A few new faces and a couple golden old ones have popped up in Mike Tolkin’s selections for the All Blacks match in Chicago and the upcoming European tour. Some 35 players in all make up the two squads, necessitated by a deal that will see their six Aviva Premiership players released for the New Zealand test, which falls outside the IRB test window, but unavailable for the remainder of their fixtures. While it’s a disappointing arrangement for all concerned aside from the PRL, it does give Tolkin the opportunity to look at some players who might not have otherwise got the chance.
With concussion problems forcing Shawn Pittman into an early retirement and Titi Lamositele laid low by a knee injury, veteran prop Mate Moeakiola has been summoned from Castanet in France, having last played for the Eagles at the 2011 World Cup. He joins all four ARC props on tour, including uncapped duo Angus MacLellan and Benjamin Tarr. Tom Coolican is back from his NRC season with the Sydney Stars to put pressure on Phil Thiel at hooker.
Also arriving from Australia is giant North Harbour Rays captain Greg Peterson. The former Waratah and Australia u20 second rower looks to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps in being capped for the Eagles. Meanwhile John Cullen has won a spot over Graham Harriman and Brian Doyle, with his power and athleticism edging their lineout effectiveness.
Danny Barrett returns from a trial with Gloucester along with Irish flanker John Quill, back in the squad after being left out of both the Pacific Nations Cup and the World Cup qualifiers. A good showing in the ARC has earned Matt Trouville a chance to win his first cap, though he’ll have to shine among a very useful group of loose forwards to do so.
The halfbacks are by far the thinnest group of the squad, with only two scrumhalves named and Adam Siddall the lone flyhalf. Toby L’Estrange remains sidelined with a broken leg and test hopeful A.J. McGinty has yet to qualify on residency. Will Holder appears to have fallen off the radar, and Zach Pangelinan is conspicuously absent. Hopefully Siddall stays healthy – and remembers to bring his kicking boots on tour.
Another Gloucester trialist, Seamus Kelly, jumps back into a decent midfield quartet that includes veteran Andrew Suniula, 7s star Folau Niua, and with a little luck Thretton Palamo. The big fella broke his foot in July and has yet to make an appearance for Saracens, but hopes to be fit to take part in the later stages of the tour. The Eagles could certainly use his bulk against Pacific island nations Tonga and Fiji.
A familiar face returns to the outside backs in the form of Biarritz flyer Takudzwa Ngwenya. ‘Zee’ hasn’t been seen in American colours since August of last year and was thought to be out of the picture, but an ankle injury to Luke Hume has prompted a call for action. He joins Edinburgh-based Brett Thompson and electric ARC standout Tim Stanfill in a strong trio of finishers. The chance of seeing both Ngwenya and Stanfill on the field at once would be worth the price of admission in itself.
Newcastle Falcons prop Eric Fry, Leicester winger Blaine Scully, Saracens pair Hayden Smith and Chris Wyles, and Northampton Saints duo Samu Manoa and Cameron Dolan will all join the team in Chicago before returning to their clubs after playing the All Blacks.
Aside from a couple token ‘Tolkin selections’, this is about as strong a selection as Eagles fans could have hoped for. The inclusions of Moeakiola, Peterson, and Ngwenya are indications that no stone is being left unturned ahead of the World Cup. Though the front row is less than stellar and the weakness at the halfbacks is worrisome, the squad looks in decent shape, with some hints of real depth starting to emerge in key spots, especially among the second and back row forwards.
That said a creditable performance against the All Blacks is the best they can hope for in Chicago, and the tour looks particularly daunting without their Premiership stars. Romania is always difficult at home, and while the matches against Tonga and Fiji will be played on neutral grounds, they will both be fielding near full strength sides with their top professionals available. Even one win out of three would be a decent return under the circumstances, any more would be exceptional.
11/01 – vs New Zealand – Soldier Field, Chicago
11/08 – vs Romania – Stadionul Naţional, Bucharest
11/15 – vs Tonga – Kingsholm, Gloucester
11/22 – vs Fiji – Stade de la Rabine, Vannes