The USA Rugby Eagles will take on a dangerously understrength Ireland squad in their second International Rugby Board (IRB) test match of the summer at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston on June 8.
On paper, their encounter will represent one of the larger challenges USA Rugby's senior men's team has undertaken in recent times outside of a World Cup. For the 16th-ranked Eagles, the match is also a rare opportunity to put on a world-class rugby event on home soil.
USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville expressed his excitement about the upcoming contest when he spoke to Bleacher Report at the Global Rugby Forum, in Philadelphia.
"We are extremely excited to be welcoming Ireland to Houston for this world-class caliber test match. It will be a great opportunity for us to once again tap the fantastic enthusiasm for rugby that exists in Houston, as well as being a stern test for the Eagles."
It hasn't been the smoothest start to the summer for Melville's Eagles. Like Ireland, whose stars are now traveling the Pacific Rim with the British and Irish Lions Tour, USA Rugby's overseas players were largely absent from their first test of the summer against Canada on May 25.
That contest ended in a 16-9 defeat at the hands of an equally underpowered Canadian team. Those two traditional rivals will meet twice more in August for a home-and-away series, as part of the World Cup Qualifying process. By the time those matches take place at summer's end, both North American squads will look significantly stronger.
But first, both must worry about the ninth-ranked Irish. Or, is it the other way around?
When the time comes, the Eagles should be bolstered by the return of several of their top-flight overseas players, including Shawn Pittman and the lighting-fast Biarritz winger Takudzwa Ngwenya. These additions—and Ireland's own depth chart issues—should theoretically give USA Rugby supporters hopes of a historic upset. However, no one should overlook the threat the Irish represent.
Despite naming six uncapped players to their tour roster, Ireland are stocked top-to-bottom with first-class professional talent, the likes of which North American nations can still only dream of. Indeed, this will be one for the most challenging summer schedules ever for North American rugby nations.
Internationally known names, such as Leinster's Isaac Boss and Ulster's Andrew Trimble, continue to highlight an Irish team shorn of its superstars. Yet, this is clearly not the Ireland of the 2013 RBS Six Nations or even the 2011 World Cup.
The 2013 British and Irish Lions have stripped Ireland of no less than 10 of its first-choice players. In addition, according to the Irish Times, a number of other experienced names were not considered for this tour because of injury, including Craig Gilroy (groin), Luke Marshall (concussion), Donnacha Ryan (shoulder), Stephen Ferris, Eoin Reddan, Luke Fitzgerald, Gordon D’Arcy, David McSharry, Keith Earls and Stephen Archer.
As if all this weren't enough, the Irish were informed days ago that their newly-named Captain and starting hooker Rory Best has now been called up to the Lions Tour in place of the disgraced Dylan Hartley.
Even the Irish coaching group is in flux, with acting head coach Les Kiss leading Ireland's summer tour in advance of the arrival of new man Joe Scmidt.
The combination of these factors leaves one to wonder how the IRB feels comfortable sanctioning Ireland's North American tour with official test matches.
This news will hearten an American side that could desperately use a win, but they would be foolish to underestimate the challenge they face
Even the least experienced player arriving in Ireland's touring squad still regularly plays at a standard significantly higher than most of Coach Tolkin's group.
Preparing that group for the massive challenge that lies ahead is now the focus for Tolkin and his team captain, Todd Clever. The USA Eagles boss spoke about his team's preparations recently in a USA Rugby press release.
We’re bringing a lot more experience. We have some of those guys who were resting or still had commitments to their teams. They bring in a lot of experience, a lot of games played and a lot of top-league competition experience to the match.
This week has been beneficial for us. We’ve been doing a lot of individual skills work and fitness work. It’s good having the guys together. Todd Clever’s been a good captain, keeping a fairly young, inexperienced squad together and on track. That’s been a real positive.
Despite the preparations, all will come down to the performance of these two teams on June 8. Nigel Melville continues to feel that his team is up for the challenge.
"Regardless of who they bring with them, Ireland are one of the world's leading rugby nations. We must be prepared to match their intensity and play for a full 80 minutes. I know the Eagles and their coaching staff will welcome the massive challenge that Ireland pose, and will respond accordingly. The fans who will attend this event will be in far a fantastic show."
Bleacher Report Prediction
Our Bleacher Report preview has difficulty agreeing with Melville's optimism. With all of the money that has been funneled into high-performance training since rugby's induction into the 2016 Summer Olympic program, North American rugby unions like to believe that their players are the equal of their European counterparts in terms of fitness. However, there is an important difference between athletic fitness and match fitness.
America's players will be competing against an Irish squad that enjoys weekly competition in the RaboDirect Pro 12, a league whose schedule is crammed with high-performance games. It has long been the fate of hopeful Tier 2 nations to put a scare into their Tier 1 counterparts, only to see their efforts fall short in a game's final minutes.
Despite all of the huge advantages now swinging in favour of a hopeful USA team, it is hard to see the result in this match being an exception to that trend.
Look for an inspired USA effort in the first-half, followed by a slow but professionally managed Irish comeback. In the end, Ireland still has the weapons to put the Eagles under pressure and, as America is fielding a team still partially made up of amateur players, that pressure is likely to lead to predictable results.
Predicted scoreline: Ireland: 33. USA: 20
USA Rugby Eagles | Houston Assembly Squad
Isaac Boss (Terenure College/Leinster)
Darren Cave (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster)
Tom Court (Malone/Ulster)
Sean Cronin (St. Mary's College/Leinster)
Declan Fitzpatrick (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster)
Jamie Hagan (Old Belvedere/Leinster)
Iain Henderson (Ballynahinch/Ulster)
Chris Henry (Malone/Ulster)
Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Connacht)
Paddy Jackson (Dungannon/Ulster)
Felix Jones (Shannon/Munster)
David Kilcoyne (UL Bohemians/Munster)
Ian Madigan (Blackrock College/Leinster)
Kieran Marmion (Galwegians/Connacht)
Paul Marshall (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster)
Mike McCarthy (Buccaneers/Connacht)
Fergus McFadden (Old Belvedere/Leinster)
Kevin McLaughlin (St. Mary's College/Leinster)
Tommy O'Donnell (UL Bohemians/Munster)
Stuart Olding (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster)
Peter O'Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster) (capt)
Mike Ross (Clontarf/Leinster)
Mike Sherry (Garryowen/Munster)
Richardt Strauss (Old Wesley/Leinster)
Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster)
Andrew Trimble (Ballymena/Ulster)
Dan Tuohy (Ballymena/Ulster)
Simon Zebo (Cork Constitution/Munster)
Jeff Hull is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
Unless otherwise stated, the quoted material for this article was obtained first-hand.
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