Todd Clever, longtime Eagles captain and blindside flanker, was asked to leave the PNC squad during preparations for the Eagles’ first game against Samoa. This move shocked many, as Clever, both in play and image, has become the face of US rugby and one of its best-known spokespersons.
While specific reasons for the rift remain unclear–Eagles HC Mike Tolkin vaguely claimed “multiple squad conduct violations”, apparently he’s also posed nude a magazine. The Eagles had to find a new answer at flanker, experimenting with a couple players at number six during the PNC.
Life University product Cam Dolan filled in against Samoa and Tonga, while Eagles regular Scott Lavalla played flank (instead of his usual lock) against Japan. For the most part, these were solid performances. Lavalla is one of the US’s best forwards, having just signed a contract extension with Stade Francais as well as being a monster in the lineout. Dolan, with ten caps under his belt, is making a name for himself as a hard-hitting physical specimen at 6’6, 240 pounds, usually seeing time at number eight.
Other flankers in the PNC mix included Irish product John Quill, who has had a solid but unspectacular PNC campaign, and USA 7’s star Andrew Durutalo. The latter has had a superb few matches, creating turnovers at at the breakdown and notching three tries, including the game winner against Japan.
And of course, looming large in the player pool is Samu Manoa, capable at any of the back row positions and arguably the Eagles’ most talented player. Fresh off a blockbuster move to Toulon but unavailable for the PNC due to injury, he will be healthy for the RWC and a huge piece of the Eagles’ game plan.
Had nothing gone wrong with Clever, I would’ve guessed at a Clever-Manoa flanker combo with the excellent Danny Barrett, another Sevens star, at number eight for the upcoming RWC. However, the former captain’s future is murky. At almost 33 years old, Clever has certainly lost a step, and some fans were calling out for fresh blood at the flank position even before Tolkin dismissed him. To that point, there are clearly some huge misunderstandings in the locker room – for Tolkin to get rid of a longtime captain before a major tournament in embarrassing fashion indicates major discord.
So, in short, don’t count on Clever for the World Cup. I think Manoa will take number seven, then Barrett at number eight, with Clever’s number six as a toss up.
It should come down to Dolan, a safe bet, and the relative newcomer Durutalo. The latter’s PNC performances have been tremendous thus far (three tries in three games!!) and his skill at the breakdown combined with Manoa’s raw power and experience would combine for a formidable duo. However, Dolan has been a dependable player and also has a wealth of experience in other back row slots, as well as a game played at lock during the PNC.
Either would be a respectable choice, and in addition, John Quill could make a last minute case to compete. Tolkin will probably shift Lavalla back to his natural position of lock.
Todd Clever was and will be missed. Who could forget his 2007 swan dive try over an on-field medic, or the early huge hits he laid against New Zealand at Soldier Field, or his constant leadership? He has done an untold amount for rugby in America, and I for one have nothing but respect for him.
However, the future is bright. The flanker position has been solid without him at the PNC, and with Manoa coming back into the fold, the USA’s young guns should keep the Eagles’ back row competing with anyone in the world.