The Eagles have now arrived in Northern Wales after long travel days from various part of the globe (Eric Fry spent almost two days flying from New Zealand to the UK). However, they’ll have little time to get acclimated as they take on Russia in the first match of their fall tour on Friday. That means in the next few days, the Eagles must sort out a few very important questions.
Who will be the goalkicker?
One of the aims of the recent Americas Rugby Championship was to help the Eagles find a consistent goalkicker. It didn’t happen. Both Gearoid McDonald and Zach Pangelinan attempted kicks during the tournament and both struggled at times. Further, on paper both seem destined to see little playing time this fall in favor of more experienced players. James Paterson, who along with Chris Wyles had been the most consistent goalkicker for the Eagles, was forced to miss this tournament due to work commitments. That means that much of the kicking duties could fall to Wyles. The wildcard in this scenario is Toby L’Estrange. The NYAC fly-half wasn’t known for his kicking during the Super League but apparently has the skills. If he can make his kicks consistently, it could help him cement a spot on the Eagles, but if he can’t, look for Wyles to regain the responsibility.
Can the Eagles integrate the newcomers?
As was mentioned, most of the expected-starters are returning, but the absences of several key players (Paterson, Mike McDonald, Blaine Scully, Shaun Davies, etc.) necessitated bringing in several new players into the team. A third of the players (9 of 28) brought into the camp have no caps to their name, while five have three caps or less. How these players contribute and grow is going to be vital to the success of the team, not only in this three match tour, but in the future. As evidenced by this squad and the summer series squad, head coach Mike Tolkin is not afraid to bring new players into his team because he knows that with the turnover in U.S. rugby, having a large player pool is necessary to being competitive in World Cup qualifying.
Fly-half is certainly an area where Tolkin is hoping to create depth; that’s why he’s called four capable players into the team. Roland Suniula has been filling in at the position for the last two summers but is more of a natural center. The most likely person to take over that position is L’Estrange, not only because of his kicking abilities as we discussed above, but because of his decision-making. Tolkin likes to play a more expansive game and having a capable fly-half is key. If L’Estrange can prove to be an international fly-half, it will allow Suniula to move to center, a position where the Eagles suddenly lack depth.
Although he has already been capped twice, it has been a long time since Robbie Shaw was with the Eagles. With Mike Petri needing to miss the first match against Russia, Shaw will get this start. The scrumhalf is incredibly vital to the team and a good performance by Shaw will allow Tolkin to know that the position is solid, especially with Shaun Davies also showing himself capable in the position.
Prop will also see its fair share of newcomers. Mike MacDonald is still nursing his injuries, and Tolkin has elected not to call in Andre Liufau and Mate Moeakiola for various reasons. That means that Anthony Purpura (three caps to his name), Zach Fenoglio, and Nick Wallace, who all played at the ARC, will get their opportunity. Make no mistake, Fry and Pittman are the entrenched starters, but if one of them were to go down or to suffer fitness problems, one of these newcomers will have to step up. Purpura has the most experience but did not have a good ARC. The same could be said of Fenoglio and Wallace. The big question will be if they can hold their own in the scrum. At the ARC they were routinely pushed around. If they want to earn future consideration for the Eagles, they are going to need to prove that they can scrum well.
Will the team continue to grow?
One of the best things about the Eagles summer series against Canada, Georgia, and Italy was that attitude that the team brought to every match. They were active. They wanted the ball. They wanted to win. Most Eagles teams have shown this same kind of attitude, but last summer’s team seemed to show real improvement mostly because its core group had played nine matches together within a year. With that much consistency the players get a better feel for each other and how they play. With many of those same players returning for this tour, that consistency will only get better.
Who will step up to be the next leaders of the team?
Todd Clever is the undisputed captain of the team. He is flanked by veterans like Petri, Stanfill, Ngwenya, and Wyles. Most of this core will make it to the next World Cup, but what about beyond that? Of the current players on the team, Scott LaValla seems the most well-positioned to take a leadership role. Not only has he proven himself to be an excellent player both with the Eagles and with Stade Francais, but has also shown himself to be vocal. The Eagles need a leader for the next generation and LaValla could be it. Biller is another option, as is a player like Robbie Shaw.
What do you think? What questions do you think the Eagles need to answer?
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