The biggest challenge for Eagles head coach Mike Tolkin—or any other Tier II coach for that matter—is how to develop players with limited funds and limited opportunities for playing time. This year the Eagles will only play six matches. In comparison, England will have 12. That’s twice the number matches in which to test their players and find a winning combination. Twice the number of matches to work in younger players. The point here isn’t to lament that that Eagles and Tier II nations don’t have the same opportunities as Tier I nations, (it is what it is and Tier II nations have to do the best with what they have) but to show that developing the players with less matches and resources circumstance is extremely difficult.
That is why the upcoming three matches at the Americas Rugby Championship represent the perfect opportunity for Tolkin to try out new players and to see who might be ready to break into the Eagles fall squad. Since it is the beginning of the World Cup cycle, Tolkin has the opportunity to go out and find younger players. These players may look raw and unsuitable for the international game now but getting them the experience could help them be ready to compete in 2015. It is extremely important for the players at this tournament to make their mark and show that they belong. Under Eddie O’Sullivan the ARC squad was essentially the Eagles reserve team rather than their development team. That meant that most of the domestic Eagles were called into the team and you knew what you were getting for the most part. This year it’s different. So, who are these guys?
The Veterans: In this case, gaining a cap for the Eagles qualifies a player as a veteran. Only three players can make that claim on this squad. Boston’s Anthony Purpura may have the most experience of the bunch having played for the Eagles in the Churchill Cup in 2010 against Russia, the England Saxons, and France ‘A.’ He also has an appearance against Tonga ‘A’ in the ARC. Purpura is a prop that has been on the club scene for awhile but hasn’t quite been able to break through. However, as the U.S. scrum continues to be a problem for the team, Tolkin is looking for players to bolster his prop core.
Derek Asbun, Taylor Mokate, and Shaun Davies all made their Eagles debuts this Summer. Asbun has been looked at as both a hooker and a back row player for the Eagles, with his likeliest position being hooker. His participation in the ARC is a bit of surprise considering that he is based overseas and Tolkin repeatedly said that this was a domestic squad, but with Asbun unable to find a club due to visa restrictions, this offers him the perfect opportunity to showcase himself as a player and as a leader. The same goes for Mokate who is now contracted with the U.S.A. 7’s team. Normally that would rule him out of XV’s action due to the Gold Coast 7’s that runs at the same time as the ARB, but he is still getting adjusted to the 7‘s team and may not have even played much down in Australia (Andrew Durutalo, who plays a similar style to Mokate is nearing a return to health). So brining him into the team allows him to gain good experience. Davies has been looked at as the replacement for Tim Usasz. He showed well in the summer and is back for another semester at BYU. If he can perform well at this camp, he may have done enough to earn himself a permanent place on the team.
The Experienced: There are several players on the team that have played with the Eagles Selects or have been a part of the U.S.A. 7’s team but have not been chosen for the full Eagles squad. San Francisco Golden Gate’s Volney Rouse had a run out with the Eagles Selects a few years back in the ARC at a time when the Eagles were looking for a replace for Mike Hercus. Rouse even played in New Zealand for a bit in order to win the position but was eventually beat out by Nese Malifa and no longer became a part of the Eagles plans. Now, a recall under Tolkin allows Rouse the opportunity to again challenge for an open fly-half spot. Similarly, Miles Craigwell played for two seasons on the IRB Sevens Series but no longer seems to be in the U.S.A. 7’s team plans. Craigwell has been living in Seattle and playing XV’s for Old Puget Sound Beach where he has shown promise in XV’s. Many thought he was best suited for the 7’s game but this will be his opportunity to make a claim for a XV’s spot.
Zach Pangelinan is another player looking to make a comeback on the national scene. The OMBAC back was on the verge of being a big player for the 7’s team and possibly making an impact on the Eagles when he went down with a severe injury a few years ago. He’s now fully healthy and looked good during the summer’s club 7’s season. Nic Civetta and Benny Mateialona are players that have been on the fringe of the Eagles squad before but haven’t seen any action. They both have good qualities and strong club careers and play positions that could use some depth (Civetta at lock and Mateialona at scrumhalf, although he can also play a variety of positions).
Tim Paulsen brings plenty of experience to the assembly having been called into Eagles camp this summer (didn’t make the final roster), as well as playing with the Sale Jets last year in the Aviva Premiership ‘A’ League. The big prop had an excellent season for the Chicago Griffins last year and like Purpura, could be a solution to the Eagles scrum difficulties. Other club players that will look to make an impact are hooker Stan Moaalii, who has been extremely steady for Glendale the last several years, Paulsen’s teammate Graham Harriman, and Life University partners Tom Katzfey and Kris Headlee. Rounding out this group is Jack Tracy from Belmont Shore.
The Emerging: There are two players on the squad have had a lot of experience at the age-grade and collegiate levels, and are now looking to work their way into the team. After being tabbed the next Eagles hooker since college, Zach Fenoglio finally gets his opportunity for the national team. He’s been working with Gavin Hickie, a former Irish Wolfhounds hooker, and has been played club rugby for Glendale where he has been on excellent form. Cam Dolan is another name that has been talked about since his early days in college. After having been a part of the 7’s team, as well as Eagle assemblies, Dolan has the talent but will need a strong assembly to break into the Eagles back row core.
The Collegians: One thing that former Eagles coach Eddie O’Sullivan was hesitant to do was bring in college players. Not Mike Tolkin, who showed that he was willing to bring in college players this summer and has now called in four more for the ARC. Not every college player was available for selection but the four that were chosen deserve to be on the team and are legitimate contenders to break into the Eagles. Nick Wallace is a strong forward that lead St. Mary’s to their tremendous season last year, Zach Mizell has proven himself at Arkansas State, as has Dean Gericke, while Joe Cowley has been extremely impressive for Life over the past year. In particular, Cowley has an excellent foot that could finally bring stability to that part of the Eagles game.
The Newcomers: The ARC is also a perfect time to integrate players that may not have come to the Eagles in the traditional means. Eric Duechle is a member of the military that has been playing fantastically well for Belmont Shore. Many originally looked at him as a 7’s only player but his play in XV’s over the last year has shown that he can be an impact player for the Eagles. Chris Chapman is a wing that qualifies for the U.S. but grew up in Australia. After playing for Sydney University he and Toby L’Estrange decided to pack up for New York and play for NYAC. Chapman was a big part of the NYAC championship team and is very familiar to coach Tolkin.
John Quill is another U.S.-qualifed player that grew up overseas. Quill grew up in Ireland and spent some time with Dolphin, Munster ‘A,’ and the Ireland U-18 team. That is a lot of experience but he is going to have to do a lot to break into the Eagles back row. He’ll certainly get his opportunity at the ARC. Lastly, Casey Clark, who is a relative unknown and has been playing rugby league for the last little bit, will get a look at centre.
Are many of these players going to break into the Eagles Autumn tour? It’s possible that a handful of the players may make the team, but the point of this tournament isn’t completely for fall selection, it’s about building for the future. Mike Tolkin has done wonderfully well in picking this squad. Every players still has tremendous potential and will be well served playing in the tournament. Now it is up to them to perform.
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