The Eagles Select are on their way to Victoria ahead of Friday’s Americas Rugby Championship opener against the Argentina Jaguars. The tournament, which returns for its third year after taking a year off for the World Cup, is the premier development tournament in the Americas. For Eagles head coach Mike Tolkin that means the tournament is the perfect opportunity to give playing time to newly capped Eagles, former College All-Americans, and players from overseas that are working their way into the squad.
Unlike Eddie O’Sullivan, who used the tournament as an assembly for the non-domestic Eagles, Tolkin has placed a lot of emphasis on using the tournament to bridge the gap between age-grade players, particularly the College All-Americans, and the Eagles. Previously, he has stressed that there needs to be a clearer pathway from the youth grades to the Eagles, and the upcoming three matches represent the perfect opportunity to fill that gap. Tolkin admits that not many of the players currently in camp will be on the Eagles fall roster as they tour Europe, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t happy with his team. “If it works out that they have parity then great, but we just tried to pick the best team we could” Tolkin said in response to a question about whether he picked the team based on parity.
One of those incidents of accidental (or maybe not so accidental in this case) parity is in the number of kickers on the team. Gearoid McDonald, Zach Pangelinan, Joe Cowley, and Shuan Davies can all kick for goal. Of those four only Davies has been capped by the Eagles. In referring to the goalkickers in camp, Tolkin asserted that they “have some real capable guys.” When asked about who is going to take the kicks throughout the tournament, Tolkin noted that “if it were the regular Eagles, we’d have a kick-off, but since this is a development tournament we’d really like to see everyone in game play. We’ll probably have a bit of a rotation going.”
If one of the four is able to stand out and couple their kicking game with skills elsewhere on the pitch, that may be the difference between making the fall squad and being left at home. “I would say that accurate goalkicking would certainly be something that would help a guy get their foot in the door,” said Tolkin. “Relatively speaking, given that the other skills are equal, that will definitely help a player. It’s something that we’ve missed, and we’re losing opportunities to score and put pressure on other teams.”
That could certainly be true of Gearoid McDonald, the U.S.-eligible player that grew up in Ireland and played for Belvedere. When asked about the young player, Tolkin reserved plenty of praise for his maturity. “He leads well. He’s good at speaking, and he’s good at organizing. He’s very young having just turned 21, so he still has room to grow. Playing week in and week out in the All-Ireland league has definitely helped his leadership skills.” If McDonald can play well, he may earn his chance on the Eagles and help the team build more squad depth. “If we can get four guys that are young and good kickers, that would be great. We would have made a lot of progress,” Tolkin said in reference to finding more fly-halfs for the Eagles.
Another player with Irish roots that is making his first appearance in a U.S. uniform is back-rower John Quill. Quill, who has experience playing for Dolphin and Munster ‘A,’ has spent the last year playing for Boston in order to fight for a spot on the Eagles. “John has some good attributes for a back-row player,” noted Tolkin. “Number one he’s a hard player, and he’s a squad player. His physicality and his work around the ball are really something you want in a back-row player.” Tolkin also praised his desire to learn. “He also asks a lot of questions. He thinks rugby. He’s always making sure he’s clear on things. He really thinks the game through. We really like the way he approaches the game on the field and at training.”
With a young team, leadership will be at a premium. Quill may offer some of that leadership, but it will also be players like Derek Asbun, who was capped for the Eagles three times this last summer. Asbun, who had been playing with Oxford University until he graduated this last summer, is making the transition to hooker from flanker. Tolkin noted that “Derek has good leadership qualities, and he has been around the program. What we really need Derek to do in this tournament is improve his hooker skills, namely throwing and scrimmaging. Derek’s always been a hard-nosed player with a great work-rate, getting involved in a lot of action.” Expect Asbun to get a lot of reps at hooker and to be a leader both on and off the pitch. If he can show himself well at hooker, he would definitely be in consideration for the fall tour.
Overall, it’s a relatively deep squad for the Eagles considering it is a development team. One of the side-effects of having a developing team is that each player feels they have a chance at making a name for themselves with the coaching staff. That is exactly the kind of attitude that is going to build more squad depth. Like was said, it’s not expected that many of these players will be on the fall squad, but a strong performance at the ARC could change all that.
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