The USA squad in Dubai is a new combination.
Sure there is the core of veterans – Shalom Suniula, Matt Hawkins and Zack Test have played in more IRB World Series tournaments than any other Americans – but there are also World Series debutants Jack Halalilo and Nate Augspurger, players who have only one tournament of experience in Mike Te’o, Carlin Isles, and Brett Thompson, and players back from a layoff in Folau Niua, Nick Edwards, and Colin Hawley.
Head Coach Alex Magleby of course knew this would be the case when he started.
Already he understood that cohesion (or lack thereof) in play undercut his team in Gold Coast – it was why they had defensive breakdowns, turned the ball over in rucks and, most importantly, failed to secure restarts; so cohesion in camp and leading up to this coming weekend’s play is a key part of preparation.
Magleby said he didn’t pick players who were with the 15s team because he needed to be able to coach all the players on the team through the entire preparation time. He has done that, and this is the team he wants.
“Nate Augspurger could start for us,” said the coach of the University of Minnesota halfback. “He runs good lines and is probably our best defense among the halfbacks. He is improving as a kicker, but that is an area that needs improvement. But he’s a tough kid and great to coach.”
You’ll hear Magleby’s assessment about coachability in many of his comments about a player, and it’s not by accident. He is not interested in investing time and effort on a brick wall, and the comments are a general-issue message to all players – you’ve got to be open-minded.
Certainly Magleby is enthusiastic about the attitude of the players he has picked.
“Nick Edwards made it here on his own, got his passport, and was ready to play and train,” said Magleby of the on-again-off-again USA player. “He’s worked very hard.”
“Jack Halalilo is also a really versatile player,” added the coach. “He doesn’t have breakaway speed, but he is a really hard worker and enjoyable to coach. He is always learning. We has weaknesses, we all do, but he is working to fix them and he just guts it out.”
This team may be one to gut it out, as Halalilo’s profile might fit the entire squad – versatile, speedy but not blazing speed, coachable and eager to improve.
“I don’t think we’re the most athletic team, or the most experienced, so we have to be one that works the hardest and plays the best percentage rugby,” said Magleby, who benched star Zack Test in order to send him a message last tournament. Test heard the message and responded. So did everyone else. “All the guys have been working harder.”
There is a little bit of blazing speed – Isles has become a sensation, but as a result, he is also a target. Unufe isn’t slow, either, and perhaps still poised to show everything he can do. Te’o is a wild card, because he can play prop or hooker, scrumhalf or flyhalf, or center. He likes to pop up on the wing, too, but that’s not a regular place for him. Brett Thompson will be expected to play more and make a bigger impact, and he will.
Colin Hawley is another guy who can play almost any position, and he is still improving as a play.
This versatility is good, because players will find themselves in a variety of situations, and have to execute. It can also be a difficulty as Magleby tries to find the right combination of players – you’re probably not going to see Augspurger and Te’o together in the halfback combinations, for example, as both are young and inexperienced.
But the key for this tournament is for the Americans to keep that open mind. They have to trust that what they are all doing can work, otherwise it will all fall apart. They can take a little inspiration from the USA 15s team, which showed what adherence to a smart game plan can do. They could also take a little inspiration from the work they have been doing to prepare.