Pacific Nations Cup and USA Rugby Eagles Preview

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USA Rugby @EaglesXV Coach Mike Tolkin addresses the squad for Pacific Nations Cup match vs Samoa.

PHILADELPHIA, PA – Here is what you need to know about this year’s Pacific Nations Cup.  Last year, the “tournament” wasn’t really a tournament.  This year, it seems like more of an actual tournament.  Pool A is Samoa, Japan, and Tonga.  Pool B: Fiji, US, Canada – and the Team USA matches will be on ESPN 3.

Each team plays the sides from the other pool.

The broadcast schedule:

Broadcast Schedule
Broadcast Schedule

Missing from the broadcast schedule is Fiji hosting Tonga.  The “finals” will be seeded according to results from each team’s first three matches.  It will be 5 Seed v 6 Seed, 3 v 4, and then 1 v 2.  This means that the 5 v 6 match will take place at 2:30 EDT on a Monday afternoon.

Finals Day
Finals Day

Samoa and Japan think their squads are in good enough shape ahead of the World Cup that they are withholding some important players.  Tonga, Fiji, and the US seem to be pretty close to full-strength.  Canada was balancing their PNC roster with the 7s roster from the Pan-Am Games.

Full squads are here.

Dan Leo tweetIn terms of context and backstory, there has been quite a bit of chatter this summer about professional clubs forcing players to choose between club and country.  There was also a Dan Leo tweet pointing out the Samoan players’ travel ordeal to North America.  Additionally, there is the wrinkle of the US, Samoa, and Japan all being in the same pool at the World Cup.

I’ve written some about the US tactics and Samoan tactics heading into their first match, but here is more!

Because Samoa, Japan, and the US are in the same World Cup pool, no coach will want to want to show all of his tricks now.  The US, though, have matches against Canada, Harlequins, and Australia after the PNC, so they can do everything they can to win these matches against Samoa and Japan and still have time to improve and evolve their tactics before the World Cup.

From a distance, it seems that the Eagles have improved the attitude on the pitch.  For a while, they seemed defeated before the match started.  That is no longer the case.  They will be the underdog for every World Cup match, so they need to believe in themselves.  Nothing breeds belief like actually winning.  No punches should be pulled.

The rankings heading into the PNC.
The rankings heading into the PNC.

With a less-than full strength Samoa squad, the Eagles have a chance to win their opening match against the higher-ranked opponent.

The most important narrative at the moment is that the Eagles get pushed around at scrum time, dominated.  There is a reason the narrative exists.  However, the Eagles need to change it so that opposing teams and referees don’t assume every scrum gone bad should earn an Eagles prop a yellow card.  Based on the 7 matches from 2014 I collected data for, the Eagles actually won 92% (35 of 38) of their own scrum ball.  That big number is offset by the 32 penalties and free kicks conceded during those same matches.  Those penalties are why the narrative is so negative.

One area the US can build as a strength is their ability to pressure and win the ball back from their own kicks.  A side with Danny Barrett, Blaine Scully, and Zach Test or Brett Thompson is a side that can win some restarts and turn average kicks from hand into good kicks.

The lineup against Samoa should both give the Eagles a good chance to win, and help build the squad ahead of the World Cup.

1 Eric Fry

2 Phil Thiel

3 Matekitonga Moeakiola (I would have preferred Titi Lamositele)

I am surprised that I think Fry should start – but he should.  Watching him at Newcastle and looking closely at the games from last summer, the man does many things well.  At the end of his club season, he seemed much more comfortable and at ease.  He uses his brain in defense to get into good spots and doesn’t miss a lot of tackles.  In attack, he is not looking to be a primary runner, but when he does carry, he has good pre-contact footwork.  He is not often blown backwards, and the Eagles almost always retain the ball when he carries.

Lamositele needs a chance.  If not now, when? Moeakiola may be getting the nod because of seniority.

Smith has been solid for the Eagles.
Smith has been solid for the Eagles.

4 Hayden Smith

5 Greg Peterson (My choice was Scott LaValla)

Smith seems unlucky not to have gotten more playing time this season with Saracens.  Peterson is a mountain at 6’8″ but he’s coming off shoulder problems. The Eagles need LaValla, but in attack he has not played like a true back rower for the Eagles.

6 Cam Dolan (My pick would have been former captain Todd Clever)

Dolan has all the tools and size, but he didn’t get much playing time overseas. Not sure why Clever isn’t on the match-day roster. Maybe they are spotting him to keep him fresh.

7  John Quill (I thought it would be Danny Barrett)

Interesting choice of the Irishman. To be frank, I don’t know a lot about him. We’ll soon find out.

8 Danny Barrett (At least I had Barrett and Dolan as starters!)

Clever did not have a great year last year as captain.  As a player, though, he was pretty darn good.  Playing with OMBAC in the Pacific Rugby Premiership, he seemed to do what one would hope for: dominate with ball in hand. But he’s not in there.  Barrett can chase kicks and is good in counter-attacking situations.  Dolan is excellent in the defensive lineout.  Beyond that, he has made many backward-moving scrums less damaging with his quickness from the base of the scrum -but he’s at #6… Again, as for Quill – he’s the X-factor in what will no doubt be a mobile back row. Of course, Samu Manoa is not yet with the squad.

9 Shalom Suniula (I’d have picked Niku Kruger)

So much for Mike Petri being Tolkin’s automatic pick. He’s the back-up.

10 AJ MacGinty

Niku Kruger
Niku Kruger

Mike Petri is a known commodity.  Petri has improved over the last few seasons, but still has some gaps.  None of the other options tried at 9 seem to have pleased Mike Tolkin.  I would have gone with Kruger; there is still plenty of time for Petri and Shalom Suniula to get into a rhythm before the World Cup.  If they happen to go well, there is time for Kruger to get some minutes before the World Cup.  MacGinty is, I think, the only guy who regularly plays fly half for his club and handles kicking duties from hand and the tee.  There is only so much the team can ask of captain Chris Wyles, and it seems like he could play better for the Eagles if his burden is reduced.  The logic that applies to Kruger applies to MacGinty as well.

11 Takudzwa Ngwenya

12 Thretton Palamo

13 Seamus Kelly (I thought it might have been Chris Wyles)

14  Blaine Scully (My choice at wing – I had Scully at 14, Zach Test, will come off the bench).

15 Chris Wyles (Scully and Wyles were in my starting backline, just at different positions).

Ngwenya looked good for the Eagles in November.  Tolkin has options on the wing, so it might make sense to give everyone a look in the next several games.  Wyles has played in the centers this season for Saracens.  The Eagles need to be organized in defense, and having Wyles there might help.  He needs to be on the field, but it is not clear it makes the most sense for him to be at 15 with what Tolkin is trying to do.

The 2015 PNC should be a pretty compelling tournament once the games start with many tight matches.

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About Jake Frechette 125 Articles
Jake Frechette lives outside of Philly, where he is engrossed enough in rugby that he sometimes forgets that when he talks about the Eagles, most people assume he means the NFL flock. He once played both tight head and inside center in the same game, which shows that he is strong, handsome and has nice hair. One of the things he finds most enjoyable in the rugby world is that Andrew Hore is a Hooker and he can't wait until his sons are old enough to giggle at that one with him.