Here’s the second part of my two-part speculation on who could be on the 2011 World Cup squad. Once again we’ve got two major disclaimers: all of this is barring injury, and there will always be someone who could show up almost out of nowhere to push for a place. We expect that.
In the first part, we looked at the forwards, and found that there are still some holes to fill. While we can point to some expected starters, the list of backups at hooker and lock is thin, and Eagles back row is yet to be solidified.
Now the backs:
|Top to bottom, Petri, N. Malifa, (Ian Muir), Wyles (Butch Leitz), Swiryn (Agen Rugby)
Scrumhalf: Tim Usasz and Mike Petri are the top two for Head Coach Eddie O’Sullivan. Usasz is a scrappy brawler who smacks and urges his forwards. Petri has a smooth, long pass and is great around the fringes both with the ball and on defense.
At RUGBYMag.com we like Petri better, because we like his quick pass which sets free the backline. But Usasz seems to be the starting choice currently because he works so closely with the forwards.
Is there anyone who could challenge these two? Robbie Shaw’s injury derailed his plans to play for the Eagles for the last two years. Now? He’s coming back but it just seems like it’s been tough for him. Shalom Suniula certainly has a boatload of skills, but could he carry with him the label of being just a 7s guy? Seems unfair, but if he shows up at a camp or assembly and doesn’t get stuck in among the draft horses that label could stick. Sean Treacy has been playing in Ireland and playing well. Another young option.
Looking ahead, this position has lots of depth and talent. Suniula, Treacy and Don Pati are young and could be the future. But as for the presence, it’s Usasz, Petri and …?
Flyhalf: At least at scrumhalf there is a choice. There isn’t for flyhalf. Nese Malifa is the first choice. He played hurt against Georgia because right now the Eagles don’t have anyone else to back him up. Malifa is very good – a good runner, has the passing skills, and is getting better as a kicker. However, he has suffered serious injuries the last two years, and because of that you can’t just hope he won’t get hurt again.
Candidates abound. The question is, are they the right fit? There’s Nese’s twin brother Ata. He’s back from injury, too, and has many of the same skills as Nese. It might be the best bet to have him as the backup simply to keep things the same.
Tai Enosa is being groomed as the backup, but it’s a lot to ask of a developing young player. He was moved from flyhalf to center at his club simply to ease the pressure and give him an opportunity to run in some space. It appears the move at Belmont Shore is temporary, but it’s an indication that maybe the position needs some more depth.
Troy Hall. Hall has been on the outskirts of USA consideration for a while. He’s played a lot of center, but does have the skills to play flyhalf. He’s a good runner, can defend, and can pass. The big question for him is goalkicking. For some reason, the USA expects its flyhalves to kick for goal; it seems like it’s not up for consideration that anyone else do it. Such a complaint would have more weight if the other players in the squad had demonstrated consistent goalkicking ability. They haven’t. The only young flyhalf who can kick for goal we can think of is …
Volney Rouse. Seems like he didn’t light the world on fire at the ARC, which is why he wasn’t taken on the tour to Europe in November. But … he can play flyhalf, and he can kick.
Center: We’ll leave this until last.
Wing: Right now it’s Kevin Swiryn and Taku Ngwenya. Both have been playing very well in France and you might argue that Ngwenya is one of the best in Europe. After that, it’s another “what next?” O’Sullivan likes big, physical wings, and he’s got a point – if you are small in test rugby you better be ridiculously fast, otherwise you’re going to have to bull your way through to the tryline. That’s why if we’re looking for depth at wing we should be looking for players of that mold.
That did rule out someone like Justin Boyd, but he’s put on some bulk of late. It could include Paul Emerick, Kelly Kolberg, Mike Palefau, Zack Test or Blaine Scully.
Or … someone who has been playing overseas, and if you troll around for anyone with that background, you might think about James Paterson, former USA U19 captain who players in the Super 15. He qualifies, but that doesn’t mean he is able to be a part of the Eagles setup. Still, it’s worth thinking about.
