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Saturday, September 19, 2015

Preview: Eagles World Cup Dream Begins With Samoa

After four years of waiting the Eagles are once again ready to play on rugby's biggest stage. The last four years have seen ups and downs, players coming and going, and plenty of surprises. However, none of that matters now as the team steps out to face Samoa on Sunday. Preparation time is over and it's time to perform. After a summer of good results and strong play, the Eagles have plenty of confidence heading into their match against Samoa and are not just looking to experience the World Cup, but are looking to make waves. As we've said plenty of times, the U.S. is not favored in any of their World Cup matches. However, because they are playing well and because their pool is fairly open (besides South Africa) they do have a good chance of making waves and potentially having their most successful World Cup to date.

Without question the last two years have seen the U.S. surging. They did finish with a losing record this summer but they picked up two wins over Canada, a win over Japan, were only down by four to Australia at halftime, and should have won their match against Samoa and the Harlequins. Having already played Samoa and Japan this year, and Scotland last year, is going to be a huge advantage to the Eagles. When we spoke with Mike Tolkin yesterday he mentioned that being able to face Samoa was important because now the Eagles no what to expect in terms of physicality. For a World Cup opener, where both teams are going to come out amped, having already gained that experience is going to be important.

Take the jump to read more. It's natural that comparisons will be made to match in San Jose. However, both teams have made a number of changes from that match and both have played a lot of games since then. For example, Samoa only have six players that started against the Eagles in July starting on Sunday. The U.S. line-up is closer with nearly all of the backs the same (minus Mike Petri now starting in place of Shalom Suniula) but with four changes in the forwards. It was a match that saw the U.S. make mistakes in the first half before coming alive in the second half. All in all, it's a good indicator that the U.S. should be able to hang tough, if not beat Samoa. 

The Eagles don't want to look too far ahead but there is a temptation to look at a potential quarterfinal spot (if the stars align) or at least an automatic qualifying spot for the 2019 tournament. If they want to do that they need to beat Samoa. Japan and Samoa are the teams they have the best chance of beating with an outside shot at Scotland. If they fall to Samoa then the pressure is on to beat Samoa and Scotland, something that isn't likely (but would be awesome). Plus, picking up a win in their first match will help them keep the momentum they gained in the summer possibly setting themselves up for a magical run.

The Team

The U.S. have made only one change to the team that took on Australia. Hayden Smith has returned from injury and takes the place of Cam Dolan in the locks. This is the line-up that held their own with Australia for a half and played very well over the summer. Beginning in the front-row Eric Fry and Titi Lamositele have been the best props in the last few years while Zach Fenoglio has really come on over the summer. Smith's return to the line-up should give the line-out, which has been slightly off the last few matches, some more stability. He and Greg Peterson should provide a lot of defense and big bodies on offense. 

The back-row will be the engine of the team. Al McFarland has plenty of bite while Andrew Durutalo has arguably been the best Eagle of the summer. His work at the breakdown has been incredible and has won matches for his team. There is of course Samu Manoa who is playing on the world stage for the first time. Look for him to have a breakout match.

In the backs Mike Petri is playing some of the best rugby of his career while AJ MacGinty has been the answer the Eagles have needed at fly-half. He can kick, play defense, and is a great catalyst on offense. Chris Wyles will be at wing like he was against Australia with Blaine Scully at fullback. That move actually probably suits both of their skills well. Taku Ngwenya will have pace at the other wing spot. Thretton Palamo and Seamus Kelly have been excellent in the centers the last few weeks as well. Overall, it's a team with power but with plenty of rugby sophistication that is the best team on paper the Eagles have assembled in years.

Forwards: Eric Fry, Zach Fenoglio, Titi Lamositele, Hayden Smith, Greg Peterson, Al McFarland, Andrew Durutalo, Samu Manoa

Backs: Mike Petri, AJ MacGinty, Chris Wyles, Thretton Palamo, Seamus Kelly, Taku Ngwenya, Blaine Scully

Bench: Phil Thiel, Ollie Kilifi, Chris Baumann, Cam Dolan, Danny Barrett, Shalom Suniula, Folau Niua, Brett Thompson

The Opposition

Many of Samoa's stars are available for the match (they weren't in July having faced New Zealand the week before) and when you look at the names on the roster you realize just how dangerous the team is going to be. Every single player is a full-time professional and some are not only members of big teams but are stars. It begins with captain Alesana Tuilagi. Everyone saw what he can do in July and now he's going to have Tim Nanai-Williams, Kahn Fotuali'i, and Tusi Pisi feeding him the ball. They have one of the most dangerous back lines in the game.  The forwards are some of the most experienced players on the team. Props Zak Faulafo and Anthony Perenise each have well over 20 caps a piece. The same for hooker Ole Avei. This is going to be a team that will smash with the best of them and will be hard to beat. 

