BOULDER, Colo. – Though the Men’s Eagles qualified for the IRB Rugby World Cup 2015 with an aggregate victory against Uruguay last month, the journey to England is not yet over.
Last week, the remaining two of the Eagles’ three summer tests were announced – versus Japan June 14 at StubHub Center and versus Canada June 21 at Cal Expo Multi-Use Sports Field – with the match against Scotland June 7 at BBVA Compass Stadium already selling tickets.
With a Tier 1 nation (Scotland) and two high-ranked Tier 2 nations (Japan is ranked 13th, Canada 15th) on the docket, the Eagles have a schedule that should provide a good measuring stick for the third-largest international sporting event in the world.
If the schedule being tough was not enough, two of the three opponents could be in Pool B with the Eagles next year. Scotland qualified for the tournament with a third-place finish in Pool B at IRB Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand, while Japan could be the Asia 1 qualifier in Pool B should it win the Asian Five Nations tournament this May.
“We want to build off the things we need to,” Eagles Head Coach Mike Tolkin said. “We want to address some of the things that we didn’t do so well in the Uruguay game and emphasize some of the things that we thought were going well with the squad.
“The big thing this summer is to improve our performances based on these March games. It’s a rare opportunity that we play in the early spring, so it gives us a chance to evaluate better and really use it as a springboard to go into the summer.”
Level at 27-27 after the first leg in Montevideo, the Eagles began the second leg of the IRB Rugby World Cup 2015 Qualifier playoff against Uruguay at Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State University in similar fashion with undisciplined penalties allowing Los Teros to advance up the pitch.
One penalty against starting center Andrew Suniula – in the match’s 17th minute – resulted in a trip to the sin bin. Suniula appeared to swing his arm at an opponent and received a yellow card. Though the Eagles did not give up any points while one man down, Nick Wallace was carded a few minutes later after multiple penalties in the scrum and Uruguay scored the match’s opening try.
“The moment it happened, Andrew realised he lost his discipline and did something detrimental to the team,” Tolkin said.
Suniula reentered the match and the Eagles returned to full strength before the end of the first half, but the 13-3 scoreline favored the visitors.
The Eagles turned the match around, of course, in part to tries from both Suniula and his brother Shalom. Andrew Suniula seemed like a man possessed in the second half and finished a great team move from midfield to score the Eagles’ fourth try.
“I think the opportunity to get back on the field and contribute highly motivated him,” Tolkin said of Suniula’s performance. “He definitely came through to try to make amends for what he had done.”
The final score of the second leg, 32-13, was closer to what fans expected out of the first leg at Estadio Charrua the week prior, but Tolkin knew the series was not going to be one-sided by any means.
“It wasn’t nerve-wracking for us,” he said of the first half in Atlanta. “It was a little frustrating, I would say is the better word. We had a lot of possession, we had a lot of territory and opportunities to score; we just weren’t taking advantage of them.
“So, in the first half, it was frustrating, but at halftime it was pretty calm. We made adjustments to how we needed to play the game and we just looked at it as, ‘Let’s get the job done one thing at a time and get this game won.’”
Hear Tolkin discuss playing Uruguay:
Summer Series 2014
Tolkin and the Eagles coaching staff have had a productive six months following the disappointing aggregate loss to Canada in the RWC Qualifier last August. In October, with a new staff, Tolkin led the Eagles Select XV to Canada for the 2013 IRB Americas Rugby Championship, where the team finished 2-1 with wins against Canada and Uruguay. In November, the Eagles hosted the New Zealand Maori All Blacks before traveling to Europe for matches against Georgia and Russia. The Eagles won both matches during the trip abroad.
A few camps in the early months of 2014 narrowed down the list of players for the two-match Qualifier against Uruguay, but they also brought some fresh faces into the national team setup. With several players playing overseas as well as for the Eagles, having depth for the summer series is an important box to check for Tolkin.
“We really need to keep expanding the squad,” he said. “Coming out of that series and the spring camps, some players have really stepped forward – guys like Kyle Sumsion and Danny Barrett, who was with us at the ARC, and Seamus Kelly’s getting more playing time, Cam Dolan.
“We’ve had guys who are really stepping through and we want that to continue to happen. The selections are getting very difficult for the squad. Some good players are being left off.”
Fans could see some new faces in Houston, Carson, and Sacramento this June. Players overseas will be done with their club seasons by that time, but rest might be in order to avoid fatigue and long-term injuries with the World Cup ahead.
“I think that [the overseas professionals] will be available to us [in June],” Tolkin said. “We’ll have to see where they are at the end of their season. Some may have to take a week off. I think the fact that we’re only playing three games this summer helps, but we’ll make an evaluation as we get closer, so we’ll see how that goes. If we need to rest a guy for a game or half a game then so be it.”
Pacific Nations Cup
The IRB Pacific Nations Cup last year consisted of four matches for the Eagles, all losses to Canada (north of the border), Tonga (at StubHub Center), Fiji and Japan (both in Tokyo). The new format for this year’s PNC sees the Eagles in a pool with Canada and Japan, while Fiji, Samoa and Tonga will be in a separate pool.
The Eagles are no strangers to northern California, having hosted 22 of 74 home matches since 1976 in cities like Pebble Beach, San Francisco, and Santa Clara. San Francisco was the site of the Eagles’ 1997 IRB Pacific Rim Championship matches and the 2006 Churchill Cup, but no matches have been played in the region since 2009.
StubHub Center will welcome the Eagles for a second time in as many years for their match against Japan and the new stadium being built for the United Soccer Leagues’ Sacramento Republic FC will host the match against Canada.
“The StubHub Center is a beautiful location and field,” Tolkin said. “The stadium is nice. I know USA Rugby Events are doubling their efforts to get that filled with a nice, big crowd there.
“I know Sacramento is a hotbed of rugby and we’re really excited. That new stadium is supposed to be something special. We’re looking forward to it. We know everyone’s working hard to get people in the seats and hopefully our performance will inspire people to come.”