Mike Tolkin has named his squad charged with assuring the Eagles’ place in the 2015 World Cup, with Toby L’Estrange primed to run things at no10. American fans might recall that it was Adam Siddall who impressed with his match-winning performance against Georgia and might have thus expected him to retain the jersey, but concussion has ruled him out of the two-match series with Uruguay and so L’Estrange will have a chance to redeem himself after an inauspicious Pacific Nations Cup. The Australian-born playmaker has recently signed with London Welsh and has taken over from veteran Gordon Ross as their starting flyhalf, so he will not be short of match fitness.
Who partners him is anyone’s guess. Tolkin’s indulgent loyalty towards his former NYAC pupils is well documented, with L’Estrange and scrumhalf Mike Petri shouldering the brunt of criticism for last year’s poor results. Robbie Shaw had usurped Petri by the end of the year and given his own status as a starter for London Scottish one would assume he should get the nod again, but a restoration of the Petri-L’Estrange axis would surprise few, though disappoint many. Shalom Suniula is somewhat of a wildcard inclusion in the squad after featuring mainly with the 7s squad and could be seen as a bench option capable of bringing a point of difference as a sub later in the game.
Joining Siddall on the sidelines is first choice tighthead Shawn Pittman, a worrying absentee considering the serious lack of depth at prop, particularly at no3. Eric Fry is most likely to step in, though his club London Scottish seem convinced that he is more suited to playing loosehead. After repeatedly being bludgeoned in the scrum at international level, there are few pundits who would argue. Nick Wallace is now in command of the no1 jersey, however, with Titi Lamositele his deputy for the time being, though the latter is capable of playing on either side of the front row.
Another notable absentee is Zach Fenoglio, the promising hooker who has been left at home in favour of Tom Coolican, another Australia-born player plying his trade in England. Cameron Falcon has returned from Ireland but has also been overlooked, so too Chris Biller who appears to be concentrating on a coaching career rather than playing. It means that Phil Thiel will almost certainly get the start at no2, his career now fully rejuvenated after returning from a stint in rugby league.
Takudzwa Ngwenya continues to be problematic in terms of availability, having turned out only five times for the Eagles since the World Cup and it could be reaching the point where he is viewed as superfluous to requirements. Luke Hume is now a full-time pro with Narbonne while Tim Maupin established himself as a test winger last season. Leicester’s Blaine Scully can operate at wing or fullback, so too Chris Wyles, and Miles Craigwell presents another speedy option, and with more size and strength.
Speaking of Wyles, where he plays is a bit of a mystery as well. If L’Estrange is to start at no10, it leaves Andrew Suniula, Folau Niua, and Seamus Kelly to squeeze into the midfield, though Wyles has resided mostly in the centres for Saracens this season. It could be that he stays at fullback for now, with Hume and Scully on the wing and Maupin the odd man out.
The other questions are also a matter of who fits in where. Hayden Smith is back from a short-lived vacation in the NFL to compete with Tai Tuisamoa for a second row spot, and Louis Stanfill is fit again but behind the first choice back row of Todd Clever, Cameron Dolan, and Scott LaValla. Considering that Graham Harriman, Brian Doyle, John Quill and Derek Asbun were not selected, the back five of the Eagles scrum is sporting some real quality in depth.
It’s a pretty reasonable squad at the moment. There are weaknesses but not too many outsiders who could strengthen it ahead of the World Cup. Of course Uruguay shouldn’t be overlooked but having lost to the Argentinean u20 squad in recent days, anything short of a commanding victory over Los Teros would be a massive disappointment. Two strong wins and some quality time together should give the team a much needed boost ahead of this year’s June calendar, when they collide with Canada, Japan, and Scotland.
03/22 – 15:00 EST – Estadio Charrúa, Montevideo
03/29 – 15:00 EST – Fifth Third Bank Stadium, Kennesaw