There may come a day when the USA goes into the Americas Rugby Championship with the expectation of winning it, but today is not that day.
The USA Selects team is still being picked in order to serve a larger purpose: to provide depth for the current USA Eagles team. Now, that is somewhat different from the purpose of the other teams involved. Argentina is looking to get international experience for its younger domestic-based players in order to see who can break into the Pumas in the future. Canada is operating in the same vein, although they are a little more concerned with the “now” than Argentina, just less-so than the USA.
Canada, in addition, is trying to win the ARC. Uruguay is just trying to get games for their full international squad.
But back to the USA. The Selects would love to win it, but having gone 0-3 last year, will really be hoping just to beat Uruguay … or at least not lose badly to them.
In 2012 nothing really went right. The USA needed to get some accurate goalkicking, and instead found that Gearoid McDonald hit everything in practice, and sent high, majestic kicks wide of the mark on game day. They had enthusiasm and some good moments, but somehow couldn’t pull the trigger on scoring.
Last year’s team was very young, and contained a few players who were expected to provide leadership, but didn’t – or did the opposite.
This year, the team is a little more seasoned, a little more settled. The players also know a little more of what is expected of them. Head Coach Mike Tolkin told RUGBYMag.com that he thinks this squad is more experienced, athletic, and perhaps constructed a little better.
He didn’t want to be nailed down on expectations about how many games they’re going to win, but what he did want was a team that will compete, and he and his new coaches will try to put them in a position to do so.
Here, then, is what the USA Selects are, and what they will need to do.
Coaches. Brett Taylor and Justin Fitzpatrick are new as attack (backs) and forwards (set piece) coach, respectively. Neil McMillan comes in as Strength & Conditioning coach.
What McMillan can do in just a few days is debatable – the players either will be physically prepared to play, or won’t be.
What Taylor and Fitzpatrick will be able to do is also debatable, simply because the team has about a week between assembly and their first game. Those first three days will be absolutely crucial, and Tolkin said he wants to install a very simple, direct game plan.
That should work out fine with Taylor and Fitzpatrick, who can be simple and direct. None of these people have worked together before, however, so they will need to get on the same page before they show that page to the players.
Goalkickers. Tolkin feels burned by the shoddy goalkicking from last year, which served to undercut any positive work the team did. He also wants more flexibility in his goalkicking for the Eagles. So Shaun Davies, Adam Siddall, Joe Cowley, and Max de Achaval are all on the squad, all in part because they can kick goals.
But we’ve learned that kicking in practice is not the same as doing it in a real game. All have notched pressure kicks, though.
Up Front. USA front-rowers Phil Thiel, Shawn Pittman and Titi Lamositele will all be under pressure to play well in this non-cap tournament. Surely they will have to stand up to Uruguay. In the second row, also, the players involved have to prove themselves now.
In the back row, we expected to see Benji Goff, but he got hurt. Still there are several players who have Eagle aspirations, and, again, should prove it in October – Danny Barrett, Liam Murphy, Cam Dolan, Derek Asbun. If they do not make you take notice in the ARC, then why should they be considered for tougher games?
Out Back. Tolkin has selected three flyhalves because he wasn’t happy with Toby L’Estrange’s performance in the #10 jersey this year. L’Estrange gets a shot at winning his job back – and that is exactly what October will be for him – while Adam Siddall gets a chance to take it away from him. Max de Achaval is a player many in the club game think should have been given a look years ago. OK, he’s got the chance now, and he could come up aces.
Chances are L’Estrange might be better at inside center. If that is so, there’s plenty of room for him as center is kind of thin in this squad. Mile Pulu is clearly a center and should get plenty of opportunity to prove he belongs in an Eagle jersey.
Joe Cowley has pundits who love him (the writer of this article is one of them), and people who think he has limited ability. He and several others are there to provide possible depth in the deep three for the Eagles. But they aren’t being asked to audition for a starting job, and as a result, in a way the pressure is off.
That might be a good thing, because in the context of the ARC, it is the wings and the fullback who will need to throw caution to the wind.
Approach. The USA Selects have to get a few things very, very right. They need to defend well, especially in the first three channels. They need to get back on kicks. They need to execute their set piece. They need to kick goals when they are on offer.
And more than anything, they need their attackers off 1st phase – the inside center, the trundling prop – to make the gain line. And, after they make the gain line, they need to win the ball quickly, and do it again.
You don’t need to be fancy to get that done, and you can get it done with just a small number of training sessions. But you need to get it done.
Will the USA Selects win any games in the ARC? Maybe. They can win two if they gel quickly. They can win one even if some things go wrong. But they could also fall victim to confusion and frustration, and finish 0-3 with only 14 points scored, as they did last year.
If that happens, it will be because they didn’t do the simple things well, and if they couldn’t do it then, 2014 for the Eagles isn’t looking too good, either.