Monday, October 20, 2014

RWC 2015: Assessing USA Eagles' Chances a Year Out

Photo: Travis Prior-KLC
In  twelve months time the Rugby World Cup will be into the final phase. With the final being played on October 31st 2015 the countdown is now well underway. The Americas is to have one team in each pool giving the only IRB defined region never to have been allocated a Rugby World Cup a total of 20% of participants in the 2015 World Cup. The USA is a team gaining increased attention due in no small part to an increased quality of players abroad. Indeed the USA has overtaken Canada now in having players getting regular match time in an elite level competition. The USA Eagles have also progressed with wins over the likes of Canada, Georgia, Romania and Russia in between World Cups. What, then, are the changes of competing well in Rugby World Cup 2015?

Path to Rugby World Cup 2015
The USA Eagles qualified for Rugby World Cup 2015 in March 2014 after defeating Uruguay in a home -and-away repecharge series. After the teams had competed to a 27-27 draw in Montevideo the North Americans won 32-13 in Atlanta to secure the vacant Americas 2 spot. The USA got there after losing 27-9 and 13-11 against Canada in August 2013.

USA in Rugby World Cups
The USA has a record of qualifying for every Rugby World Cup since the model was expanded to twenty teams beginning for Rugby World Cup 1999. The North Americans were invited to Rugby World Cup 1987 and qualified for Rugby World Cup 1991. However with South Africa hosting and playing in a Rugby World Cup for the first time in 1995 the Americas was allocated fewer places which meant the USA faced Argentina and in losing missed out on competing in South Africa.

Matches Won
Matches Lost
Australia, England
Third in Pool
Italy, New Zealand, England
Fourth in Pool
Did not qualify
Did not qualify
Did not qualify
Ireland, Romania, Australia
Fourth in Pool
Fiji, Scotland, France
Fourth in Pool
England, Tonga, Samoa, South Africa
Fifth in Pool
Ireland, Australia, Italy
Fourth in Pool

Matches in England 2015
For Rugby World Cup 2015 the USA will compete in Pool B and face two Tier One nations and two members of Tier B. The four matches are to be played in different English cities which will give the team a unique experience of getting to play in the South-East, North, West Country and the capital. The dates allocated to the USA strongly suggest that the team that will face South Africa in London will be depleted as the Eagles will look to have their strongest players all fit for the final fixture against Japan in Gloucester.

September 20
USA v Samoa
September 27
USA v Scotland
October 07
USA v South Africa
Olympic Stadium
October 11
USA v Japan

The opening fixture is a tough assignment but is, nonetheless, a winnable fixture. The matches between the two countries have tended to see Samoa's forward pack being too strong for the North Americans but with the caliber of players currently available in the second-row and back-row the USA Eagles will not be beaten around the park by the back-five Samoan forwards.

There have only been three matches between the teams with Samoa winning them by scorelines of 27-20, 19-12 and 25-21. The USA has, in other words, always run Samoa close. With the fixture placed early it is set-up for an upset result with the Eagles genuinely having an opportunity of winning.

In IRB World Rankings Samoa is a better team right now than Argentina. Such a conclusion is, however, less than convincing. Samoa's rise has been on the back of defeating understrength sides including Australia in 2011, Wales in 2012 and Italy in 2014. With Samoa rarely otherwise facing higher ranked teams it has managed to constantly be ranked 8th or 9th throughout the majority of the period since Rugby World Cup 2011.

Scotland has recently gone ahead of Samoa in the rankings but the Northern Europeans are going to be considered a harder team to face than Samoa regardless of what the statistics say. In the five previous test matches against Scotland the USA has lost by notable margins. The 24-6 loss in Houston in June 2014 was actually the closest ever match between the sides. The other losses have been by margins of between 24 and 47 points.

The USA in 2015 is going to be better and ought to be able to push Scotland far. Scotland is a well-rounded side but far from being a complete one and the North Americans can, man-for-man, lay claim to having superior players in a number of positions. With the match being a week after facing Samoa there will be time to regroup and mount a game plan to challenge the Scots.

South Africa
Unlike the earlier two matches the fixture against South Africa will not be a match that the USA can win. The Springboks are, on reputation, the second best team in the world. On form the Africans are also second best with only New Zealand having been playing better rugby in the years since Rugby World Cup 2011.

With the match in London being just four days before the USA faces Japan in Gloucester it is going to be a match in which Mike Tolkin gives opportunities to his reserve players. South Africa ought to, therefore, run-out clear winners by a scoreline which is not reflective of the abilities of the USA. The three previous tests have seen South Africa winning by scorelines of 38-7, 43-20 and 64-15.

The match against Japan is to be considered the least difficult match awaiting the USA Eagles in England 2015. The North Americans are, notwithstanding, going to be the underdogs. Indeed despite the USA having a 2-0 record against Japan in Rugby World Cups Japan is going to be considered the odds-on-favorite to win at Kingsholm.

The USA defeated Japan 21-18 in 1987 and 39-26 in 2003 but the Japanese have won all tests since 2003. The closest during this period was a 20-14 result in Tokyo. The style of play of Japan under Eddie Jones has seen Japan breaking new ground by defeating Samoa, Italy and Wales but these sides were not at full strength. The USA is familiar with the style due to the regular exposure in the Pacific Nations Cup and has the players to win the contest.

Likely Rugby World Cup 2011 Returning Players
A year out from Rugby World Cup 2015 Eagles players continue to be scouted by European clubs. Currently there are fifteen players involved in Aviva Premiership, RFU Championship, Guinness Pro 12, Pro d2 or Top 14 while Todd Clever is in Japan.

Of those who competed in New Zealand 2011 ten players should be there in 2015: Phil Thiel, Eric Fry, Hayden Smith, Scott LaValla, Lou Stanfill, Todd Clever, Mike Petri, Andrew Suniula, Blaine Scully and Chris Wyles.

New Faces to look out for in 2015
Roughly 66.6% of the USA squad for Rugby World Cup 2015 is therefore to be made up of players who were not involved in the previous World Cup. Tolkin has blooded many new players which has worked out well as the USA side is arguably better now than in 2010. Players including Titi Lamositele,  Tai Tuisamoa, Cam Dolan, Samu Manoa, Thretton Palamo and Brett Thompson are all presently based in Europe but have not yet played in a World Cup. All should make the squad but Biarritz veteran Taku Ngwenya is likely to be left out. Curiously Palamo played in France 2007 but not New Zealand 2011.

Ideal Rugby World Cup 2015 Squad
Forwards (16) Phil Thiel, Tom Coolican, Zachary Fenoglio, Olive Kilifi, Eric Fry, Nicholas Wallace, Titi Lamositele, Hayden Smith, Lou Stanfill, Samu Manoa, Scott LaValla, Todd Clever, Kyle Sumsion, John Quill, Danny Barrett, Cam Dolan

Backs: (14) Mike Petri, Chad London, Shalom Suniula, Toby L'Estrange, Adam Siddall, Andrew Suniula, Thretton Palamo, Seamus Kelly, Folau Niua, Brett Thompson, Luke Hume, Tim Maupin, Blaine Scully and Chris Wyles

Eliminated in Pool phase after completing one win and three losses. 

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