By: Adam McQueen
The USA Men’s Selects and Canada ‘A’ both prepare to kick off their Americas Pacific Challenge campaign this Saturday in Montevideo, Uruguay. The week-long tournament will run three rounds of matches, providing crucial game-time action for the two squads comprised of primarily domestic-based players. With the November international window on the horizon, the APC serves as the final opportunity for players to put their hands up for selection.
The USA and Canada enter the competition on completely opposing trajectories. While Canada’s 2018 season has been mired in controversy punctuated by a string of disappointing results, the Americans are yet to lose in the calendar year.
Each team is also heading south to sunny Montevideo with vastly different approaches. The USA have drafted in a wide array of players from various sources. Many Major League Rugby standouts have earned a call-up, as well as a handful of collegiate stars that are taking their first steps towards senior international rugby. Several former Eagles caps are also entering the fray.
Meanwhile, the Canadian squad is a collection of familiar faces. A large portion of these domestic players will be on the plane to France come November, vying for the final World Cup spot. Head coach Kingsley Jones needs to ignite a spark in his team, and the APC will be his final chance to do so before the repechage tournament.
Both squads will face identical opponents, competing against Tonga ‘A’, Uruguay XV, and two-time reigning champs Argentina XV. Comparisons between results will inevitably be drawn.
However, for the Selects head coach Scott Lawrence, the tournament is an opportunity to blood young talent and evaluate periphery Eagles members eager to claw their way into the World Cup squad conversation. In Kingsley Jones’ case, these matches may determine who suits up in the opening match of the Rugby World Cup repechage tournament – arguably the most important in Canadian rugby history.
The Canadians have carried over a large portion of their 2018 Summer Series squad. The only domestic players from the June team that are not flying to South America are winger Cole Davis, center Ben LeSage, and scrum-half Andrew Ferguson. LeSage has remained at the University of British Columbia to complete school commitments, while Ferguson has unfortunately suffered a torn bicep which will keep him on the injury list for a considerable amount of time. The veteran will be sorely missed by the national team as well as the Ontario Arrows. Teenage halfback Brock Webster has been named as his replacement.
The two most notable additions to the Canadian setup are returnees Clayton Meeres and Jordan Wilson-Ross. Both players have recently returned to competitive rugby in the CDI Premiership and are capable of covering multiple positions in the backline. Wilson-Ross, in particular, looked far leaner during his impressive performances for the Atlantic Rock during the Canadian Rugby Championships.
However, Kingsley Jones will no doubt be frustrated by the rift between current national sevens players and the Rugby Canada front office which has recently resulted in a work stoppage. Several sevens players would bolster the the Canadian backrow and backline options. Lucas Hammond, Matt Mullins, and Andrew Coe were all instrumental forces in the Ontario Arrows victory several weeks ago. Patrick Kay and Luke McCloskey have also been terrorizing the CDI Premiership for the Castaway Wanderers, as they all refrain from recommencing 7s training in Langford.
The biggest thorn in Jones’ side is that Connor Braid, Canada’s best option at fly-half, is also away from the Canadian setup due to the player strike. The number 10 jersey has been worn by a conveyor belt of names in recent years, none of which have nailed down the position on a consistent basis. Gordon McRorie looks set to assume the playmaking responsibility. However, the Scottish-born halfback has always played his best rugby at scrum-half in the Canadian jersey.
The leaders of the Canadian squad will be the familiar veteran core of Phil Mack, Ray Barkwill, and Nick Blevins. The three mainstays have ridden the waves of the last few tumultuous years, consistently performing at an admirable level. The back row contingent of Luke Campbell, Lucas Rumball, and Matt Heaton are also maturing into veteran presences – their work-rate negates their lack of size for the international level. Heaton has been the best player in Canadian colours in several matches over the past two years.
Yet, the Canadian team continue to lack the bulk and physicality that they possessed in years past. The days of Jamie Cudmore, Adam Kleeberger, and long-time captain Aaron Carpenter imposing a brash Canadian brand of rugby are gone. However, Carpenter has returned to strengthen the national team once more, only now in a coaching position. The most invaluable asset the all-time leading cap (80) winner can bring to the camp is instilling the hardened, relentless defensive work-rate that personified earlier Canadian teams.
The opening match of Canada’s tournament will not be easy. Their opponents, Uruguay XV, have named a squad boasting a wealth of experience and first-team talent. The South Americans are using every opportunity to prepare their top players for the upcoming World Cup.
In contrast, the USA Selects roster is an impressive blend of young talent and experience. Although each game is an opportunity for players to claw their way into the World Cup picture for next year, some may be on the Eagles’ head coach Gary Gold’s radar for the 2023 cycle.
Three First Team All-Americans at the collegiate level have made their way onto the tour. Lindenwood University frontrower Chance Wenglewski, and Life University co-captains Alex Maughan and Mitch Wilson impressed during the MCAA’s blowout victory over the Glendale Raptors in August.
Other new selections have earned their way into Lawrence’s squad through their performances during the inaugural Major League Rugby campaign. Anthony Salaber, Mika Kruse, and the MLR Final MVP Vili Toluta’u were the first young breakout stars of the opening season, and have rightfully earned a ticket to Montevideo. Salaber finished the season fifth in try-scoring for the San Diego Legion, while Kruse turned heads by cracking the veteran-laden Glendale Raptors starting lineup as a teenager. Meanwhile, Toluta’u’s performances not only brought the championship to Seattle, but earned the Hawaiian a call-up to the Eagles team for the Summer Series in June.
Hanco Germishuys is still technically a youngster in this Selects team. However, the South African-born flanker has become a staple of the senior Eagles lineup. Germishuys has blossomed into a rising star in American rugby and has donned the red, white, and blue in every match this season – this tour will now thrust the 22 year-old into a leadership position. Joining him in the back-row will be former University of Washington linebacker Psalm Wooching. The freshly capped Eagle will be a highly sought after target for MLR franchises as one of the only players in the Selects roster unattached to a club.
The most uncommon name on the roster for American rugby fans is England age-grade representative Kapeli Pifeleti. The Saracens Academy hooker just recently competed for England U-18 and is now headed west in search of international honours. Pifeleti and New York flyhalf Harry Bennett were late additions to the team, the latter replacing Legion halfback Tadhg Leader.
Scott Lawrence has also included a host of current Eagles to travel down south. Veteran prop Olive Kilifi will anchor the front row and is joined in the tight five with returning lock Nate Brakeley. Brakeley was an ever-present figure for the Eagles, yet he fell out of the selection pool last season. However, with New York’s inclusion in the upcoming MLR season, Brakeley looks intent on returning to full international honours. In the backs, San Diego Legion duo Dylan Audsley and Ryan Matyas are the most recent Eagles representatives. The two multi-positional players have been on the periphery of the Eagles team over the past year, dropping in and out of the match-day team and will be eager to put on a dominant display.
Although it is an experimental side, the USA Selects have more than enough talent to capture the title this season. The tournament will serve as an identification process for individuals; however, team success is the immediate goal. The squad ran their training camp in Fort Lauderdale in order to simulate the challenging, hot climates that Montevideo will provide.
Now they must simulate their 2018 success.