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Written By: Adam McQueen
The USA Eagles and Canada concluded their Americas Rugby Championship campaign last weekend with respective wins down in sunny South America. The Americans made history, capturing the first ever Grand Slam in the tournament’s history with a dominant 61-19 victory against Uruguay in Montevideo.
Meanwhile, Canada earned a much needed 33-17 win in Santiago against basement dwellers Chile to finish fourth in the standings. The tournament, which commenced in January, has shone a light on the state of both North American programs with the 2019 World Cup rapidly approaching.
So, what did we learn about each country over the past two months of competition, and, more importantly, where do they go from here?
Eagles' Head Coach Gary Gold could not have scripted a better campaign for his side, as they took home their second consecutive ARC title, stringing together consistent performances and infusing new talent along the way. As many predicted prior to the tournament, the USA’s tense round-one victory against the Argentina XV was ultimately the championship decider, and set the tone for a side that has been brimming with confidence over the past two seasons.
The Americans refused to rest on their laurels after an emotional opening victory. The eventual champions secured bonus point wins in the next four outings, all of which were by comfortable double-digit margins. Although comprehensive victories against lower ranked opposition will not draw overwhelming praise, the Eagles’ ability to quickly take control of proceedings in each match must be lauded. Neither Uruguay nor Canada got a whiff of an upset when facing the Americans.
USA now sit at 15th in the World Rugby rankings, knocking on the door of their highest position ever, which was 14th in 2007.
The brightest spot within the Eagles squad was their dominant backrow group. Eight man Cam Dolan was unquestionably the player of the tournament. His athleticism on either side of the ball was on display in each of his five starts. USA Rugby will be overjoyed that Dolan has brought his talents back to American soil to compete for the San Diego Legion in the newly-launched Major League Rugby.
If Dolan was the proverbial MVP, then 21-year-old blindside flanker Hanco Germishuys earns the honours of breakout player of the tournament. The former Junior American captain led the competition with four tries and his physicality translated seamlessly into international competition. New Zealand born turnover machine Tony Lamborn rounded out a backrow triumvirate that has to be considered one of the best in Tier 2 rugby.
The Eagles will be equally as pleased with the quality of their depth throughout the arduous ARC Championship. Many fresh faces were injected into the mix, giving Gary Gold plenty to mull over as he configures his 2019 World Cup squad.
Former NFL player, Paul Lasike earned his first international cap since converting back from the gridiron. The inside centre is built like a wrecking ball and carries in equally destructive fashion. Another debutant, Malon Al-Jaboori - who later competed for the Eagles 7s in their famous victory on the Las Vegas stop of the World Sevens Series - scored with his first touch of the ball against Chile. Al-Jaboori’s immediate success was a microcosm of how well the new players transitioned into international competition.
Will Magie grew into the fly-half role while another debutant, Will Hooley, made an impact in his first outing as the Eagles’ halfback. Depth at the #10 jersey is pivotal, so the USA will again have confidence in that department, while the talismanic AJ MacGinty recovers from a knee injury sustained earlier in the year.
Throughout the tournament, the USA’s back-line was a consistent mixture of domestic players contracted to play in the inaugural MLR season, apart from captain and Cardiff Blues winger Blaine Scully. With this newly minted professional season almost upon us, as well as international matchups against Scotland and an unnamed opponent for the Emirates Summer Series, domestic players will have plenty of opportunities to test their mettle in front of Gary Gold.
The next few months may well be the springboard that American Rugby has needed to vault themselves into the upper echelon of international rugby. The 2019 World Cup is on the horizon, and the Eagles will soar into Japan with their eyes firmly fixated on the scuttling French and Argentinian squads who accompany the United States in Pool C.
The Canadians’ winter was not quite as enjoyable as their southern neighbours. Consecutive defeats to Uruguay in January sapped any positive energy that may have been built in preparation for the ARC one week into the tournament. The vague mirage of Canada failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in its history is now becoming clearer to see.
To the credit of Head Coach Kingsley Jones and his squad, the Canadians were able to rebound to a respectable yet underwhelming fourth place finish, earning bonus point victories against both Brazil and Chile. Wins against South American minnows is a far cry from past results in Canadian rugby history, but it did prevent a complete meltdown within the fan-base.
The on-field performances remain a mixed bag - glimpses of cohesion are interspersed between unforced errors and inaccuracy. A quick look at the Canadians’ annihilation of Brazil in Langford serves as a reminder of their potential when successfully completing the minute details of the game. However, this performance was sandwiched between a lackluster showing against the Eagles in which they failed to address the windy conditions in San Diego, and a poor tackling display against the Argentinians in Jujuy.
From an individual perspective, Kingsley Jones will be happy with the performances of his young flanker pairing in Matt Heaton and Lucas Rumball. At 22 years old, Rumball already has twenty caps to his name, and has emerged as the most consistent performer in the Canadian lineup on a weekly basis.
On the topic of consistency, Canada is ecstatic to have veteran Nick Blevins return to the squad after a brief layoff from rugby. The inside center was a steadying presence among a young bac-kline that was prone to lapses in concentration. Blevins, along with fellow Calgary native Ben LeSage, were the lone bright spots in their opening round defeat to Uruguay at BC Place.
It was a pleasant surprise to see Kingsley Jones bring Doug Fraser and Lucas Campbell into the fold; each acquitted themselves admirably in their international debuts. Both University of Victoria products are stalwarts of the CDI Premier League and have been plying their trade in the province for many seasons.
However, depth remains a significant issue within the Canadian setup. There is a stark contrast in the playing level between the professional contingent of Taylor Paris, Tyler Ardron, DTH Van der Merwe, Evan Olmstead and the rest of the squad, all domestic players. One would hope that their presence would raise the performances of the entire team, but that didn’t happen. The Canadians relied too heavily on their stars to bring home results.
The Canadian lineup looks murkier than it did before the tournament began. The tight five was a revolving door of personnel (outside of the timeless Ray ‘La Flama Blanca’ Barkwill) and nobody set themselves apart from their peers. Unlike the Americans, who have an abundance of riches in the halfback positions, Canada are still unable to find their ideal pairing. Throughout the competition four different players suited up at fly half, a position that needs to be relied upon as a consistent and calm presence on the field.
Although times are undoubtedly tough, Canada still has an opportunity to right a rocky start to 2018. With the unveiling of their new brand image and High Performance Centre, Rugby Canada is hoping to start anew. The only way they can do this is by winning. And now there is no margin for error. Canada is clinging to the last straw of their World Cup hopes as members of the repechage tournament, and are set to be on a collision course with either Spain, Samoa, or Romania to decide their World Cup fate.