USA Rugby isn’t new to the sport – they are Olympic Champions after all – but it was only in 2012 that they were added to the official IRB International calendar for tours. Last year Italy came to town, and the team, lead by Martin Castrogiovanni, drew large crowds to the BBVA Stadium in Houston. This year the Irish are coming.
I was interviewed by The Irish Times on my thoughts ahead of the game, not just a prediction of the result but also looking at the development of the sport in the States.
Read Irish Times Sport: These Eagles have their talons sharpened for Ireland
As the article says, my opinion that Ireland could be in for a surprise is based on logic and here is a bit more on how I came to that conclusion.
The Form Book
Explaining the growth I have seen in rugby in the US to writer Gavin Cummiskey, reminded me of how far the sport has come in a relatively short time but also how far it still has to go. Games against sides like Ireland will help the Eagles gain vital experience if they are to follow the trail blazed by Italy and Argentina who have fought their way into the Top Tier to claim their rightful places in the Six Nations and Rugby Championship, respectively.
USA Rugby has made progress with the sevens rugby squad retaining their core team status for the 2013-14 IRB Sevens series and winning silverware in the process.
The XVs also enjoyed success beating Russia and Georgia on tour last November. Despite coming into the game off a narrow loss to neighbours Canada, I believe the Eagles under Coach Tolkin have reasons to be optimistic ahead of the busy summer of rugby. This summer sees them take on not only Ireland but also Japan, Fiji, Tonga and Canada in the Pacific Nations Cup. The Eagles face Canada again in August in an IRB World Cup qualifier.
Ireland by contrast are a side missing a number of experienced players currently on tour with the British and Irish Lions. They are also in a period of transition between coaches. Results in the last Six Nations were disappointing but this is a mostly untried squad who played little part in that tournament. Young players hungry to make their mark can be dangerous opposition but they will also need time to gel and this will be their first competitive game together.
So what can the stats tell us? The Irish and USA Rugby Teams do have previous history. They last met in the RWC 2011 Pool stages when Ireland won 22-10. It was a close game and the USA was proud of their performance, proving tough opposition for a strong Irish team. Was it all left on the field or is there some unfinished business between the two sides?
While many of that Eagle side will take to the field on 8th June, the Irish team they face will be very different. The British and Irish Lions Tour has claimed 10 players and there is also an Emerging Ireland squad set to compete in Georgia. This leaves the Irish side comprised of old heads such as Mike Ross blended with new stars such as Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson and Simon Zebo of the famous Zebo Flick.
The speed at which players are coming through in the modern game is probably best highlighted by the inclusion of the Ulster No 10. This time last year Paddy Jackson was coming to prominence in the Junior World Championship in South Africa as part of the Irish U20 side. A year later he is a regular starter for Ulster, has some Six Nations games under his belt and is expected to start on the tour.
Ireland squad for North American Tour
Isaac Boss (Leinster), Darren Cave (Ulster), Tom Court (Ulster), Declan Fitzpatrick (Ulster), Jamie Hagan (Leinster), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Chris Henry (Ulster), Robbie Henshaw (Connacht), Paddy Jackson (Ulster), Felix Jones (Munster), David Kilcoyne (Munster), Ian Madigan (Leinster), Kieran Marmion (Connacht), Paul Marshall (Ulster), Mike McCarthy (Connacht), Fergus McFadden (Leinster), Kevin McLaughlin (Leinster), Tommy O’Donnell (Munster), Stuart Olding (Ulster), Peter O’Mahony, Captain (Munster) , Mike Ross (Leinster), Mike Sherry (Munster), Richardt Strauss (Leinster), Devin Toner (Leinster), Andrew Trimble (Ulster), Dan Tuohy (Ulster), Simon Zebo (Munster).
The Eagles meanwhile have been building the depth of their squad, using the Americas Rugby Championship and training camps to blood new players and try out different formations. There is a strong, experienced spine to the team forming, which will be boosted by overseas based players who have featured in European finalist teams.
Looking to the future, Coach Mike Tolkin is ensuring that all age grades of the US National sides are following a similar development path to allow for progression through the ranks. It would not be a surprise to see some of the stars of the USA All Americans who won the JWRT in 2012 or who will compete at this year’s JWC join the squad at some point to fight for their place.
USA Squad for the Ireland Game
Chris Biller, Todd Clever (Captain), Peter Dahl, Cameron Dolan, Brian Doyle, Zach Fenoglio, Eric Fry, Graham Harriman, Will Holder, Luke Hume, Seamus Kelly, Scott Lavalla, Toby L’Estrange, Samu Manoa, Liam Murphy, Takudzwa Ngwenya, James Paterson, Mike Petri, Shawn Pittman, John Quill, Blaine Scully, Robbie Shaw, Adam Siddall, Louis Stanfill, Andrew Suniula, Phil Thiel, Nick Wallace, Chris Wyles
The 2011 clash saw two Irish Coaches face off – Kidney vs Sullivan. This time it will be the American Tolkin against the Aussie Les Kiss who is keeping the Irish seat warm for the incoming Kiwi, Joe Schmidt, who takes over after the tour but will be keeping a watchful eye from the stands.
— USA Rugby (@USARugby) June 4, 2013
There would have been a time that a tour to the USA would not have gained much coverage but it’s a reflection of the improvement in the Eagles team which can now boast a number of overseas professional players in its ranks. The increasing interest in the sport globally has led to this fixture being prominently covered in the US and Ireland. This is especially notable in a Lions touring year.
Fans in the US can watch the #USAvIRE match on Universal Sports during DIRECTV’s Free Preview from June 8-July 2. Ch. 625
Perhaps what did help it gain some traction was the original trailer for the game featuring Lucky the Leprechaun and Eagles Captain Todd Clever. It certainly got some people talking, while leaving others lost for words.
Do You Feel Lucky?
Maybe it’s the USA that will be lucky – they are becoming an established side, they are on home ground, and against an untried group of players at the end of a hard season.
Or will the Irish players raise their game – keen to highlight their skills to a new coach and perhaps catch the eye of the Lions coaching team looking to fill spaces caused by injuries?
One thing I am sure of, both will be ready to play and both will have come to win.