Two sides on different trajectories collide at the StubHub Center on Saturday. Japan arrive hot on the heels of an 8-game win streak, the Eagles a meek loss. While normally one would give the hosts a home field advantage, the Americans have lost both of their games in Los Angeles, a city not well known for its rugby aficionados. It could be a sparse crowd on hand to watch Mike Tolkin’s crew open their Pacific Nations Cup account.
Five names have been changed in the starting roster for the United States, and three positional switches. Nick Wallace replaces the maligned Eric Fry at prop, with the roly poly Olive Kilifi shifting over to the tighthead side. Fry was on the receiving end of yet another pasting in the scrum against the Scots, but it appears sanity might have prevailed as he looks set to cover his preferred loosehead side from the bench. Phil Thiel is fit to stay at hooker despite suffering knee damage last week and coming off early.
Northampton wrecking machine Samu Manoa returns at lock, where he lines up with Scott LaValla, shunted sideways to make room for Danny Barrett, who wins his first full test cap on the blindside flank. Todd Clever wears the number 7 jersey for the first time since the World Cup, an unusual fact given that he wore the shirt almost exclusively before the Tolkin era. Louis Stanfill drops to the bench, with Hayden Smith out of the side completely. Kyle Sumsion covers the flank among the reserves.
Scrumhalf Mike Petri has been under fire for some time now and put in another highly questionable shift against the Scots, but again finds himself starting at scrumhalf with no alternative in sight. Shalom Suniula continues to find his feet at flyhalf, but will have to do so without big brother Andrew, out for the rest of June with a knee injury. Folau Niua starts in his place, with Seamus Kelly shifting inside one spot.
Luke Hume is strangely absent with his left wing spot going to Tim Maupin, and uncapped Miles Craigwell covering on the bench. One promising name in the reserves is Thretton Palamo, the giant OMBAC midfielder who has returned after a long stint in college football, having last played for the Eagles as a twenty-year-old in 2008, coincidentally also against Japan. Palamo is a powerhouse with good speed who would have made a much more like-for-like replacement for Suniula, and while still a bit raw certainly has the potential to be a better player.
Japan coach Eddie Jones has made only two changes to the roster that came back to rout Canada in Vancouver. Yoshikazu Fujita’s shoulder injury means a return for lightning fast Kenki Fukuoka on the wing, and undersized veteran Hitoshi Ono makes way for another undersized veteran Shoji Ito at lock. Despite their smaller stature the Japanese forwards are strong technically and their scrum will certainly give the Americans some problems.
On paper this is a pretty easy one to call. The Brave Blossoms have all five of their Super Rugby players in the lineup and while they started slowly against Canada, they were very efficient in the second half. Fumiaki Tanaka will show the Americans the advantages of quick service from the breakdown, and Ayumu Gorumaru will punish any indiscretions with his lethal goal kicking.
If the Eagles are to win it will have to be through the forwards. They’ve picked a mobile, ball carrying back five that are well suited to punching holes, the question is who is prepared to do the dirty work. Without an ace goal kicker or a strong tactical kicker they’ll have to score tries to win, and they’ll have to keep hold of the ball to do it. Look for Japan to be more accurate at the breakdown and more clinical when points are on offer. Take the visitors to win by 12.
UNITED STATES vs JAPAN
Saturday, June 14, 22:30 EST, Los Angeles
Referee: Greg Garner (RFU)
Assistants: Leighton Hodges (WRU) & Francisco Pastrana (UAR)