PHILADELPHIA, PA – Looking toward July 18 and the start of the Pacific Nations Cup, I thought I had some definite opinions about who should start which games this summer. The real goal is to know what the lineup should be for the World Cup games. As I am working to justify my selection-related opinions, I find myself developing (gasp and shudder) some sympathy for US coaches like Mike Tolkin.
In terms of who should start the Pacific Nations Cup matches and which bubble players should make the World Cup squad, there is too much we don’t know as the Eagles head into their camp in Santa Clara.
For instance, I think Danny Barrett should likely start because the Eagles need a good kick-chase and Barrett has wheels. Plus, he has shown the ability to counter-attack. But Mike Tolkin and the other Eagles’ selectors have no recent evidence of his form in fifteens because he hasn’t been playing fifteens.
There is no evidence of recent form that allows a fan or coach to have an informed opinion of who the starters should be before camp starts. This is, of course, true for the other players coming from the sevens team.
Also in the back row, Cameron Dolan, with his athleticism and work in the defensive lineout, might deserve to start. Unfortunately, Dolan’s almost non-existent game time with the Northampton Saints this season does not provide any real indication of the form he is in. Dolan started one LV Cup game and played in the A League of the Aviva Premiership. The game film available for Dolan and others, what is shared publicly, is not enough to guide coaches or fans.
This train of thought keeps going: If both Dolan and Barrett are going to start, then either Scott LaValla or Todd Clever will not. With that in mind, off I went to watch some Stade Francais games and see how LaValla is playing. Trying to watch LaValla, I became concretely aware of something I’d already vaguely understood: He didn’t start many games this season. Before he gets to the Eagles’ assembly, what can the coaches know about his form and fitness? Todd Clever played for OMBAC this spring. There are some highlights out there, but not a lot of good game film posted publicly.
In the case of who should start in the back row, arguments can be made, but they are relatively shallow because such arguments should be built on evidence of recent form.
Tolkin does work with club coaches and the players themselves, both domestic and overseas, to get game footage; however, the results are inconsistent. Some players and clubs are clearly better than others at providing information and game tape. Tolkin did not want to single anyone out, though he did note, “the PRP [Pacific Rugby Premiership] are extremely helpful and reliable each week.”
All of this shows that Tolkin and the other selectors need to wait until the players are assembled before they can have a good sense of who is in the best form. Even then, performance in training is not enough to make the best selections.
Why wouldn’t Tolkin start Mike Petri at scrum half? He plays 9 on a regular basis for his club and Tolkin can actually see him play regularly. It is natural for Tolkin and Justin Fitzpatrick, the forwards coach, to select guys they see play and guys they already know well.
As the Eagles get ready for camp, there are many positives about the pool of players assembling and the scheduled build up for the World Cup. One of the negatives, though, is that the Eagles’ coaching staff–like other Tier II nations–must wait until camp starts to have a full picture of where the squad is.
Even while I admit ignorance, I will still make my shallow case for who should start against Samoa and why soon enough.
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