Fullback: Chris Wyles is playing great and is the USA fullback. Who backs him up is a question. Colin Hawley has the ability (and could play wing too, of course), and Tai Enosa actually cam play anywhere from 10 to 15, which is a plus. But the drawback to both is their kicking from hand, which isn’t superb. Meanwhile Wyles, being left-footed, offers an extra punting option.
Kelly Kolberg might be a dark-horse option here, too.
Center: OK, here’s where we can have lots of fun, because the USA is not shallow at center. There are, in fact, at least seven players who can represent the USA at center well:
Paul Emerick. We all know Emerick. He is physical, fast, passionate, and plays his best rugby at #13. However, he can also play wing and a little fullback, and should be on the squad if only for that.
Roland Suniula. Shifty but powerful inside center who is developing his distribution skills with the 7s team. Defensively sound.
Andrew Suniula. Bigger, more imposing version of Roland. The classic inside center in that he runs over people and sucks in tacklers. He may be the inside center in the best form right now.
Alipate Tuilevuka. Don’t forget he has actually played flyhalf for the USA and can kick. We like the fact he could step in at that position. His game is making a half break, drawing two men, and offloading. The problem? He hasn’t been the guy in the Eagles jersey enough to make that their bread-and-butter player, and thus teammates don’t get used to it.
Seta Tuilevuka. Has blossomed as Montpellier’s regular outside center. His first runs with the Eagles didn’t go as well, in part because he seemed nervous, and in part because the USA game plan wasn’t centered around him. Then on top of that Paul Emerick replaces him against Portugal and puts the game away. Tuilevuka is a dangerous attacker and great fun to watch. But if O’Sullivan wants grit and defense first, maybe he picks someone else.
Junior Sifa. Playing professionally overseas, which all of these centers listed so far have done, Sifa is smaller than the rest, but defends really well, and has excellent lateral movement. He generally slots in as an inside center, yet he’s the antithesis of the Andrew Suniula type.
Mile Pulu. Just coming into his own. He’s a wonderful young player and could be the central figure for the USA 7s and 15s team for the next 4-5 years. He just needs to be nurtured right, and perhaps taking him to the World Cup without lots of expectations is the thing to do.
Thretton Palamo. Given that he could well be playing football for the University of Utah, it’s a waste of time to list him … except we decided to mention him anyway.
Even without Palamo in the mix, that’s seven players who can and have played test center. It’s a treasure trove of experience and ability that you’d think would be a bonus for the Eagles, but in some ways has become a detriment. Coaches have switched out players and tried so many combinations, you just wonder if we’ll ever see the right pairing. We don’t know what it is, but we do feel that it might be a horses-for-courses situation. This is one position where Eddie O’Sullivan can use two players in one game and two different players in another, and know he will get a good performance.
So that sets up a potential starting lineup that is thin in some places, confused in others, but very effective, if it ever gets ball in space and is on the same page together.
9. Tim Usasz or Mike Petri. You know where we stand on that.
10. Nese Malifa
11. Kevin Swiryn
12. Junior Sifa or Roland Suniula or Andrew Suniula. We are betting on the third name.
13. Paul Emerick, Seta Tuilevuka, Pate Tuilevuka. The next five months will tell us.
14. Taku Ngwenya
15. Chris Wyles
Scrumhalf: Tim Usasz or Mike Petri
Flyhalf: Still looking for the right guy
Center: Pate Tuilvuka’s versatility puts him here
Wing/Fullback: Tai Enosa or Colin Hawley or Zack Test or somebody else we haven’t seen yet.
Total Possible World Cup backs squad (13 players): Usasz, Petri, V. Malifa, Emerick, Sifa, A. Suniula, R. Suniula, A. Tuilevuka, S. Tuilevuka, Ngwenya, Whyles
And two others, with one being a flyhalf.