Tuesday, February 17, 2015

International Rugby: Solving the USA Scrumhalf Selection Headache

Photo Goff Rugby Report
Although 2015 is Rugby World Cup year there is still a lot to be determined as coaches strategically prepare their game plans and narrow player selection ahead of the global event. In the case of the position of scrumhalf the two or three slots available in the Eagles World Cup squad remain far from clear. USA Eagles Headcoach Mike Tolkin has his starting player all but confirmed due to Mike Petri having held down the Eagles nine shirt throughout the vast majority of his tenure. Little game time, though, has been given to others thus providing scrumhalves with everything to play for in the months leading up to July when the squad will be determined. There are a number of players who could be considered to be in the frame.

Capped 48 times by the USA Mike Petri would appear certain to be starting in the scrumhalf position when the USA Eagles begin their Rugby World Cup 2015 campaign on Sunday September 20 against Samoa in Brighton. The 30 year old started all nine of the USA Eagles' test matches in the year 2014 and did so with the player that had also started in the previous year missing out altogether. 

The question requiring attention by Tolkin is which player or players will go to the World Cup alongside Petri. During the November 2013 European tour the answer appeared to be Robbie Shaw but this is no longer the case. Shaw played ten tests under Tolkin from 2012-2013 earning stars against Canada, Fiji, Russia and Tonga. In 2014 though Tolkin opted for Shalom Suniula, Chad London as replacements for Petri.

London was on the bench throughout June but only received game time against Scotland. Shalom Suniula was the reserve scrumhalf v Uruguay in March and New Zealand and Romania in November. Tolkin, though, capitalized on his utility value giving him starts v Canada, Japan and Scotland in June and Fiji and Tonga in November at fly half.   

Suniula started test matches in place of the injured Adam Siddall and Toby L'Estrange. The two names are the same which are arguably those that Tolkin is intending on using as his World Cup fly halves. Traditionally a World Cup squad requires three players that can play fly half, one of which is commonly a utility. Suniula's role could very well be as such.

Should Tolkin seek to utilize Suniula as a player for both positions then there would very likely be room for a third scrumhalf in his squad. With Shaw unlikely to feature there are five others that Tolkin realistically could be considering. The five players are Nate Augspurger, Tom Bliss, Shaun Davies, Madison Hughes and Chris Saint.

Remarkably of the five players four are uncapped and the only one to have played for the USA Eagles has only done so on one ocassion. Shaun Davies was a replacement for Shaw in the Eagles' 28-7 win over Russia at the home of Saracens in Northern London in November 2013. Of the five named players he, however, is not top of the list for a place in the World Cup.

Davies did not feature for the USA in the 2014 Americas Rugby Championship. Instead the two scrumhalves playing for the USA Selects were Suniula and Nate Augspurger. If fir Tom Bliss may have been selected and the same is true of the November tour. Bliss is playing his rugby in England for the Wasps academy.

Tolkin believes ''the ARC is huge for the fall tests''. Those included are thus players in consideration for higher honors or certain for the November internationals. Augspurger, though, missed out with Petri and Suniula touring. In 2013 Chris Saint and Shaun Davies had both been involved but Tolkin did not cap either.

The remaining player of the five is Madison Hughes (pictured above), a player to have made a notable impact for the USA Rugby Sevens teams, being named in the Dream Team for the recent 2015 USA Sevens in Las Vegas, Nevada. Hughes has made the transition from fullback to scrumhalf and his performances arguably place him as the next in line ahead of Augspurger, Bliss, Davies and Saint. He has also become the national Sevens captain. 

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