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Thursday, November 3, 2016

Preview: Eagles Take On Maori All Blacks


By Derek Sagehorn

The New Zealand Maori All blacks have named their strongest side in years for their clash with the Eagles on Friday at Chicago’s Toyota Park (7pm local). While the some of the better-known American Eagles are unavailable, coach John Mitchell has named an experienced side with a number of Southern Hemisphere and Sevens players. Like Ireland, history does not flatter the Americans. Against the Maori they lost 69-31 in Calgary (2004), been thrashed 74-6 in Santa Clara (2006) and fell short 29-19 in Philadelphia (2013). If the Eagles are to win, they will need an 80 minute performance.

The Maori All Blacks are a distinct team from the New Zealand Blacks; players must have Maori roots to be selected. But the All Blacks, in town for their clash against Ireland, have no compunction sharing players and knowledge. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has released several of his players to the Maori side for this weekend’s game.

This includes former Maori players Reiko Ioane, Damian McKenzie and Elliot Dixon. Ioane, not old enough for a beer in the Loop, is quite pedigreed despite his age. The Auckland/Blues wing scored five tries in limited Super Rugby time, the rest devoted to New Zealand’s Olympic Sevens side. He joins his older brother Akira Ioane, who starts at number 8.

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Damian McKenzie starts at fullback for the visitors. A veritable crone at 21, McKenzie has put up fantastic numbers at flyhalf and fullback for the Chiefs in Super Rugby. Although lithe for test rugby, McKenzie has a dangerous step and offload that will require effort and organization from the Eagles kick-chase.
Up front Ash Dixon captains the Maori All Blacks form hooker. He will have fellow All Black Kane Hames supporting him at loose-head. In addition, Highlanders and All Blacks grafter Elliot Dixon starts at blindside. The tall Southerner is a strong ball carrier with a deft touch at times.

All of this will present quite a challenge for the Eagles, but coach Mitchell has selected a strong pack for the purpose. Titi Lamositele of the Saracens starts at loosehead. Chris Baumann, just off a playoff run with the Wellington Lions, will anchor the scrum at tight-head. Waratahs hooker James Hilterbrand brings mobility and accuracy to round out the front row. In the second-row, the Eagles are less-experienced but still talented. Nate Brakeley has a reputation for hard work in the coalface. His partner Nick Civetta, of the Newcastle Falcons, will make his debut. In the back-row, Mitchell has selected three open-sides, at least in terms of size: Todd Clever, Tony Lamborn and Danny Barrett. Clever brings the steady hand of experience and talismanic defense to the captaincy, while Tony Lamborn plays more of a link role in attack. Danny Barrett brings another dimension to the side with ball in hand and graft in the breakdown.

The biggest question mark for the Eagles in the run up to Friday has been flyhalf. With AJ MacGinty nursing a hamstring, speculation increased whether young Ben Cima would start. The Rocky Gorge outhalf had a mostly spectacular performance during the Americas Pacific Challenge. Concerns about decision-making and defense still linger. Will Holder instead gets the nod. The utility back has played several positions for the Eagles, including fullback against Italy this summer. His only start at 10 came in 2012 in a 28-25 loss to Canada. He will partner with Nate Augsperger, a defensive mongrel over the summer tests. In the centers, Sevens playmaker Folau Niua partners with Bryce Campbell. The latter had a stellar trip to Uruguay with USA Selects. Martin Iosefo adds size on the wing, perhaps hoping that he can corral Reiko Ioane.

A big question for the Eagles will be there fitness and depth of their reserves. As has been noted in these pages before, against Tier 1 sides the Eagles tend to fade after 60 minutes. The Sevens players under Mike Friday have reached new heights in terms of fitness, which perhaps explains Mitchell’s inclusion of so many of them here. Whether the forward starters and reserves will be able to keep up with this pace will determine whether the Eagles will be able to compete in the latter stages of the game.

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