SACRAMENTO, CA – The USA Rugby Eagles will face the Russian Bears at Bonney Field in Sacramento on June 26th at 7 pm PT (10 pm ET). This perennial rivalry match should bring intensity on the field and in the bleachers. The Cuban Missile Crisis, War Games, Miracle on Ice…Everyone loves a little America versus Russia carnage. I am sure at least one person in the stands will be shouting quotes from Red Dawn. Even the mascots are pretty badass. Eagles battling Bears sounds a hell of a lot more imposing than fighting a shade of blue (The Azzurri of Italy), unless it’s a hyper-intelligent and slightly violent shade of the color blue…
Head Coach John Mitchell has named largely the same starting 15 with the only changes coming due to injuries (Taku Ngwenya, Greg Peterson) and availability (Andrew Durutalo). Mitchell has spoken about the importance of consistency and learning to play together as a team so the lack of change is unsurprising.
This second run out for the new-look Eagles squad is an opportunity to fix the shortcomings identified in the last match through another week training together. Russia are a physical team who benefit from playing together in the Russian professional league, however, they are not on par with Italy in terms of fitness or fundamentals. It will be important for Team USA to maintain discipline throughout the test and aim to out-work them in the set pieces and breakdowns, forcing Russia to make mistakes.
USA Rugby has written up a nice preview of the match and highlighted the full roster. If you ignored my link up above, here it is again. I want to talk about some specific players worth keeping an eye on tonight. Not necessarily because they are the stars of the Eagles squad but because they are somewhat unknown quantities relative to players like Titi Lamositele or AJ MacGinty, whom everyone expects to put in solid performances.
USA Eagles to Watch
Nate Augsperger and Will Holder
Both of these guys did great last week despite still adjusting to the 15s game. Most impressive was that neither seemed to struggle with the pressure and intensity of their first international test against a Tier 1 opponent (Holder has 1 previous cap in 2012). Really all the players coming out of the 7s program have impressed in terms of their poise and fitness. The question will be whether they can take another step forward after shaking off their first game jitters. How does Augsperger handle contested rucks? Is he more comfortable with the flow of the game? For both, there is a risk that they benefited from “beginner’s luck,” playing freely in the first game and not worrying about bad decisions. Dwelling on their mistakes from last week could risk slowing down their decision making against Russia.
Unlike the other players from the Olympic Training Center (OTC), Palamo has plenty of experience playing 15s for USA. However, there has always been an element of his game missing… not quite reaching his potential. Since transitioning back from college football, questions about his fitness keep emerging. After joining the OTC this winter, his fitness, work ethic and fundamentals have all improved (corroborated by Mike Friday). Against Italy, he consistently broke the gain line and was still attacking well and maintaining defensive discipline through 80 minutes. With this newfound fitness, can he still do more? Can he be a more dynamic runner, taking a bigger role in the attack, especially late in the match if Russia starts to lose their defensive structure?
Tony Lamborn and James King
Two Kiwi cousins, each with one cap under their belt. For Lamborn, it’s just about expanding on his impressive performance last week. Russia, regardless of their physicality, is less technically sound than Italy in the breakdowns. More will be expected from Lamborn in his starting role.
For King, he will need to perform better than at the ARC. He has had more time to train with the squad and is playing at his usual position at lock. While King was once playing Super Rugby, he is now playing amateur rugby in New Zealand. Is an older amateur Kiwi player good enough to walk into the Eagles starting 15? I’d like that answer to be no, and maybe eventually it will be (if Greg Peterson and Samu Manoa were available, maybe it would be now). Right now though, there aren’t other options. I hope he can prove me wrong.
What a meteoric rise for Langilangi, going from a sub for Sac Express with questions about his fitness to making the bench for the Eagles. At 6’1’ 260 pounds, he is the Mountain-That-Rides (or rumbles in this case) and that was clear from his first carry onward for Sacramento. He runs straight and hard and refuses to go down easily. His biggest issue has been his hands. He has matches where 30-40% of his touches end in knock-ons. If he gets on the pitch against Russia, he could cause chaos against a worn out side in the last 20 minutes, but he will need to catch the ball first and not let nerves get the better of him.
The last topic of interest to me is the bench in general and in particular the three players that didn’t get on the pitch last week (Steve Tomasin, Chad London, and Harry Higgins). It showed how a fit squad does not need to empty their bench in the final 20 minutes. Coach Mitchell felt his best chance of winning was to keep the starters out there. This week, it will again be a question of how the bench is used. Fans, including myself, probably want to see everyone have a chance to get out there, especially relative unknowns like Higgins and Tomasin. That will depend on the intensity of the contest, any injuries, and what the score is leading into the last quarter.