I wasn't sure how to evaluate the USA men's 15s National Team after this November because I had kind of seen it before.
Last November, in fact, we saw the Eagles put together some nice games and go 2-1, beating Russia and Romania, and losing to Tonga in a game they could have won.
So this year, perhaps the opponents are an upgrade - losing to the Maori All Blacks in a game they could have won, beating Georgia on the road, who are much tougher than Romania, and then beating Russia in a game where, unlike a year ago, they didn't leak tries late.
But maybe we need another viewpoint, so I wrote up my notes on each player, and then asked my most trusted source, my Magic Eight Ball, what he (she? I haven't asked) thought of each player and that player's prospects for 2014.
Here they are, then, categorized under each Magic Eight Ball answer:
Without a Doubt
Clever is the right man in the #6 jersey. He can roam the field, not worry about the scrums, play defense, and be a support attacker, not necessarily the first option. As a result his play, especially his defense, and his leadership have improved. Still there's tons of talk that Scott LaValla should be the team's captain. Certainly LaValla would be a good one, but LaValla is mature enough to step into a secondary role, and let Clever be Clever.
It's no secret he has had a breakout fall. He was player of the game against Maori and built on that. He is dependable at the back of the scrum, effective in the lineout, can run, and while he's always been good in the open field, has greatly improved his work in tight. His presence and performance has completely changed the landscape of the USA pack.
Time in a pro setup, which is on the horizon, will help him even more.
So young but some of the moments he had this fall were astounding. He can tackle in the open field, he can move a pile all by himself. He makes the gain line. Little things (retaining ball in contact) will come. No reason he couldn't become a central figure in the USA back row for 15 years.
Ruled out of the first two tests, LaValla was in solid form agaisnt Russia. One turnover at the end of a run through traffic is a black mark, but look at how often he tackled the No. 8 behind the Russian scrum. Then stop and think how hard it is to do that.
After playing dominating ball in the Premiership, we wanted to see the same kind of play for the Eagles. Well, he has to get more comfortable, perhaps. Against Georgia he was very good, but no explosive. Against Russia he was dominant. More of the same, please.
How could some smallish back from St. Mary's make such a jump to the internationasl level? He uses his brain. Tim Maupin has enough desire to pull through tackles, and still uses his teammates. He plays strong defense, fills in where needed. He does the little things, and makes big plays, too.
Played really well against Georgia. A good combination of quick ball and using space to commit defenders.
Scrumhalf is a position where the USA is really thin. We need more USA-eligible guys here.
A few miscues here and there, but gets a lot of work done, especially on defense. Will get better the more he plays in the Premiership.
Has enormous confidence, and maybe that grates, but it ain't bragging if it's true. He played really well at fullback against the Maori, had to come in at flyhalf for the last two games, and showed some good things. However, at least twice against Russia he had good service and an overlap at the Russian 22 and gacked on the decision, eventually just getting enveloped by tacklers. He will get better on that situation with more opportunities.
And then there's his goalkicking ...
Player of the game against Georgia. He has started making regular inroads over the gain line, sometimes in spectacular fashion, and has easily recorded his best year as an Eagle.
The heart of a new forwards' philosophy that combines technique and aggression. Lineout throwing precise, and check out who set up Cam Dolan for that last try against Russia. Also, a really funny guy, and that's useful in camp and on tour.
We talk a lot about Wyles as a steadying influence; the glue holding the backs together. But he's a pretty brilliant player, too, and showed it.
Of all the USA players who qualified for the Eagles through birth, but were essentially raised overleas and live overseas, he has to be close to the best ever. Admittedly, the bar is low as those players have opften crapped out, but Wyles is a loyal Eagle and should be celebrated for that.
Pressed into service against Georgia because of Scott LaValla's injury and really did well. He's small - not small for normal people, but for international rugby - so he has to work extra hard. He's getting there, but the competition in the back row continues to be intense.
In 2014 you could call on Clever, LaValla, Dolan, Murphy, Quill, Sumsion, Barrett, not to mention a host of college players coming up. We love Derek Asbun's work rate, heart, and intelligence. But it will still be a tough job to keep.
