanfill has shown heart and the coaches love that. He does the difficult and unglamorous stuff well, and can play 4, 5, 6 or 8.
All three of these players, because of their brains, heart and versatility, are indispensible to the Eagles.
Anyone else? Hard to find anyone who might push into this position, because experience is part of the equation. Ryan Chapman is playing well for the Utah Warriors, and of course there’s Danny LaPrevotte from SFGG, but it will be tough to unseat the three already entrenched.
Flanker and No. 8: We’ve got four names: Todd Clever, JJ Gagiano, Inaki Basauri, and Peter Dahl. None of these is really a true No. 8, although Clever has played there. We like Clever at openside flanker more than No. 8, partly because, as you look above, the USA system is awash in guys who can play a capable No. 8. Complicating matters, however, is the fact that Basauri and Dahl are also more #7s than anything else. Dahl is perhaps the most old-time, classic ball-grappling openside, and now back from injury, he’s been playing great. Basauri was hurt in the fall tour and we haven’t seen him back, so one wonders if he grabbed his big chance only to see it snatched away again.
Gagiano can play virtually everywhere, but isn’t our favorite anywhere.
In the end, apart from Clever no other player has grabbed a place and held onto it.
If there’s room for one more, is there a one more to make room for? Candidates include Vai Notoa from Hawaii, or Matt Hawkins from Belmont Shore, or a young guy who such as Ryan Roundy or Cam Dolan. Perhaps it’s their time after 2011.
(When we wrote this we, for some reason, left out Pat Danahy. That's a dumb move because Danahy is similar in many ways to Gagiano and LaValla, and could bump either out of the squad. Our apologies.)
So if we are picking a squad of 30, 17 of whom will be forwards, here’s what we’ve got:
John van der Giessen
That leaves three spots open. With all the tweeners, it seems there’s room for a specialist loose forward, and that looks to come down to Inaki Basauri or Peter Dahl.
And there’s a place for another front row guy. It might be a hooker, since Thiel can also play prop, but we figure it will be Eric Fry, or maybe Tony Purpura. There is still an opportunity for a hooker to put his hand up here.
This list also has space for a second row such as Alec Parker or Brian Doyle.
From that group, can you get a starting lineup? Here’s ours:
1. Will Johnson
2. Phil Thiel
3. Shawn Pittman
4. John van der Giessen
5. Hayden Smith
6. Lou Stanfill
7. Todd Clever
8. Nic Johnson
Inaki Basauri or Peter Dahl
Alec Parker or Brian Doyle
Inaki Basauri or Peter Dahl
One more comment. Back in 2003 when asked if all the players at the World Cup in Australia would get a run, USA Head Coach Tom Billups said, “this isn’t little league.” There is no reason a player should expect time on the field simply because he’s on the travel squad. With that in mind, it seems reasonable to devote a spot to a young player who might not play much, but who could benefit from the time with the national team and use that as a jumping-off point for a longer career.
The Eagles did that with Todd Clever in 2003, and Thretton Palamo in 2007. There are some candidates in the backs for such a player, but certainly a youngster would be appropriate to fill the 17th place among the forwards.