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Written By: Adam McQueen
The USA Eagles will kick off their Summer Test Series this Saturday at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Denver as they take on Russia in the first of their three game June tour. After a handful of personnel changes, the Eagles have settled on a 31 man squad that has been based out of Denver since May 27th.
The two weeks of preparation has allowed overseas players to reintegrate with the seventeen domestic members plying their trade in Major League Rugby (MLR) as the Eagles look to earn two comprehensive victories with an eye on upsetting Scotland, currently the fifth ranked country in the world.
Gary Gold’s squad has an abundance of experience and is packed with recognizable faces, twenty one of which took part in the Eagles second successive Americas Rugby Championship (ARC) title earlier this year. Meanwhile, other selections are stalwarts of the Eagles team: Eric Fry, Greg Peterson, and the talismanic AJ MacGinty, all of whom have shaken off injuries just in time for their reintroduction to the international stage.
As the 2019 Rugby World Cup rapidly approaches, the vast majority of this Eagles squad will be boarding the plane to Japan with only a select few vacancies leftover for 7’s converts or sudden rising stars. Therefore, this Summer Test Series is the start of a fierce, yearlong battle to earn a starting jersey when the United States face England to open their World Cup campaign.
The front row group has proven to be the greatest selection headache for Gold after Ulster’s Callum Black unceremoniously dropped out of the Eagles setup upon selection, and injuries befell the triumvirate of Paddy Ryan, Dino Waldren, and Peter Malcolm. However, the fiasco revolving around the Ulsterman has opened the door for Saracens prop Titi Lamisotele to return to the fold, as well as uncapped eighteen year old David Ainu’u. Their depth is also buoyed by the return of veteran Eric Fry and Chris Baumann. The hooker position is shored up with Joe Taufete’e and James Hiltebrand likely to be dressing in the matchday lineup as Dylan Fawsitt is set to start for Glendale against NOLA Gold on Saturday.
It is notable – due in large part to the inaugural Major League Rugby season – that this Eagles squad is comprised of only professional players. As such, New York’s Nate Brakeley does not find a place after being ever-present during the American’s ARC campaign. Interestingly while Brakeley’s allegiance with New York (who are not a part of the MLR setup until 2019) may have hindered his selection chances in the forward pack, youngster Vili Toluta’u has earned an unlikely place solely due to his breakout performances with the surging Seattle Seawolves. The selection of the hooker-turned-flanker boosts the stock of MLR as a league that can unearth untapped American talent.
Toluta’u’s inclusion into the Eagles squad adds further depth to a backrow already brimming with talent. The United States loose forwards have unquestionably been the driving force of the team - Hanco Germishuys and Cam Dolan spent the ARC in an internal battle for the fictitious Most Valuable Player of the tournament award. Add in the wrecking ball from Toulon, Samu Manoa, and the United States have an endless list of hulking ball carriers at their disposal. Even without the services of Tony Lamborn or the newly signed Glasgow Warrior, David Tameilau, the Eagles will still heavily rely upon their backrow’s performances to ensure a successful Summer Series. Gary Gold must be creative in how he deploys his forward pack - Dolan or Manoa may shift into the engine room in order to have the best fifteen players on the pitch. John Quill will likely replace the unavailable Tony Lamborn at the openside flanker position.
The most interesting questions lie within the United States’ halfback group. Gary Gold has selected four fly-halfs and will happily welcome the return of their star AJ MacGinty. The Irish born product has cemented his place as the starting outside half at Sale Sharks, stringing together scintillating performances upon returning from injury. MacGinty is a quality operator in all facets and his defensive ability has led to speculation that he may also spend some time at the inside center position. Will Magie has not put a foot wrong in the past year during MacGinty’s absence, earning top points scorer in the ARC with calm displays while leading the Glendale Raptors to an unblemished 5-0 record in the MLR so far.
However, it would be hard to envision anyone but MacGinty donning the #10 shirt for the foreseeable future. Part of the reason is due to the performances of center partnership Marcel Brache and Bryce Campbell, who appear to have taken full ownership of their respective positions. Brache brings Super Rugby experience to the table and also has winger-level pace in the outside center position. Utah Warriors captain Paul Lasike has made a compelling case for the inside center position; however, he may have to impress in only twenty minutes of action.
The Nate Augsperger - Shaun Davies scrum-half battle will continue throughout June. Augsperer has been the incumbent scrum-half for well over a year, yet Davies may be the more polished game manager. In many cases the lively and athletic Augsperger would be better suited to entering the game as a substitute to inject a spark to the attack. However, Gary Gold appears content with the San Diego Legion captain retaining his starting position.
Augsperger may also find himself out wide during the three matches as the Eagles have only brought two specialist wingers into the squad. Captain Blaine Scully is returning to North America with some hardware after winning the European Rugby Challenge Cup with the Cardiff Blues. An early injury to fullback Mike Te’o during the MLR has shifted Dylan Audsley from his familiar center position into the sweeper role for both club and country.
The Eagles are searching for a fifth consecutive over Russia. Anything less than a dominant victory on home soil would be considered an underachievement. The Russians are entering their North American tour in a curious position – the Bears endured a poor Rugby Europe Championship, limping to a fourth place finish, but then qualified for the World Cup after both Spain and Romania were disqualified. Russia will begin the tour without an official head coach and a collection of first choice backs who are set to compete in the Rugby Sevens World Cup.
In their last encounter, the United States blanked Russia 25-0 in Sacramento, California. Although never to be taken lightly, the Russians will serve as a litmus test for the Eagles to assess their preparation, and for the massive clash against Scotland the following weekend. In actuality, the only thing preventing a conclusive Eagles victory would be players and management taking their eye off of what is at hand and looking far too ahead.
The Eagles' dominance in the past two ARC campaigns has established themselves as one of the strongest Tier 2 nations in World Rugby. However, their inability to secure a statement victory, with nail biting losses to the likes of Georgia, Italy, and Tonga during the international window has stifled their progression. It is now time for the United States to take another step toward being a credible force capable of an upset once the World Cup begins. This year’s Summer Test Series will give us a clearer idea of whether or not this may become a reality.