2017 is going to be a big year for the Eagles. Once again they will have a full slate of matches with five in the ARC, four in the summer, and then three to four more in the fall. It's the two against Canada this summer for World Cup qualifying that are the focus on the year. Everything the Eagles do in the ARC is leading up to those matches. That is what makes this weekend's match against Uruguay in San Antonio that much more interesting. Head coach John Mitchell is doing some experimenting this week in order to try and get the right combination that is going to help his team win matches. If they pay off then the Eagles could have what they are looking for heading not only into RWCQ but beyond to the World Cup.
While it's tough to read too much into one match the affair against Uruguay will help set a tone for the rest of the year. The Eagles didn't come away with too many wins last year, mostly frustrating losses in which they let too many small mistakes cost them. As a developing teams wins aren't everything but they are important. One of the ideas behind bringing in someone like Mitchell, with more international experience, is to deliver results. He's only had a year but at this point it can't so much be about the process and it needs to turn into results at some point.
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The two teams will square off at 4:00 p.m. et/1:00 p.m. pt and it can be seen live on The Rugby Channel.
The big talking point heading into the match is the move of AJ MacGinty from fly-half to center. Mitchell explained that the move was to help give the backs another creative element. There are a couple of things to dive into here but maybe the most important is that Ben Cima has proven himself enough to earn a starting nod. It's going to be an experiment but he did well at the Americas Pacific Challenge and was a stud at the JWRT. If he can play well against Uruguay then the Eagles are going to have a lot of solid options moving forward.
The other big notes on the roster are in the forwards. It's a bit of a surprise to see Tony Lamborn start on the bench but maybe it was travel (James Hilterbrand also came from the Southern Hemisphere and is on the bench) or maybe Mitchell wants him as an impact sub. Either way the back-row of John Quill, Todd Clever, and Al McFarland is still strong. The other surprise is Tony Purpura starting at prop. It's been awhile since he's been with the Eagles.
Forwards: Tony Purpura, Peter Malcolm, Chris Baumann, Nate Brakeley, Nick Civetta, John Quill, Todd Clever, Al McFarland
Backs: Nate Augspurger, Ben Cima, Zack Test, AJ MacGinty, Bryce Campbell, Blaine Scully (C), Mike Te'o
Bench: James Hilterbrand, Alex Maughan, Dino Waldren, Matt Jensen, Tony Lamborn, Shaun Davies, Will Magie, JP Eloff
Uruguay have been improving and will be a good test for the Eagles. Remember, Uruguay beat the Eagles last year although it was in different circumstances. Uruguay also beat the Eagles at the APC not that long ago. The Teros have made a lot of structural improvements over the last few years to get them more games and a better variety of opponents than just Chile and Argentina. They have had mixed results, including a loss to Germany but also some solid wins in that time as well.
As with any Uruguayan team they are going to be good in the scrum. The Eagles have had their struggles in that department over the last year and are going to be tested. For us, it's simple, if they lose the scrum battle to Uruguay than the Eagles will lose the match.
Forwards: Mateo Sanguinetti, Facundo Gattas, Juan Echeverria, Ignacio Dotti, Diego Ayala, Rodolfo Garese, Franco Lamanna, Alejandro Nieto (C)
Backs: Santiago Arata, German Albanell, Andres Rocco, Juan de Freitas, Juan Manuel Cat, Leandro Leivas, Rodrigo Silva
Bench: Diego Pombo, Matias Benitez, Felipe Inciarte, Juan Diego Ormaechea, Diego Magno, Guillermo Lijtenstein, Francisco Berchesi, Gaston Gibertnau
Keys to the Match
Scrum: We just touched on the scrum when talking about Uruguay but it bears discussion again. The scrum is going to be so important not just for this game but for the tournament in general. Maybe more than anything but kicking the scrum is all about the mental game. If the Eagles can have a strong opening match in the scrum it could set the tone for success the rest of the tournament. Also just to reiterate, if they lose to the scrum they lose to Uruguay.
Will Experimenting Work?: Mitchell is experimenting with his roster in order to try and get more attack out of the backs. The ARC is the perfect venue for that so he should be applauded for making the move. Still, the experimenting is going to have an impact on the results and if it works then the Eagles should be able to pour in the tries.
Fitness: Most of the team has played a season of PRO Rugby or are overseas pros. However, most of the domestic players haven't played much rugby since the November internationals and they had a gap before then as well. One of the biggest factors in wins over Uruguay in prior matches was the ability to pull away in the last twenty minutes. If that is gone then it's advantage Uruguay.
The ARC is all about experimenting and so we can expect there to be some changes in tactics this go around. That is sure to have an impact but at the same time the Eagles will also have the likes of Blaine Scully and MacGinty available this week. With those players on the roster it's hard to expect anything but a win. A win isn't essential to the long scheme of things but after a year in which they didn't have a lot of wins a positive result would be nice. Additionally, this is the first year of the season and they need positive momentum heading into a World Cup qualifying year. We think that with MacGinty and Scully starting they have enough to get past Uruguay. They also have enough reinforcements off the bench to stop the bleeding if Uruguay get rolling.