Such a spark plug. Was understudy to two players and did quite well, especially against Russia. Little things like taking a quick-tap and making it work are things the Eight Ball likes to see.
Didn't get much time, and he is someone who could really benefit from a pro contract. Hooker is another position where the USA desperately needs depth.
Still working toward a regular starting spot. Is at that critical point for a young player when he's been used a lot - notice how much Cal has rested him - and needs to continue to develop in the face of the greater physical punishment of international rugby.
Still ... late in the game against Russia, Kelly ran chase on a kick down field. He made a superb open-field tackle, and then got up and rucked over two players to rip the ball out, before running past the gainline again. The USA won that ruck, but muffed the handling thereafter. But before the mistake, Kelly turned a promising kick into a real try-scoring opportunity.
Elevated his game significantly. Can run, can defend, and can scrum. There's a level of physicality that is needed in international rugby that sometimes players don't understand they need until they need it in a game. Wallace, like many players, needed to see it to believe it. After the 2012 ARC, he responded well and this fall not only was at rucks or ran with the ball, but be powered through contact, kept making big tackles, and came back for more.
Signs Point to Yes
Really strong performances helped him fill what was thought to be an area of weakness. Works hard, gets the job done. Not flashy, but hits rucks and makes tackles.
Despite all of this, is it enough to keep Brian Doyle, Lou Stanfill, Samu Manoa or Hayden Smith off the field? Well, not all four ... but we don't know who will be healthy and ready for Uruguay in March.
Saw less and less of him. Electric with the ball, but see Tim Maupin comment. Hume brings something to the team regardless, and apparently handled the move to the bench with surprising aplomb.
How about someone who wasn’t even in the initial squad who ends up getting capped twice, and playing about 50 minutes? He's a roly-poly-looking guy, but that never stopped Kirby Puckett. Kilifi is strong and powerful in tight, but at 295 pounds is a bit too bulky to be an 80-minute guy. He was, however, over 300 pounds and is working to drop 10-15 more.
Went into the fall the guy who could lose his job - no confidence, poor decisions. Revitalized his position in the ARC and played well against the Maori until he got hurt. He should be back sooner than expected, but in the meantime, the guy who supposedly didn't look like a flyhalf in the ARC put on the #10, and it fit quite nicely.
Played very well. The worry is that the 7s team will need him more. He's tough in contact, and relishes breaking tackles. The USA gave up three tries in the two games he started and none of those were the midfield's fault.
Got injured after the Maori game. We'll see how he comes back.
Like Harriman, filled a need where there was a worry. Unlike Harriman, is a big-time ballcarrier.
Reply Hazy, Try Again
Traveled with the USA squad to learn. Is a good talent and won't be rushed ... unless he has to be!
Like Cowley, there to learn, but he did get some time. Still a long way to go, and one wonders if the head-turning about his athleticism is a bit much.
Concern was he wasn't in shape for international rugby. That fear appeared to bear out.
I and the Eight Ball just don't know. It is time to develop a stable of good young scrumhalves in America and with that in mind is Robbie Shaw so good that he takes time away from such prospects?
Concentrate, and Ask Again
Available for one game, (Maori) and played well. But just one game. It looks as if his availability will be challenged in the future. SO with that in mind, remember there are (see Asbun comment) a lot of players pushing for flanker spots.
Kind of been hit with some criticism from RUGBYMag, and it seemed he was a more aggressive version of himself this November. There's competition in the front row, but it's unclear at the moment how much. We think (even if the Eight Ball isn't so sure) that Eric Fry will be needed.
Not really used, but is versatile and could be needed in March.
Incomplete. On for a short time against the Maori and injured. Has the potential to be an excellent #7 for the USA, but was felled too early to establish much from game situations. Tolkin seemed impressed with him, though.
My Sources Say No
Was on the USA squad for one game and didn't play. He is still coming back from injury, so he's not out of the picture, but the Eight Ball apparently gets the feeling Mike Tolkin is looking elsewhere.
Was not fit enough for international rugby, but while the comeback after six (!) years away from the Eagles sounds like a great story, there's a reason such comebacks are incredibly rare.