Good Players, Good People, U20 Coach Hails Challenge
That's about as far as you can push it and still win a rugby game. The American under 20s need to be better than that to get the job done in the two-game series in Edmonton, Alberta, this week. Job No. 1 starts on Tuesday evening (8:30 PM ET). USA head coach JD Stephenson likes what he has at his disposal -- an athletic, relatively experienced team that can take the game to the Canadians.
USA and Canada U20 Lineups
At first glance, perhaps one of the most notable parts of the USA team is the center pairing of Aaron Matthews -- a sophomore who has been a starter for Saint Mary's in two DIA finals -- and Lorenzo Thomas, who is already capped at the senior level. They are excellent players, and much should be expected of them. However, Stephenson cautioned, "The Canadian centers are no slouches. They are going to challenge us."
Leading the USA squad is Malon Al-Jiboori, who was recruited by Stephenson to Lindenwood University and then brought into the USA sevens setup. Al-Jiboori is basically a full-time rugby player now, and it's that commitment that made him the captain. On the other end of the spectrum, the vice captain, scrumhalf Ruben de Haas, is still a high schooler and yet is a student of the game and commands sufficient respect among a large group of leaders.
"Both of them lead by example, and we were looking for someone who was a quiet leader, one who led by example and understood that we have a lot of leaders on this team, and Malon and Ruben are like that," said Stephenson. "What we have is a team of good athletes, good footballers, but they're also good people. They don't need a lot of corralling. At the end of the day, we need to empower them to make the right decisions. The leadership has been pretty good in achieving that for us."
That's sort of long-term stuff, but in the short term, Tuesday is about fixing some of the things that made last year's game so close.
"Canadian sides are very, very solid up front, and their set piece is rock solid," Stephenson said. "So set piece has been an emphasis for us. We hope to show that our set piece is not an Achilles' heel, and we're playing with confidence there. ... Being in the system for the coaches and the players for another year will help."
Clearly, Stephenson has chosen a team that can challenge Canada athletically, and that's where he will want to burn the host nation. But at the same time, it does come down to those basics -- win your scrum, win your lineouts, kick the penalties when they're kickable, and execute the simple things. They can get flashy later.