The Eagles head into their summer series with several questions needing to be answered. The World Cup is just a little over a month away and with compromises coming to get top players available for the New Zealand match in the fall there aren’t a lot of games left in which all the top players will be together. Even this summer some of the top European players may not be around all week. All together the Eagles should only have six to eight matches left before they take on Samoa in their World Cup opener. With that in mind, here are a few questions the Eagles need to answer in their summer series.
Can they consistently beat higher ranked opponent?
The Eagles beat Georgia last fall and then before that Romania in 2012. However, in terms of Pacific Nations Cup opponents the U.S. does not have a good record. Everyone remembers last summer where the team lost all seven of their summer matches. They were close in several of them but still couldn’t put it all together. It’s important that they show they can put wins on the board against the likes of Japan and Canada. These are the teams that are near the top of the Tier II nations and if the Eagles want to make serious waves they need to beat them. Plus, it’s about confidence heading into the World Cup.
Will Starters Be Defined?
Some positions on the team aren’t up for debate. If Samu Manoa is with the team he’s going to start at lock. Todd Clever, Scott LaValla, and Cam Dolan have the back-row covered. Chris Wyles is the fullback, Blaine Scully is one of the wings, Phil Thiel is the hooker, and Andrew Suniula is the inside center. However, outside that there are a lot of open positions. The biggest question mark is who is going to be the halfback pairing. Folau Niua, Shalom Suniula, and Garrett Brewer are going to get a chance at fly-half while Mike Petri and Nate Augspurger will get a chance at scrumhalf. Fly-half might not be as open but scrumhalf is up for the taking with Adam Siddall and Toby L’Estrange expected to recover from their injuries. Now is the time for someone to step forward and put a lock on the position ahead of the World Cup.
Prop is another position that needs to be settled. Eric Fry, Shawn Pittman, Oliver Kilifi, Titi Lamositele, and Nick Wallace all have started over the last year. At least two of them are going to need to put their hand up and deliver starter worthy performances. Finally there is a need to settle who is going to pair with Manoa at lock. Head coach Mike Tolkin has brought in a lot of options, including Hayden Smith, Lou Stanfill, Tai Tuisamoa, Nick Civetta, and others that are vying for the chance. One needs to step up and see more time.
Can They Beat A Tier I Side?
Since the IRB mandated that a Tier I side visits the U.S. and Canada the U.S. has come close to getting a win in their first two attempts. Against Italy in 2012 they were right in the match until the referee decided to take over and issue two harsh red cards that probably should have been yellow. Against Ireland in 2013 they only fell by three points. This year they face Scotland, who along with Italy are the weakest Tier I side. Scotland are bringing several of their top players but not all of them and some of their players will be coming straight from the RaboDirect Pro12 title. This may be the best chance the U.S. has of finally getting that Tier I win. It’s still a long shot but it’s better than in years past.
Which Young Players Will Step Up?
The Eagles are at a crossroads in terms of age. Several players on the team will surely be playing in their last World Cup while there are some very exciting players that will be playing in their first. The U.S. has ridden their group of veterans for several years now but they need younger players to step up and take the mantle going forward. Can Scott LaValla show that he can be the full-time captain? Can Cam Dolan continue to excel? Will Titi Lamositele take over as a starting prop? These are all questions that may not be answered this summer but we should at least see the beginning of answers.