The Eagles face an interesting scenario as a result of yesterday’s World Cup draw. A win against Canada in next summer’s qualifiers would place them in the difficult Pool D with France, Ireland, Italy, and the second place team in Europe, while a loss would put them in the soft Pool B with South Africa, Samoa, Scotland, and Asia 1 (presumably Japan). Each scenario presents positives and negatives.
The Pros: A few months ago the idea of beating Canada in the World Cup qualifiers seemed remote for the Eagles. The U.S. wasn’t competitive in the two matches between the two prior to the 2011 World Cup, and while they did better in the summer it still seemed that the U.S. wasn’t quite ready to challenge Canada. However, the Eagles looked extremely strong in the Autumn tour and possessed a lot of players that could cause trouble for Canada. The scrum was much stronger and with Taku Ngwenya out on the wing they have quick options at wide. The players also seem more comfortable with coach Tolkin’s new offensive scheme and it is producing points. In past matches against Canada it has been the inability to convert that has cost them the match. Under this new system that problem looks to be solved. As such, the Eagles have a real possibility of winning next summer’s series.
In addition to notching an important win against a rival, a series win against Canada would also bolster the Eagles IRB rankings. The rankings are used to determine who the Eagles play in the fall and in the summer. They also factor into funding. A win would also allow the Eagles to travel to Europe for a full Autumn schedule rather than only a home and away with a South American team. That means more exposure and more of a chance to test themselves against tough opponents ahead of the World Cup.
The Cons: The biggest con of beating Canada to claim the Americas 1 berth is that it would place the Eagles in Pool D with France, Ireland, Italy, and Europe 2. Essentially that is the same pool as in the 2011 World Cup with France replacing Australia. It would take a big effort to knock off any one of the of the three Six Nations teams in the group and the only real chance for a win would be Europe 2 (likely Georgia, Romania, or Russia). Getting to the World Cup is a great accomplishment for the team but they should also be improving every tournament. That just doesn’t mean having closer results against Tier I teams, but it means picking up wins. That would be hard to do in this group.
Scenario 2: The Eagles lose to Canada but then beat a South American opponent for the Americas 2 berth.
The Pros: Besides qualifying for the World Cup, the biggest pro of this scenario would be placement in Pool B with South Africa, Samoa, Scotland, and Asia 1 (almost certainly Japan). While this group doesn’t have a match the Eagles would be favored in unlike the Europe 2 matchup in Pool D, it does offer several matches that might be there for the taking. A win against South Africa is highly unlikely, but it’s more feasible to pull off wins against Samoa and Scotland. Samoa is riding extremely high at the moment for just cause. They are full of players with Premiership, Top 14, and Super Rugby experience and have knocked off Australia and Wales in the last year with a close result against France. At the same time, they have been beaten by lesser teams before and have been inconsistent at times. It would still be a shock if the U.S. won, but it’s not out of the question. In a match-up with Japan the U.S. would be roughly on equal footing.
The real prize of the pool would be a win over Scotland. The Eagles haven’t beaten Scotland in the four matches they played (they also have won against South Africa and Samoa either) but the Scots are on a historical slide that has some calling them a Tier II nation masquerading as a Tier I nation. They have looked increasingly weak over the last few years and were demolished in the recent Autumn internationals. To be sure, they would still be favorites against the Eagles but would also be beatable. That could change if they continue to bring in players trained else but with Scottish ancestry, such as Sean Maitland, but as it currently stands that seems like it would talk longer than 2015.
The biggest difference between Pool D and Pool B for the Eagles is that Pool D represents only one real possibility for a win barring an historic upset, while Pool B offers at least two, maybe three wins. Two wins would likely be enough to secure a top three finish in the pool and automatic qualification for the next World Cup. It is a long way from happening, but the opportunity in Pool B seems greater than Pool D.
The Cons: While Pool B may provide more opportunity that Pool D, it would still take an enormous effort by the Eagles to finish with a top three finish in the pool and secure qualification for the 2015 World Cup. The Eagles are improving but they aren’t quite there yet. It may not be worth it to sacrifice points in the IRB rankings just for a slim hope of automatically qualifying for the next World Cup. The U.S. could use more difficult but winnable matches outside of the World Cup, and that can be accelerated with a series win over Canada.
Scenario 3: The U.S. loses to Canada and the South American team forcing them into the four team repechange for the last spot in the World Cup.
The Pros: There are no real pros from this scenario besides the possibility of qualifying for the World Cup.
The Cons: Winning the repechange gets you a spot in Pool A with Australia, England, Wales and Oceania 1 (presumably Fiji). That would be a nightmare scenario that would require a tremendous effort to pick up a single win. In addition, the repechange for the 2011 World Cup took place during the summer and fall international windows, meaning less of an opportunity to schedule opponents that may help the team prepare for the World Cup. The matches would also be a home and away series with teams on the other side of the globe. It’s a situation the Eagles do not want to find themselves in.
It’s tempting to say that the Eagles should aim for the Americas 2 berth but in reality that would mean sacrificing some real gains for a potential shot at automatic qualification for the 2019 World Cup. There is simply too much at stake for the Eagles next summer to give that all up now. It’s about the future and building a solid foundation where the team wins is in their best interest. A win against Canada and placement into Pool D is in their overall interests.
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