By: Adam McQueen
The USA Eagles have named a deep and experienced side for the upcoming November Internationals, a testing tour that will stretch across Europe for the entire month. However, the Eagles open their four game stand on home soil, welcoming the Maori All Blacks to Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois.
The Maori All Blacks’ last visit to the United States was one to forget for the Eagles. The Maori side tore the Eagles apart 54-7 two years ago, fielding a lineup with current All Blacks stars Damian Mackenzie and Rieko Ioane.
Each team now has a distinctly different look about them. As an invitational team that tours infrequently, the Maori All Blacks are accustomed to new faces interchanging in their lineup; this year’s touring squad possesses a wealth of Mitre 10 and Super Rugby talent. However, the only notable All Black is Nehe Milner-Skudder, who is searching to regain his form after a plague of untimely injuries.
Meanwhile, the Eagles team is leaps and bounds ahead of where they were the last time they took on the Maori AB. Their impeccable 2018 season has been well documented – yet this Saturday may be their sternest test yet. Five of the top overseas professionals in the American team are unavailable for selection for the match in Chicago, forcing Gary Gold’s hand into drafting 10 new domestic players into training camp. The initial response from the USA coaching staff seems to suggest the newcomers may have a role to play in Chicago on Saturday.
“We are excited to test our roster depth,” said USA Rugby General Manager, Dave Hodges in the squad announcement press release. “This is an opportunity for us to give some of our emerging squad players a chance to help the team.”
It is a tough ask for a less than full-strength American side, yet it would be foolish to discount them. Head coach Gary Gold’s impact on the playing style and physicality of the team has spearheaded their rapid ascent. Their brash and detailed game-plan will be apparent no matter who is on the pitch. The Maori All Blacks have also been susceptible to starting slow, and if the Eagles capitalize on this early another upset may be in the cards.
The fact that the USA currently has 36 players in their November Internationals squad speaks volumes to the quality and physicality of the opposition they will face throughout the month. Playing against Samoa, Romania, and Ireland in consecutive weeks is a grueling slate of matches. Bodies will be needed.
It is also an opportunity for the Eagles to stake their claim as a premier Tier Two nation. The USA, currently ranked 15th in the world, have their eyes firmly set on climbing toward the top 10 as the World Cup approaches. If they can dispatch Samoa and a Romanian side that is formidable at home in Bucharest, the tour can be considered a huge success.
Then, Ireland and the hallowed Aviva Stadium await.
A match against the second best rugby team in the world under the bright lights in Dublin is the ultimate litmus test for the USA. A win is not expected – nor is an overly close affair – yet the Eagles have another great opportunity to put the rugby world on notice. Their win against Scotland in June turned heads. A win against Ireland in Dublin would blow minds.
USA flanker Hanco Germishuys couldn’t contain his excitement about the prospect of another upset in an earlier interview with Ædelhard.
“It’s going to be exciting building toward the World Cup,” said Germishuys. “Ireland in Dublin will be good seeing how we compare.”
Unfortunately, the Eagles will be without the services of their star player, AJ MacGinty. For all the praise players and coaches have rightfully earned this year, MacGinty is the world class talent that propels the USA into a different bracket of teams. Backup duties will be put into the capable hands of Will Magie and Will Hooley, yet a spark will also need to be found elsewhere.
Gary Gold has followed the mantra ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ when selecting the rest of his squad. Familiar faces are aplenty. The only uncapped members are young Glendale winger Mika Kruse, center Gannon Moore, and Lindenwood prop Chance Wenglewski. All three were late additions to the team.
The largest reintroduction to the squad is the returning Tony Lamborn. The New Zealand-born flanker will bolster the back row, led by NOLA Gold’s newest signing, Cam Dolan. The ability of the Eagles forwards to continually earn the gain line – along with wrecking ball centers Paul Lasike and Bryce Campbell – has been the backbone behind their success. Other destructive ball carriers such as Joe Taufete’e and Samu Manoa will also feature heavily.
A key area that separates Tier One and Tier Two nations is the set-piece. Constant dominance in these phases of the game continually puts underdogs on the back foot from the get-go. Hence, the Eagles improvement ‘fronting up’ in the scrums and mauls has been another massive component to their success. They will once again be put to the test against a Romanian side that will emphasize tight, physical forward play in less than ideal conditions.
Meanwhile, the match against Samoa in San Sebastian presents an entirely different test. The Samoan squad is even more veteran-laden than the Americans, with only three players under the age of 25. Despite a handful of household names, particularly in the back-line, Samoa have endured a miserable string of results. The Pacific Islanders lost nine straight matches before toppling Germany to qualify for the World Cup in July. Their firepower lies within their backs; the Eagles should expect a wide, expansive game similar to the Maori All Blacks.
The USA’s November tour is a marathon, not a sprint. The match day squad Gary Gold has relied on are all battletested – the next step is to bolster depth. The Eagles should rotate new faces into the international picture against the Maori AB as it does not count toward World Rugby ranking points. Once the World Cup is upon us, that little bit of increased depth can make all the difference.
Cautious optimism has been brewing among American rugby fans. This tour could uncork unbridled enthusiasm for a team that has excelled each and every match they’ve played this season.