Can you name the all-time leading point-scorer for the Eagles? If you guessed flyhalf Mike Hercus, you’d be correct. Over a seven year career with the team Hercus amassed 465 points and 48 caps. He also played professionally in Wales, England, and Japan during that time. Since Eddie O’Sullivan dropped Hercus in 2009 (he had some injuries and moved back to Australia) the Eagles have had trouble finding a consistent flyhalf, especially in the kicking game where Hercus was so solid. Nese Malifa and Roland Suniula have been given their opportunity but neither is seen as a long-term replacement. Malifa played well on defense but his offensive skills could use some work and his kicking was very inconsistent. Suniula took over for Malifa just prior to the World Cup (Malifa has dealt with injuries over the last several years) and did well, but as he admits, he is a centre, not a flyhalf. He currently plays centre with Auch in France. However, there is hope. The U.S. has several young potential flyhalfs that could bring stability to the position. Let’s take a look at the options for the Eagles.
Toby L’Estrange was a relatively unknown player until he was called in by Eagles head coach Mike Tolkin to the Eagles camp last summer. L’Estrange was born in California but grew up in Australia where he played in the Shute Shield with powerhouse Sydney University. Last year, he and fellow Australian-American Chris Chapman decided to pursue some opportunities in New York where they hooked up with Tolkin and his NYAC squad. L’Estrange played an integral role in NYAC’s eventual championship, earning him a call-up. However, he broke his arm and was ruled out of the summer assembly. Even though he played wing for Sydney University, his natural position is flyhalf according to Tolkin. He reads the game well and is a very consistent kicker. Better yet, he is still very young at 22.
The biggest benefactor from L’Estrange’s injury was Will Holder. Holder, who is also 22 and a Cadet at West Point, was consistently one of the best players in college last year and is one of the most consistent kickers to come through the U.S. system. He knows the game well after learning from his father who was coach at Air Force, and has come up through the age grade system playing for the College and Junior All-Americans. Further, he is very familiar to Tolkin and is the type of player that fits well in the Eagles new system. The big obstacle in Holder’s way is his Army commitments. Unless he can get into the Army World Class Athlete program, he won’t have the availability that L’Estrange or others have. Currently he is working with U.S.A. Rugby and the Army to get placed in the program. Holder is the only player in this group to have been capped by the Eagles. He’s earned two caps, including a start against Canada.
There were many important players in the Junior All-Americans march to the Junior World Rugby Trophy title last summer, including flyhalf Will Magie who captained the team for the second year in a row. Magie qualifies for the Eagles but grew up in England where he currently plays for Leeds University. He has also had training stints with Doncaster and Leeds in the RFU Championship. Magie can kick but most of those duties were handled by Madison Hughes at the JWRT and he isn’t really considered a potential kicker for the Eagles. What Magie does really well is orchestrate the offense. Anyone who watched the JWRT saw him make one smart pass after another to really move the team down the field. The Eagles haven’t had that ability since Mike Hercus. Magie is still young but he is getting good time with Leeds and could eventually move into pro rugby in England.
One name that only recently came to the attention of U.S. rugby fans is Gearoid McDonald. Like L’Estrange, the 21-year old McDonald qualifies for the Eagles because he was born in California. McDonald grew up in Ireland and has played for Old Belvedere and Leinster (age-grade). As Rugbymag noted in their article on McDonald, he has a body-frame similar to Will Holder and is reportedly an excellent kicker. He also reportedly wants to play for the Eagles but has not turned out for any of the age-grade teams.
JP Eloff is still a very young player but he has loads of experience. Eloff has turned out for his college team Davenport, the Chicago Lions, and U.S. age-grade teams. He has played XV’s as well as 7’s. Eloff runs an offense well and has an excellent boot. The big question for Eloff is whether he is going to pick between 7’s and XV’s. It’s no secret that 7’s head coach Alex Magleby has taken a look at him, but a call-up for Tolkin can’t be ruled out either. Eventually, as 7’s takes up more of the schedule, Eloff could be forced to make a decision.
One of the best players in the Super League last year was Moeke. Playing for Old Blue, he was easily one of the best kickers in the league and was extremely dynamic on offense. He almost single-handily led Old Blue to one of their best seasons in recent years. Moeke’s hold-up is that he is from New Zealand and may not have enough years of residency to qualify for the Eagles. He is currently playing for Northland in the ITM Cup.
One of these players could emerge as the next flyhalf for the Eagles but it could also be someone else. None of these players are likely to be available for the upcoming Americas Rugby Championship, so Tolkin is going to have to find someone to fill in the role. Still, no matter who gets the position, it’s important that they get consistent playing time, both with the Eagles and in club rugby. Playing flyhalf takes refined skill that can only be developed through playing. Currently, all the players mentioned above are getting playing time, but is it enough playing time against quality opposition? Moeke is obviously playing in a tough competition but he may not even qualify for the team. Of the others, some are in college but the teams that Davenport or Army are playing aren’t exactly a tough test for someone fighting for a spot on the national team. The same goes for club rugby in this country. One of the best aspects of Hercus was that he had been tested at the club level. He had the experience when it came to making kicks in tough situations. He knew how to play the ball out wide (see Taku Ngwenya’s World Cup try in 2007 if you need proof). The next Eagles flyhalf is going to need that kind of experience as well.
The positive thing about this group is that they are still young, (most are under 23) and if given time with the Eagles, could eventually find a place in club rugby overseas. Additionally, there is the option of 7’s. As we mentioned earlier, there could be tension between playing XV’s and 7’s but that doesn’t mean the door is closed. 7’s may be more open than XV’s but it still requires decision-making, defense, and kicking. Many great XV’s players first got their feet wet playing 7’s and it could be the same for the Eagles next flyhalf. Either way, fans have to feel positive about the future of the Eagles flyhalf position.
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