Rugby News & Views From an American Perspective
Team USA is back in camp as they prepare for the next two stops on the HSBC World Series. Twenty of the top rugby players in America are assembled at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California to challenge for twelve spots on the team.
Sadly, out for the next two tournaments is Mile Pulu. A tough blow for Team USA, Pulu led the USA in scoring with 35 points via seven tries in the first two tournaments of the season. His size and speed in the backs will be sorely missed.
The squad may not miss a beat as veteran USA Eagle and USA 7’s player, Paul Emerick is back in camp. Emerick is currently between professional contracts in Europe and has made himself available to Team USA. Whether it is 15’s or 7’s, Emerick is one of the top rugby players currently representing the USA and plays with an immense amount of heart.
Provided he makes the squad, Emerick brings power and pace to the team that could be a big lift with the absence of Pulu. Emerick played in six tournaments for Team USA last season, scoring nine tries in 30 games.
Newcomers to the USA camp are Pila Taufa a speedster from Hawaii that was uncovered by USA Eagles Head Coach Eddie O’Sullivan and Tyler Leith a talented Kiwi-born flyhalf that played territorial 7’s in New Zealand.
A week to pick the squad and then off to New Zealand is little time to prepare for a tournament in which the USA has traditionally fared well. The goals remain the same for Team USA.
“Our goal is to finish in the top eight this year, bettering our performance from last year. It’s a building block to 2016 and if you want to reach the podium you have to be in the top-three in the world,” said USA Head Coach Al Caravelli referring to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
There is plenty of talent already in place for Caravelli. Of the twenty players in camp… barring injury, eight of the roster spots appear to already be locked. Throw in a player like Emerick with loads of experience and that runs the total up to nine players that have competed together and know what it takes to win on the HSBC World Series.
Captain Matt Hawkins returns ready to redeem for the setback in George. Joining him on the squad will likely be the Suniula brothers Shalom and Roland, Mark Bokhoven, Zach Test, Marco Barnard, newcomers Nu’u Punimata and Miles Craigwell, and returning veteran Emerick.
Consistency in the squad has always been a rallying cry for Team USA. The more experience the team has together, the better they perform. The core of the team may only need a few adjustments in order to take another step forward.
“The camp’s theme is consistency and execution. We need to be consistently good. From day one we will be focused on continuity of play and strengthening our defense so we don’t have any lapses when we hit the field,” says Caravelli.
“We want to be consistent in the areas we played very well in. Not only consistent in terms of play, but with the consistency of the squad.”
If the roster selections shape up as expected, three remaining spots are up for grabs with eleven players jockeying for position. The core of the team already mentioned has plenty of forward experience, but players like Emerick, Test, and Craigwell also have spent time in the backs. With that flexibility, it could be that not more than one forward will be added to the roster while two or possibly three spots will go to backs.
With Nese Malifa still out of the mix due to injury, the flyhalf position is still a wide open competition. Shalom Suniula filled in at flyhalf to begin the series and did well, but is a better option for the squad at scrumhalf.
That reasoning is backed up by the number of flyhalfs Caravelli has invited to camp. Young pivots Tai Enosa and Zach Pangelinan are in camp with their eyes set on claiming the role. Both players have experience at flyhalf on the World Series with Enosa appearing in four tournaments and Pagelinan in six events since they first broke into the squad in 2009.
The wildcard in the flyhalf race is Tyler Leith who has seemingly come out of nowhere into the squad. Leith represented Waikato (New Zealand) in both 15’s and 7’s and could sneak into the picture if his fitness matches Caravelli’s high standards.
One of these three are a safe bet to make the squad.
Even though Emerick helps fill the void left by Pulu’s injury, at least one other back is going to be needed. Justin Boyd is a strong candidate now that he’s on his second camp back from injury. Breaking into the squad in his first camp back was going to be tough, but this time around could be different. Bigger and stronger now than in his earlier days with Team USA, Boyd is a strong candidate to fill the gap left by Pulu.
Caravelli also has some speed to pick from with Taufa, Alex Ross, and Gerson Blaise. Blaise continues his development and could find his number called this time around. Ross has played in four World Series events since 2009 and been to many camps, but just keeps missing out. For Taufa, making the team out of the first camp is pretty rare. He may need more experience, but the future is bright for the young star from Hawaii.
“He (Taufa) has an amazing amount of speed and power and a natural style of running,” according to Caravelli.
The forwards that are in the hunt include Taylor Mokate, a powerful, yet agile player and former Notre Dame running back James Aldridge who continues his rapid education in rugby. Their hopes of making the squad may depend on Caravelli’s decision to use Emerick in more of a back role.
The odd man out in the squad appears to be Colin Hawley, but his versatility keeps him in contention for a roster position. Hawley can play in the backs, at flyhalf, or in the forwards, but is buried in the depth chart at all three.
The choices will be difficult, but the next two tournaments are pivotal for Team USA. Wellington and Las Vegas are tournaments in which the USA need to score World Series points in order to stay on pace to break into the Top 8 this season. Currently in 9th place in the standings, getting points in Dubai was an added bonus for the team, but now as the season hits stride the USA is expected to produce.
The Wellington traveling squad will be announced on January 26th and the team will depart on January 29th for New Zealand. The Wellington 7’s takes place February 4-5th.
Team USA Training Squad