After the heartbreaking result in Toronto, Canada has to pick its socks up and get back to business against a US Eagles side who are well on the skids. Of course the Canucks haven’t exactly been on fire themselves, after blowing a big lead against Japan and making several errors against the Scots, but on the balance they look significantly stronger than their southern neighbours. The Eagles have lost the last seven meetings between the two sides, and won only one of the past dozen.
The most recent match, the second of their World Cup qualifiers, was actually very close, a mere two point margin, but there are some significant absentees from that American side, most notably scrumhalf Robbie Shaw who has since been inexplicably cast into the international wilderness by Mike Tolkin. Once again it will instead be Mike Petri and Shalom Suniula at the halfbacks, a pairing that has yielded little inspiration outside a few chance minutes against Uruguay.
Tolkin has opted for an unusual selection after falling to Japan in Los Angeles. An ankle injury to Cameron Dolan means that Hayden Smith comes back into the side, with Danny Barrett moved into the pivotal no8 position and Scott LaValla back on the flank. One wonders if perhaps captain Todd Clever might have been a better bet there, or Samu Manoa, oft employed in that role by Northampton Saints. It does seem strange that Smith, whom Tolkin had criticised for not being match fit barely more than a week ago, immediately comes back in while Louis Stanfill remains on the bench.
Two interesting changes have been made in the backs. Tim Maupin has been dumped completely with 7s squad member Brett Thompson a left-field inclusion in his place. Thompson is a big strong runner and it’s no surprise to see him get a shot, though again one has to ask why it was Miles Craigwell on the bench against Japan and not Thompson. Wing cover this week comes from Luke Hume, who was himself an odd omission last week.
A similarly confusing selection is Thretton Palamo at centre. There’s no doubting the impact he can make, but if it’s go-forward that Tolkin wants, why wasn’t Palamo summoned off the bench against Japan when that was precisely what they needed then? Why is it Folau Niua, the better of the two centres last week, who drops out instead of Seamus Kelly? You can see how difficult it must be to be an American fan these days. Logic has no seat at Tolkin’s selection meetings.
Meanwhile Kieran Crowley has paid tribute to the strength of the American scrum by starting his reserve props, Andrew Tiedemann and Jake Ilnicki. To be fair both are highly promising, with Tiedemann headed to Plymouth Albion next season and Ilnicki in the sights of several overseas clubs. Jebb Sinclair is again in the site after being pardoned by the IRB following his laughable send-off against Scotland, and both he and fellow man-at-arms Jamie Cudmore will be keeping a watchful eye on Messrs. Manoa and Palamo both.
In the midfield Nick Blevins drops to the bench after two disappointing performances, his spot taken by Connor Braid, effectively giving Canada two first receivers as Harry Jones tends to favour running above all else. Injury to Taylor Paris means that D.T.H. van der Merwe starts on the wing, where he most often plays for Glasgow Warriors, and it will be left to him to shackle the dangerous Blaine Scully, the Eagles’ most potent attacking weapon against Japan.
On paper this is a clear victory for Canada. They look stronger almost to a man, have recent history and form on their side, greater professional experience and continuity. Only the location seems to favour the Americans, but as Canada proved in Charleston that should count for little. Expect the streak to continue as the visitors heap more misery on Team Tolkin and bring their June test series to a close on a high. With any luck the referee stays out of it this week, and Canada win by 12.
UNITED STATES vs CANADA
Saturday, June 21, 22:00 GMT, Sacramento
Referee: Stuart Berry (SARU)
Assistants: Greg Garner (RFU) & Leighton Hodges (WRU)