Tuesday, February 24, 2015

USA: A developing rugby country with a World Class Back-row

Photo The Rugby Corner
Changes to the international rules in recent years have seen the introduction of an additional specialist prop on the bench. With it match day teams have 23 rather than 22 players and Rugby World Cup squads are to contain an additional player compared to that of the past. Teams are therefore to contain 31 rather than 30 players to ensure all teams have a fifth specialist prop. For the USA the change is not likely to have a notable impact. Such is the strength of depth in the back-row that the USA would very much get more out of having an additional spot for a flanker or number eight. The USA is a Tier 2 classified rugby nation but the playing sources for the back-row match and even surpass a number of Tier 1 nations.  

Previous USA Eagles coaches have varied their forward-back splits at Rugby World Cups. Eddie O'Sullivan, for instance, had a 16-14 split favoring forwards in 2011 while Peter Thorburn went for 17-13 in 2007. With there being an additional spot for a fifth prop in 2015 squads it is likely that either 17 or 18 squads members are to be forwards.

Of this number it is likely that no fewer than six will be back-rowers with an additional player likely to double as a second-rower. O'Sullivan went for seven in 2011 of whom two have experience in the second-row - Scott LaValla and Lou Stanfill. This meant only Hayden Smith and John van der Giessen were in the tournament exclusively as second-rowers. In 2007 there were seven back-rowers and four second-rowers.

Current coach Mike Tolkin utilized a total of thirteen players for the back-row and second-row positions this past November and did so out of a total squad size of thirty-five players, some of whom were only able to play in the first of four test matches. Of the thirteen six were second-rowers but three of which are of the hybrid variety - John Cullen, Samu Manoa and Lou Stanfill.

The final make-up of the USA squad for Rugby World Cup 2015 is therefore highly likely to follow the previous pattern of picking less than four specialist second-rowers to instead have more options covering the back-five forward positions. The probable squad will contain eighteen forwards of whom five will be props and three hookers leaving ten spots for four second-rowers and six back-rowers.

Such a policy will enable the USA Eagles to excel in an area in which they are very competitive in at this point in time. In 2015 the USA's back-row options are not equal to that of other Tier 2 rugby unions but rather are superior. With players including Danny Barrett, Todd Clever, Cam Dolan, Scott LaValla, Samu Manoa, John Quill, Kyle Sumison and Matt Trouville the USA has a Tier 1 quality back-row which rivals many and is arguably superior to the current squad members of Italy and Scotland involved in the Six Nations Championship.

Competitiveness for places is also going to be greater than ever before. Second-rowers John Cullen and Greg Peterson took their opportunities in November to potentially now be both ahead of Tai Tuisamoa who will turn 35 before the World Cup. Their performances could also persuade Tolkin to play his best forward, Samu Manoa, in his natural position of number 8. Playing predominantly at the back of the scrum the Californian has conceivably not only been the best North American in Europe this season but, indeed, the best forward in the Aviva Premiership.

The experience and caliber of both Hayden Smith and Lou Stanfill adds to the argument that Manoa can play in the back-row. This being the case, with Cullen, Peterson, Smith and Stanfill utilized as the second-rowers, there would be five remaining places in the forwards for the World Cup squad. One would be taken by captain Todd Clever and stand-in captain Scott LaValla's inclusion would also appear certain leaving three vacancies.

Of the five remaining players from November all were uncapped when Tolkin replaced O'Sullivan. The first to debut was John Quill who did so v Russia in 2012. He was followed by Cam Dolan v Fiji in 2013, Kyle Sumsion v Uruguay in March 2014, Danny Barrett v Scotland in June and Matt Trouville v Romania in November. Barrett and Dolan had instant impacts for the USA with Dolan being man of the match v Maori All Blacks and Barrett playing exceptional rugby v Canada. The work of both in general play has also been considerably noteworthy providing the USA with two further star players for the long term future.

The early signs are extremely optimistic. For instance against Japan in June 2014 Barrett played 6 and Dolan 8 with Clever captaining from 7 and Manoa and LaValla playing in the second-row. Barrett then replaced the injured Dolan at 8 v Canada with LaValla returning to his natural position on the side of the scrum. They appear to give Tolkin vast options at the back of the scrum but, crucially, either can play at 6.

With both and Manoa missing v Romania, Tonga and Fiji Tolkin opted to start Matt Trouville and play Clever at the back of the scrum. Trouville came out of the experience with an enhanced reputation as did Sumsion who acted as a replacement in two of the matches. Starting all three at openside flanker was John Quill who proved very competitive at the breakdown and may have done enough to edge out Trouville and Sumsion for the 10th spot.

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