Forwards: Zak Taulafo, Ole Avei, Anthony Perenise, Filo Paulo, Joe Tekori, Maurie Fa'asavalu, Jack Lam, Ofisa Treviranus

Backs: Kahn Fotuali'i, Tusi Pisi, Alesana Tuilagi, Rey Lee-Lo, Paul Perez, Ken Pisi, Tim Nanai-Williams

Bench: Viliamu Afatia, Motu Matu'u, Census Johnson, Faifili Levave, Alafoti Faosilivia, Vavao Afemai, Mike Stanley, Fa'atoina Autagavaia

The History

The U.S. and Samoa have met four times with Samoa winning all four matches. The most recent was of course the meeting in July where Samoa won 21-16. 

The Head to Head

The U.S. averages 21 caps per player with Mike Petri being the high at 54 and AJ MacGinty and Al McFarland being the low with five. The U.S. number is fairly low because players like Samu Manoa and Thretton Palamo, although plenty experienced, don't have a lot of caps. Samoa averages 20 caps per player with Tim Nanai-Williams having only one (he just switched over after playing for the New Zealand 7s) and Zak Taulafo having a high of 36. Samoa are in a similar situation where some of their key players don't have a ton of caps. 

Key Match-ups

Petri and MacGinty vs. Fotuali'i and Pisi: Without question both Petri and MacGinty have been playing some great rugby this summer. They have given the U.S. gumption on attack and defensively have also been strong. However, they are coming up against two very good halfbacks in Fotuali'i and Pisi. If the U.S. can play even, they will be able to score tries. 

Back-row vs. Back-row: This is an area where you feel the U.S. has an advantage. Samu Manoa is going to love facing Samoa. If the U.S. can have a big day at the breakdown both in poaching and preventing a poach, the match should be fun. 

Keys to the Match

The Breakdown: We just mentioned this but when the Eagles have had success this summer it's been because they have dominated the breakdown. Durutalo has been a revelation in this area. He's won games simply because he was able to create turnovers. McFarland and Manoa are also good in this category. They've also done a good job at stabilizing the offensive breakdown cutting down on simple errors. However, as we saw against Australia, when they play a team that is also good at the breakdown it neutralizes them. If they can get the better of Samoa in this regard they will win.

The Scrum: Yes, it's time to talk about the scrum. Without question the U.S. scrum has been better this summer and is much improved from the summer of 2012. Still, they won't be considered one of the best scrums at the World Cup and if they give up easy penalties against Samoa that will be the match. Without a stable scrum you can't win. 

Kicking: Like the U.S., Samoa are going to give up penalties. They have the players that can make their kicks so it will be up to MacGinty to make his kicks. He's had a good summer with a bit of a drop off over the last few matches. The World Cup is a different beast and the nerves will be there. If the U.S. have an early option for an easy kick, they have to take it. 

Depth: The difference between wins and losses at the World Cup is depth. Over the summer the U.S. has dropped a couple of matches (Tonga and Harlequins in particular) because their bench wasn't able to maintain the same quality as the starters. The likes of Danny Barrett, Folau Niua, and Cam Dolan will help in that regard but they need a big performance from their bench in order to win because Samoa's bench is stacked. 

The Takeaway

We can't say this enough. The U.S. is not favored to win this match. If they do win it will be an upset. However, that doesn't mean they don't have a shot. They have a great shot at picking up an upset. They are playing better than they have in years and have shrunk the gap against the likes of Samoa. The World Cup also has mitigating aspect to it. The pressure and uniqueness of the occasion causes strange things to happen. Will the U.S. win? According to history, no, but you can throw that history out the window and expect this to be the best match of the pool. 

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