Friday, June 23, 2017

Preview: Eagles Ready For Canada & World Cup Qualifying

Photo: Cody Schmelter

And so it begins. After two long years of preparation, a coaching change, an upcoming coaching change, international retirements, and everything else thrown in the Eagles are back for another run of World Cup qualifying. Reality is that it would take some sort of complete disaster for the Eagles not to qualify for the World Cup. Even if the U.S. fall to Canada they would be favored against Uruguay. Even then if they lost against Uruguay the U.S. would then be favored in the repechage. That said the Eagles goal has always been to finish as Americas 1 and qualify for the World Cup two years ahead of the tournament. Yes, there is talk about what pool would you rather be in at the World Cup but no matter what pool the U.S. are in it's going to be difficult so why not have the pride qualifying as Americas 1.

At the end of the ARC there would have been few that questioned whether the Eagles are ready to take on Canada. Canadian rugby is at a low not seen in years while the U.S. are coming off their first tournament victory since the Olympics in 1924. The domestic players seemed to have profited from a year playing professional rugby and the overseas players were in good swing. Now things have changed with the team coming off two disappointing results against Ireland and Georgia. Selections have also been thrown in disarray with a number of injuries and also choices by head coach John Mitchell.

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To gauge an accurate picture of how much the Eagles are hurting right now nearly their entire forward pack is not their first choice line-up. Titi Lamositele, Joe Taufete'e, Chris Baumann, Samu Manoa, Greg Peterson, and Tony Lamborn are all out with injury. In the backs captain Blaine Scully isn't around to help control the game and Taku Ngwenya hasn't been selected. The team that goes up against Canada has yet to play a match together or even mostly together.

If there is a positive it's that the Eagles have still been playing good rugby at times. For a large chuck of the Ireland match it was actually even and the comeback against Georgia was solid. Couple that with a Canadian team that seems to be the weakest in decades and the U.S. are still favorites. Maybe not has big of favorites as they would have been healthy but favorites non the less.

With World Cup qualifying going over two legs the Eagles don't necessarily need to win the first leg to go through as Americas 1 but returning to home soil with a win in their pocket would be a huge boost. The U.S. can certainly do it but Canada will be charged up. If it's anyone close to a tie or even a slight loss by a penalty or so the Eagles should take it.

The match will be streamed from Hamilton, Ontario starting at 3:00 p.m. et/12:00 p.m. pt on The Rugby Channel.

The Team

As mentioned the team has had to change some things around. The front-row will have experience as will the rest of the forwards. In the backs AJ MacGinty will move back to flyhalf. Where the U.S. should have an advantage is in their physicality and their ability to get out and run. Both Marcel Brache and Bryce Campbell are excellent runners. The bench also has a lot of depth for when the Eagles need a boost late in the match. There are weakness like a lack of continuity, not a ton of pace in the backs, and till some relatively raw players.

Forwards: Tony Purpura, James Hilterbrand, Paddy Ryan, Ben Landry, Nic Civetta, Todd Clever (C), John Quill, Cam Dolan

Backs: Nate Augspurger, AJ MacGinty, Matai Leuta, Marcel Brache, Bryce Campbell, Mike Te'o, Ben Cima

Bench: Peter Malcolm, Ben Tarr, Dino Waldren, Matt Jensen, David Tameilau, Andrew Durutalo, Shaun Davies, Will Magie

The Opposition

On paper there is a lot to like about the Canadian line-up. Their front-row of Djustice Sears-Duru, Ray Barkwill, and Jake Ilnicki all have professional overseas experience. Also in the forwards Evan Olmstead and Tyler Ardron are excellent. The backs look even more dangerous. Nearly every single one of the backs is a professional or has been. Taylor Paris is as underrated as they come and DTH van der Merwe has done damage to the Eagles in the past. Still, Canada have used these players before and struggled, including against the States. It was only a few months ago when the U.S. pasted Canada in Vancouver with many of the same players on the pitch. If they can put it all together Canada have the ability to blow past the Eagles.

Forwards: Djustice Sears-Duru, Ray Barkwill, Jake Ilnicki, Brett Beukeboom (C), Evan Olmstead, Admir Cejanovic, Matt Heaton, Tyler Ardron

Backs: Phil Mack, Shane O'Leary, Taylor Paris, Connor Braid, DTH van der Merwe (C), Andrew Coe, Ciaran Hearn

Bench: Benoit Piffero, Anthony Luca, Matt Tierney, Kyle Baillie, Aaron Carpenter, Gord McRorie, Nick Blevins, Dan Moor

Keys to the Match

Scrum: We always talk about the scrum. Always. For a lot of the ARC the Eagles scrum looked good but against Ireland and Georgia it fell apart. Against Georgia that is not uncommon but it's still a danger area for the Eagles. The good news is that Paddy Ryan should help calm things down and Purpura has had his good moments. The U.S. has also had success against Canada in the scrum recently. If the U.S. can win the scrum and give their backs a platform they have to be happy.

Handling: This hasn't normally been a topic under the Mitchell era but the last two weeks it seems like the Eagles can't hold on to the ball. If they knock it on or miss passes against Canada they could be in for a long day. Canada has the kickers and they will love to add up the points.

Tactics: One area in which Canadian players have typically had the edge of the Eagles is in tactical areas like kicking. A lot of that comes from the fact that Canadian kids play the game at high-level earlier than many Americans. Many Canadian high schools have rugby. The U.S. players have to make the right decisions at the right time.

Physicality: The U.S. and Canada are actually very similar physically but overall the U.S. has an edge. Their physicality needs to be big at the breakdown where they have to win turnovers.

Emotions: Any rivalry can get intense, especially if it's a World Cup qualifying match. The U.S. players need to stay calm and stay focused. They want to come from Hamilton with a win, not a loss and a suspended player.

The Takeaway

This is absolutely the Eagles series to lose. They are favored against Canada in most metrics. However, like we mentioned the Eagles are missing a lot of players and haven't been on great form this summer. The hope is for the team that Canada have been on even worse form and that overall the U.S. has had the better of their neighbour over the last few years. Again, the U.S. can lose the match if it's by just a few points. A tie or a win is going to give the U.S. a tremendous boost. We think they do pick up that win albeit by a very narrow margin.


  1. The best outcome for the Eagles is a split with a negative points differential. Qualifying for the WC is great but the pool they play into is just about a worst case scenario.

    Uraguay are an awkward opponent but the Eagles can and should beat them and wind up in a more favorable pool.

  2. We aren't going to advance out of either pool, so it would be better to qualify now and start preparing. Why delay for a slightly "better" pool from which we still aren't going to advance? Let's just qualify and then go out and see how our newest MLR pros and overseas pros do against the best in the game.