While the Eagles finished their summer campaign with only a 1-2 record, there is plenty for Eagles fans to be excited about going forward. Overall, the team played very well and had some key players step up. Mike Petri, Todd Clever, and Scott LaValla all gave their typical contributions, and youngsters Will Holder, Shaun Davies, and Derek Asburn were able to work their way into the team. Still, the team lost more than it won, so why is there so much optimism?
Eagles fans have reason to be optimistic because the two losses come from two things: experience and fitness. If the Eagles had more experience they wouldn’t have committed the crucial errors against Canada that cost them the match. If they had fitness against Italy, Andrew Suniula and Paul Emerick may not have lost their heads and been sent off for dangerous tackles.
If you look down the Eagles starting lineups from the last two matches against Georgia and Italy, only 3 players on the roster play regularly in top foreign leagues (Chris Wyles at Saracens, Todd Clever in Japan, and Scott LaValla at Stade Francais). Other players have played in the second division in England or France. Some train with teams in New Zealand while a large chunk play domestic rugby in the U.S. where the max a team can play in the Super League is 10 matches. Conversely, Italy is fully professional with many of their players playing in the RaboDirect Pro12. Georgia had many professionals on their team as well. The ability for the Italians and the Georgians to play full-time has allowed them to learn how to work a game (such as kicking the ball away) without drawing the ire of the ref.
The Eagles do a great job trying to get their players overseas, but foreign player restrictions and other considerations mean that it is extremely difficult for them to land a job outside of the U.S. If they were able to play full-time, however, there is no reason why they can’t be knocking on the door of Italy. The Eagles played toe to toe with the Italians for the most part. If U.S. players were afforded the same opportunities as the Italians then the gap between the two countries would certainly narrow.
One of the biggest benefits to playing more games would be improved fitness. The Eagles were tired at the end of the match in Houston. It was hot and humid, but much of the team was only playing their third match in three weeks, not their thirtieth match after a long season. The players that had played longer season were the ones still going at the end of the match with the most energy. It only makes sense: the more high-level matches you are able to play, the more conditioned you will be when it matters most.
So what to do? We need our players playing more games and getting better experience. Chris Biller only played three matches in Europe this last season, but he spent hours and hours in training with some excellent players. His time overseas has led to a direct improvement in his play. Other players need to be doing the same thing, but lifting the foreign player restrictions isn’t going to happen overnight. Unless a player can qualify for a European passport, they are going to be stuck in America.
One possible solution is to further expand the Super League. The league went from previously having a six game season to an eight game season this year. However, while it has a majority of the best teams in the country, a few teams (the Glendale Raptors for one) play in the DI, not in the Super League. Additionally, all the Super League teams are amateur and do not have budget to expand the season. Unless a big donor comes along and donates to the league, this option isn’t the greatest.
Other options including creating an All-Star team that is centrally located but plays touring teams as well as going on tour itself. This would work out really well for players that don’t have options overseas but who want a full-time environment. The problem is money of course. U.S.A. Rugby does not have the money to fund a full-time team.
So while experience is the main thing keeping the Eagles from performing at a higher level, there is no readily available forum for them to gain that experience. As a fan of the team this can be incredibly frustrating, but we shouldn’t lose our optimism. One of the great things about America is our ability to think outside the box and come up with creative solutions. It’s time for us to renew that ability to come up with a solution for the Eagles to gain more experience.
If you have a suggestion on how the team can gain experience, share it in the comments.
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