Yesterday in Part 1 of our two part series examining the things we learned from the Eagles fall tour to Europe, we talked about the improved play of props Eric Fry and Shawn Pittman, the future captaincy of Scott LaValla, fitness, and depth issues surround the team. Today, in Part 2, we continue our look.
The Eagles have found a flyhalf. Since the retirement (or non-selection, however you choose to look at it) of Mike Hercus from the Eagles, the team has been on the constant lookout for a #10. Nese Malifa, Roland Suniula, and Will Holder have all had a go in the position. Malifa was a bit too inconsistent and has suffered injuries, Suniula is a natural center and more of a placeholder, while Holder is still at West Point and more of a project for the future. Into this fray step Toby L’Estrange. The American-born Australian-raised player that had been playing for NYAC in the Super League and was to be the Eagles flyhalf last summer until he broke his arm in the Super League, ruling him out of the tour.
L’Estrange finally got his opportunity this fall and he made the most of it. Besides goalkicking, which he is capable of, he was everything you want out of a flyhalf. He worked extremely well with both Mike Petri and Robbie Shaw, find his wings in good places, and wasn’t afraid to take the gainline himself. He decision-making was fantastic all tour. Much of the Eagles production is due to his decisions. Defensively he was solid as well. He isn’t flashy, but he gets the job done, and at still a young age, he probably locked down the position for the foreseeable future. A further positive of his play, is that it will allow the team to slowly integrate youngsters like Holder and Gearoid McDonald.
The Eagles have a scrumhalf competition. With Mike Petri late in making it to Wales due to teaching commitments in New York, the starting scrumhalf job was given to Robbie Shaw. Shaw had been previously capped by the Eagles and was the last man cut from the World Cup squad, but with both Petri and Tim Usasz manning the position for so long, Shaw had to wait a significant time to get his opportunity. But like L’Estrange, Shaw took full advantage of his opportunity. He was fantastic against Russia, getting out quick ball and finding teammates. He kept the team organized and did an excellent job at the scrum. His play was so strong that he earned the starting nod again the next week against Tonga, doing equally as well. When given his opportunity, Petri did equally as well. There was little dropoff between the two when they start. This kind of strong depth at a key position is a positive for the Eagles. Over the next year both of these players are going to be working harder and harder knowing that they will have to improve if they want to start. That is exactly the kind of competition the Eagles need.
The Eagles are good on defense. Americans have always been known as hard tacklers, and they showed that once again on this tour, but the tenacity and efficiency they showed on defense illustrated that their defensive game is more than tackling. They gave up too many points against Russia, but that has more to do with fatigue than defense. They limited a good Tongan team, and they virtually shut down Romania. These players know their defensive shape and they stick to it.
Consistency was key. The team’s starting lineup has seen only minor tweaks over the last several years. By and large the team has a core group of players that have played the majority of the Eagles career’s with each other. The center pairing of Andrew Suniula and Paul Emerick is an automatic lock, as are Todd Clever and Scott LaValla. Chris Biller is the pencil-in hooker, while Chris Wyles and Taku Ngwenya are locks on the wing. These players know each other. That is key when it comes to making a simple offload or pass. Players don’t have to think twice, they known where their teammate will be. They also have confidence in each other. This same core also shows no signs of diminishing and is relatively young.
The consistency in the lineup is also quite an accomplishment when you consider that the Eagles only regularly play six times a year. Imagine what the team would be like if they had more opportunity to train and play together. The same could be said of a team like Samoa or Tonga. U.S.A. Rugby needs to find a way to get more meaningful matches from the team. Not only will they be able to gain even more cohesion, but their fitness will improve as well. Funding is a major problem, but U.S.A. Rugby CEO Nigel Melville has apparently had talks with the IRB about getting more funding for the team in order to play more matches.
Mike Tolkin was the right man for the job. After the Eagles Selects dismal performance in the Americas Rugby Championship, some fans were claiming that Mike Tolkin was in over his head and that he wasn’t capable of leading a national team. Those doubters should be silenced now as Tolkin has led the Eagles to their first winning record since 2003. The results under Tolkin have improved for two main reasons: the players believe in him and want to play for him, and the new offensive system has brought the fun back into playing for the Eagles.
It’s no secret that Eddie O’Sullivan wasn’t a favorite of the players. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t like him, but it was more of a business relationship. Not exactly inspiring stuff. O’Sullivan also had the team play a more restrictive type of offense that didn’t generate much. Conversely, Tolkin has a great relationship with the players. He is clear in his communication and he has they believing in themselves. The new offensive system that he and his staff has installed certainly has helped. Players are much more free to express themselves and the wings are happier because the see more of the ball. Simply, Tolkin has made it fun to be an Eagle again and the players are responding.
The Eagles have fans. We’ve always known this. There are a die-hard group of fans out there that follow the team through thick and thin, but having a more successful team brings fans out in even greater numbers. Fans like winners.
They have a shot at beating Canada next summer. Everything in international rugby revolves around the World Cup. With that in mind, 2012 has been preparation for 2013 when it is expected that the Eagles will play Canada in a home and away World Cup qualifier. Three years ago the Eagles won a hard 12-6 victory on the Fourth of July only to get blown out 41-18 a week later, forcing them into a playoff with Uruguay. That meant no fall tour of Europe and more expenses for the team. It also meant a less favorable draw in the World Cup. If the Eagles can beat Canada next summer, it will go a long way to helping the program. After three straight losses to Canada over the last two years a series win didn’t seem possible. However, with their strong play over this last year, especially in the fall, a win isn’t as far-fetched. The two leg series should be incredibly fun to watch.
Gilbert has released a new line of rugby cleats. The Gilbert Virtuo 8S is part of the exciting new product. Check it out.
The entire All Blacks apparel line has been updated for 2013/14. Check out the New Zealand All Blacks polo.
The Nike Tiempo is a solid rugby cleat and one of few styles still made from full-grain natural leather.
The Gilbert Blitz 8S rugby cleat is a great cleat at a great price of $69.99. Get a new pair of cleats today.
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Wear the crest of the British and Irish Lions on your t-shirt. A great look for the summer.
The All Blacks Performance t-shirt is black with hints of blue from the training jersey. Very Cool.
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The USA Rugby Pro Alternate rugby jersey is perfect for any fan of the Eagles. Get yours to wear during the summer Test matches.
The NEW All Blacks 2013/14 jersey has arrived at World Rugby Shop. Dare to wear the colors of the All Blacks.