By Brian Lowe, Date: 3/10/17 (Photo Credit: Carolyn Ritchie)
Now that the NRL season is all said and done and the English Super League is almost wrapped up, the rugby league world’s attention is turning to the World Cup, which kicks off in a matter of weeks.
The United States was one of the first countries to announce its squad following the conclusion of its summer Test commitments.
23 players have been named on the Hawks’ roster and in a major deviation from the 2013 RLWC incarnation, almost half are homegrown and the reason for that is crystal clear.
In the ensuing four years, the USA Rugby League (USARL) has taken over from the American National Rugby League (AMNRL) as the national governing body and the new guys in town have a vastly different philosophy on just about everything.
They didn’t like the way the AMNRL was running things and their plans to grow the game differ markedly from those of their predecessors. That’s why they originally broke away to form their own competition in 2011. And rightly or wrongly, they’re also more enamoured to the idea of having as many domestic-based players on the national team as possible.
And now that’s understood, let’s put the 2017 World Cup team under the microscope and evaluate their chances.
No fewer than 11 of the 23-man squad play in the USARL’s domestic competition and of those, Nick Newlin (Atlanta Rhinos) is a standout. He debuted for the Hawks in 2015, took over as the domestic-based captain in 2016 and so far, has an unbeaten record as skipper.
He’s backed up by the likes of Josh Rice (New York Knights), Andrew Kneisly (Philadelphia Fight) and Matt Walsh (White Plains Wombats), all of whom were part of USA Tomahawks teams, that’s what they used to be called, back in the days of the AMNRL.
Other domestic players who’ve represented the Hawks in the last couple of seasons include Taylor Alley (Central Florida Warriors) and CJ Cortalano (White Plains Wombats), while newbies rising up the ranks are Martwain Johnston (Delaware Black Foxes), Hiko Malu (Atlanta Rhinos) and David Ulch (Tampa Bay Mayhem).
There are two other homegrown guys on the roster who ply their trade in the English championship. Ryan Burroughs and Joe Eichner had key roles for the Toronto Wolfpack in the team’s winning run in the Kingstone Press League 1.
That brings us to the rest of the squad, and in particular, 12 guys who turned out for the Tomahawks in 2013 and the RLWC Qualifiers in 2015.
Nine players were there in 2013, two others played in the qualifiers, while former NRL player Junior Vaivai (Illawarra Wests Devils) is a relative newcomer and was one of the shining lights during this summer’s Americas Championship.
In contrast, in 2013 the US had six players with NRL experience, one who played in Super League and three others with English division game time, but here’s the rub, this time there are only three players on the roster, including Vaivai, who’ve played in the NRL and not on an ongoing basis.
Bureta Faraimo (NZ Warriors) and Eddy Pettybourne (Gold Coast Titans) will make their second trip to the RLWC for the USA, but both have been up and down within the grades.
The reality is this US team lacks players with NRL or Super League experience and that will be a decided disadvantage in Pool play against Fiji and Italy, both of which are loaded with NRL talent.
So, who picked this team? Interestingly, there were six people involved in the selection process, including head coach Brian McDermott and his two assistants Mark Gliddon and Sean Rutgerson. There were also two from the USARL and a former player/coach from the domestic competition.
It should be pointed out that the USARL is a volunteer organization, and as such, has no salaried officers, however, given the rubbery eligibility rules implemented by the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF), one would think the net could be cast farther afield to find eligible players at the higher levels to beef up the roster like just about everyone does.
The AMNRL did it in 2013 when they managed to unearth Joseph Paulo, Junior Paulo, Joel Luani, Clint Newton, Matt Petersen and Pettybourne (NRL), as well as Ryan McGoldrick (Super League) as being qualified to represent the US, and as mentioned above, Fiji and Italy have done likewise this time.
The Americans open Pool D play against the Fiji Bati and that game could be pivotal in terms of setting the tenure for the rest of the Hawks’ Cup campaign.
Bati coach Mick Potter says his first goal is to win the Pool to ensure Fiji moves into the playoff rounds, something they did in 2008 and 2013, and he’ll have some hot property at his disposal to get it done.
The biggest name is Jarryd Hayne. And again, because of the farcical eligibility rules, unless he’s picked for Australia, which is unlikely, the NRL-NFL-Sevens-NRL convert will be able to play for Fiji.
There are around two dozen NRL players who are eligible for Fiji including Tariq, Korbin and Ashton Sims, Suliasi Vunivalu, Kevin Naqaima, Campbell Regan-Gillard, John Sutton and Akuila Uate to name a few.
Fortunately for Fiji’s opponents, Semi Radradra has gone to France to play rugby and Michael Jennings is leaning towards Tonga, but even so, you can see why Potter would be reasonably confident of achieving that first goal.
Now to the Azzuri and their player pool. James Tedesco, Aidan Guerra, Paul Vaughan, Nathan Brown, Daniel Alvaro (NRL) and Terry Campese (ex-Super League) have been named in Italy’s train-on squad giving coaches Cameron Ciraldo and Anthony Minichiello cause to smile.
Despite it not being as star-studded as the Fijian squad, the Italian lineup has some top-level experience in it that the Americans don’t.
The way in which the RLWC playoffs are structured, the top three teams from both Pools A and B go through to the quarterfinals, whereas only the teams that win Pools C and D will advance. That means the US has to win at least two games to be in contention.
The Tomahawks (2-1) did that in 2013 by beating the Cook Islands and Wales before losing to Scotland in their crossover game, but the US schedule this time is much tougher. Their Pool C/D crossover match is against co-hosts Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby.
While no one expects the Hawks to win the whole enchilada, at 1000/1, they’re at the longest odds of any country to do so, but that doesn’t mean they can’t win a couple of games.
Based on RLIF rankings alone, #8 Fiji will be favored to win Pool D, making #10 USA’s best chances against #14 Italy and #15 PNG.
The Bati are scheduled to play RLWC warm-up games against #1 Australia and PNG on October 14 and if they can avoid major injuries, they will be in a good position to make a run, so the US will need help from other countries.
They will hope the Bati lose to #9 Wales in their crossover game.
While that would seem about as likely as President Trump getting off Twitter, the Hawks can control their own destiny, at least to a point, by taking care of business against Italy and the Kumuls and then getting help from #7 Ireland, who’ll need to beat the Azzuri in their crossover game for added insurance.
There are no gimme’s this time for the US, which is why it was imperative for selectors to get it right.
Bottom line is the Hawks must win in the first instance and no matter how you slice it, their progress will largely hinge on how Fiji fares.
No one would argue that the US is up against it and will likely encounter some tough sledding along the way, but we’re talking about rugby league and any team can have an off day, and if Fiji does, then success for the US is not beyond the realms of possibility.