Thursday, May 1, 2014

International Rugby: USA facing Fly half crisis

Photo Dennis D Hawk
S Suniula debuted v Uruguay
The USA's upcoming three match home series in June will be a genuine time to test the quality of the USA Eagles ahead of Rugby World Cup 2015. Ensuring player availability for the series is mandatory but while the dates will enable Mike Tolkin to have access to his leading players based abroad he has a crisis to solve at fly half following the loss of his two first choice players in the pivotal position. Tolkin is now faced with a difficult choice of selecting a player out of position, recalling a former player or grooming a young and capped fly half.

This past week has been unfortunate for the USA Eagles with two regular players during the Mike Tolkin regime having been ruled out of representing the country in June. Toby L'Estrange has been ruled out of rugby for five-six months after having broken his leg playing for London Welsh in the RFU Championship while Adam Siddal remains sidelined after having suffered a head injury.

Since taking over as the headcoach of the USA Eagles Tolkin has selected four starting fly halves for international duty. Of the four none appear to be in consideration for the USA's upcoming international program. Of the four two are injured while the two others have both lost their places and failed to start tests since June 2012.

Will Holder was selected in 2012 and was named as the starting fly half against Canada in Kingston, Ontario before being on the bench for the home test in Glendale, Colorado against Georgia and also for the test match against Italy in Houston. Replacing Holder as the pivot for these test matches was Roland Suniula who had started against Ireland, Russia and Italy at Rugby World Cup 2011 but would lose his place after the Houston test against the Italians and whose four subsequent appearances have been from the bench.

Following the June 2012 internationals the USA's next appearance at test level was the IRB International Series in Colwyn Bay, Wales. The USA faced Russia and Tonga and did so with Roland Suniula as deputy to the debuting Toby L'Estrange. The Californian born pivot went on to be utilized by Tolkin as the starting fly half for the majority of the subsequent tests, starting the Rugby World Cup qualifiers last August against Canada in 2013 and this past March against Uruguay. 

L'Estrange, however, missed out on the November tests in 2013. This was the case despite him starting against the Maori All Blacks in Philadelphia. The starting fullback against the Maori All Blacks was Adam Siddal who replaced the injured L' Estrange to start at fly half in the wins over Georgia and Russia in Tbilisi and London. 

Siddal did so without a specialist fly half providing cover from the bench and the same policy was repeated against Los Teros in Montevideo and Atlanta. Siddal missed the series through injury which saw L' Estrange starting both but having been taken off and replaced by Shalom Suniula who proved to offer the USA superior options with ball in hand particularly in the home test triumph in Atlanta. 

Alarmingly for the USA is that the A team, the USA Select XV, has not seen emerging options at fly half given opportunities. To the contrary L' Estrange was the starting fly half in the 2013 Americas Rugby Championship and his deputy, Chris Saint, remains uncapped. Identifying other players is not an impossibility but is, nonetheless, very complicated given the time restraints and Tolkin's selections as coach.

With just two caps to his name Shalom Suniula now appears to be set to start for the USA Eagles when the team next takes to the field. The assignment will be against Scotland on June 7 and it would appear that Tolkin will either name Shalom Suniula or opt for a positional switch for centre Folau Niua. Alternatively 2012 IRB Junior World Trophy winning fly half Will Magie who has been playing for Ealing, the relegated club from the RFU Championship this season, could be selected. A further possibility would be uncapped Joseph Cowley of Life University. 

Should Shalom Suniula be named then Chris Wyles or Folau Niua would be utilized as the goalkicker. The USA has other players in this area including the above mentioned youthful options or Dartmouth College's Madison Hughes who stared for the USA at the IRB Junior World Trophy in 2012. He played fullback and was the tournament's top scorer. 

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