The USA Men’s National Team is in Romania now with an hugely important game ahead of them.
Romania is a team that has always played the Eagles close, and sits ranked 18th in the world, one spot behind the United States. Playing on home soil they will be very difficult to beat.
There will be changes in the USA lineup leading up to this game, with Chris Wyles back and the tantalizing possibility of Taku Ngwenya making an appearance, and also with Brian Doyle hurt and not able to play.
The question is, have some other players played their way in, or out, of the squad? Here’s a look at the players’ performance so far this tour:
Prop: Eric Fry. One of the four best players on the USA right now, Fry has been really strong in almost all aspects, but especially his defense. Against Tonga he was the best tight five forward for the Eagles.
Hooker: Chris Biller. What to say about Biller. Against Russia he was on point – aggressive, powerful, and accurate. Against Tonga he was just fine in the set piece, but his fitness seems to be a real issue. He has been guilty of being slow to fill defensive holes, and that was an issue Saturday. Was that enough to have Derek Asbun come in? Probably not – the USA lineout is too effective right now to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Prop: Shawn Pittman. Brilliant against Russia, he was just good against Tonga. Like many players who will get a lesser grade against Tonga, he has not been playing a huge amount, and the recovery time over the previous week was important, but perhaps not enough. Still a guy you want on the field, but had he been playing every week, he would have been stronger against the Sea Eagles.
Lock: Brian Doyle. Was hurt 17 minutes into the Tonga game, and he was missed. While in the lineout the Eagles didn’t miss a beat – they have so many weapons there – he’s a big body in tight.
Lock: Inaki Basauri. It is highly likely that if Basauri starts in place of Doyle against Romania, he will do so at blindside flank, with Scott LaValla moving to lock. If that happens, Basauri better get off that scrum right quick, because LaValla has been superb in that area. Basauri did really well coming on cold at 17 minutes against Tonga. He is mobile, good in the air, and smart.
Lock: Lou Stanfill. Stanfill’s game saw a significant dropoff from Russia to Tonga. He has been playing regularly in Italy, but not at the highest level, so we’re not sure what influence that has on his play. All we really know is what we saw – a couple of crucial mental errors that turned into skill breakdowns, and just not the same old Lou we’ve seen for eight seasons in a USA jersey. He’s got to be lighter on his feet, and if he’s under a restart kick, he either has to catch it, or defer to the guy behind him.
Flanker: Scott LaValla. Probably the second-best player on tour so far, LaValla was a workhorse. His lineout game, especially on the opposing throw, was excellent, and his ball-handling in traffic put other players to shame. Watch, also, his counter-rucking. LaValla fights for every possession, and doesn’t stop, and as a result makes continuity very difficult for the opposition.
Flanker: John Quill. Look at John Quill’s face and you see a craggy old mug of a guy who’s been around for a million years. Actually, Quill is the youngest starter on the USA team by some margin. And despite his Irish rugby pedigree, he has a lot to learn, and first thing is to stay low and strong in the breakdown. Too often Quill, quick to the breakdown and ready to poach the ball, was too upright and was swatted out of the way by charging Tongans. That’s his #1 job, and he’s got to do it right, and stay lower.
Flanker: Peter Dahl. Dahl came on twice as a late impact sub, with the idea that he explodes onto the field and does something special. He played fine, but didn't provide that boost the team needed. That has to be his mindset if he's a sub - make something happen.
No. 8: Todd Clever. We have to search for a fault, and perhaps one has been he hasn’t always controlled difficult ball at the back of the scrum. Apart from that, he’s been world class – active, powerful, running with the ball, tackling, stealing possession, and doing it repeatedly. Had he been able to score on that lineout steal in the second half, we’d be even more effusive. Best player on the Eagles right now.
Scrumhalf: Robbie Shaw. This is what happens when expectations are low or non-existant; you play well, and everyone crows. Then you come back to Earth, perhaps by playing as well or not quite as well, and there’s a sort of “Oh … well, that was a disappointment.” Shaw was fine against Tonga. We needed to see that ball out faster and a little better chemistry with Toby L’Estrange, but he should start against Romania, we think, simply because he’s been playing more than Mike Petri and is in a groove.
Scrumhalf: Mike Petri. Petri looked like he wanted to fit 80 minutes of activity into 15 minutes against Tonga. He has played better than that, but he has not been active on the field much and that has hurt his status. If he relaxes and just plays, he'll be fine.
Flyhalf: Toby L’Estrange. Needed to take control of the attack in the second half against Tonga, but he didn’t. That game was a terrific learning experience for him, as the Tongan line speed forced him to think and act quickly. He played well, but needs to be a little better. Defensively we were impressed with him.
Left Wing: Cornelius Dirksen. As we said, we think Dirksen might be on the bench this coming weekend. He did the job, defended well, and didn’t make mistakes. He’s not a game-breaker, but he wasn’t expected to be. He is a very smart ballplayer though.
Inside Center: Andrew Suniula. We would have liked to see him get the ball running forward a little bit more, but overall a solid game for the center. And of course, he had a key role in the single USA try.
Outside Center: Paul Emerick. Emerick was taken out in the second half, and he wasn’t injured, and he didn’t look happy. While he made the break that led to the USA try, he also had a couple of mental breakdowns. He is another player who has not been playing a lot, and as a result we look for him to make an impact against Romania.
Center: Roland Suniula. Unfortunately didn’t get much to do both times he came on because the USA team as a whole was taking a brain vacation.
Right Wing: Luke Hume. Both against Russia and against Tonga, but especially against Tonga, Hume was very, very good. He has a superb sidestep, and he is also fearless. He doesn’t care about being hit, but he’s also not going to put himself in the line of fire if he doesn’t have to. Hopefully the rest of the USA team will realize now that when Hume gets the ball, in any situation, he could break away.
Fullback: Chris Wyles. Against Russia Wyles was probably the player of the game, despite making one very obvious error. Other than that he was spot on, and now perhaps is taking a few more risks with his counter-attacking, which is fun to watch. Despite Zach Pangelinan’s good performance against Tonga, Wyles’s leadership was missed.
Fullback: Zach Pangelinan. For a first cap in an intense atmosphere, Pangelinan did superbly well. His goalkicking was solid, and he did well defensively. He got thrown around a bit in contact, but handled himself OK. Likely he will be back on the bench with Wyles returning to the USA assembly, but he did himself no harm whatsoever.
Players we haven't seen, or haven't seen much of:
Derek Asbun - Has had some time on the field, and we might see more of him against Romania
Chris Chapman - Has not played.
Zach Fenoglio - Got some time against Russia because of a yellow card, and then stayed on. He is a good player who got his feet wet, and has all sorts of potential. The key thing as a hooker is he has to get those throws right. A hooker who can't make the lineout automatic is of no use to the USA National Team.
Graham Harriman - Expect him to be on the bench against Romania.
Gearoid McDonald - Has been on the bench twice. Might not even make the 22 this time around. Has plenty of time.
Takudzwa Ngwenya - Visa problems kept him out of the UK. If he can get to Romania, he will start.
Anthony Purpura - Has not played
Nick Wallace - Has not played. Plenty of time for him to get in there later.