The USA have won nine straight Test matches. That they will in all likelihood not make it 10 on Saturday is arguably of less importance to the rugby world than the fact their last game of 2018 is against Ireland in front of a sellout Dublin crowd.
The Irish capital is still buzzing after the men in green beat the All Blacks, leading the New Zealand coach, Steve Hanson, to anoint Ireland as the best in the world. But the Americans will not face the first-choice Irish XV. After wins against Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Canada (twice), Russia, Scotland, Samoa and Romania, Gary Gold’s Eagles have a fine stage on which to showcase their striking improvement.
“We know this weekend will present our greatest challenge yet,” the head coach said, in a release from USA Rugby.
“Ireland will be relentless as ever and our guys have spent the last week ensuring that they approach Saturday’s game with the level of intensity that will put us in the best position to meet the fight.”
Officially, Ireland are the No2 team in the game – World Rugby’s rankings are based on cumulative results, which has kept New Zealand at No1 for nine years. The USA have climbed to 13th, an all-time high and ahead of Italy and Georgia, a team many think should replace the Italians in the Six Nations. Lest any American get too giddy, Tonga, No12 and World Cup opponents for the Eagles in Japan next year, were thumped 74-24 by No 3 Wales last week, the kind of lopsided result that occurs all too often if lower-ranked teams are not right at the top of their game.
All of which means that while the Ireland coach, Joe Schmidt, is able to rest his key men – the centre Garry Ringrose is the only starter from the team that beat New Zealand – and devote a part of his mind to his hotly debated future, Gold has selected his strongest possible team. That was something he couldn’t do for the non-cap defeat by the Mãori All Blacks in Chicago that started the fall schedule.
The pack, the basis of this year’s success, is led by the promising Saracens loosehead Titi Lamositele, the genially enormous Worcester hooker Joe Taufete’e and the tighthead Paul Mullen, who until recently was learning a lot with Newcastle. Doncaster’s Nick Civetta and Greg Peterson of Glasgow form a second row solid enough to keep Samu Manoa of Cardiff on the bench.
There is a key absence in the back row, where the New Zealand-based flanker Tony Lamborn is injured. His place is filled by Hanco Germishuys, a young talent who shone in the first season of Major League Rugby.
That competition will kick off again in January, with new teams in New York and Toronto. No 8 Cam Dolan, a try-scoring presence for the Eagles and a new signing for the Nola Gold, will be the only MLR player – Germishuys is currently without a club – in the Dublin XV and not from the Glendale Raptors, the Denver-area team that lost the first championship game to the Seattle Seawolves.
Glendale provide the blindside flanker John Quill – born and raised in Cork, once a Munster academy player – and the halfbacks Sean Davies and Will Magie, inexperienced internationals in a key area where the the injured AJ MacGinty, of Sale, is badly missed. The outside backs are at strength, Harlequins’ former Chicago Bear Paul Lasike in the centres and captain Blaine Scully, of Cardiff, on the wing.
The USA have never beaten Ireland: their 30-29 win over a young Scotlandteam in Houston in June was their first victory over a major nation. But some games have been closer than others.
In Houston in 2013, during a Lions tour, there were no tries and Ireland won 15-12. In Harrison, New Jersey, in 2017, another Ireland team missing its Lions won 55-19, nine tries to three. Given that Dublin in late November tends to be a little less debilitatingly humid than Texas in mid-June, the score on Saturday may prove closer to the latter than the former.
Ireland: W Addison (Ulster); A Conway (Munster), G Ringrose (Leinster), S McCloskey (Ulster), D Sweetnam; J Carbery (both Munster), J Cooney (Ulster); D Kilcoyne, N Scannell (both Munster), F Bealham (Connacht), T Beirne (Munster), I Henderson (Ulster), R Ruddock (Leinster, capt), J Murphy (Ulster), J Conan (Leinster). Replacements: R Herring (Ulster), C Healy (Leinster), J Ryan (Munster), Q Roux (Connacht), J van der Flier, L McGrath, R Byrne (all Leinster), S Arnold (Munster).
USA: W Hooley (Bedford); B Scully (Cardiff, capt), B Campbell (London Irish), P Lasike (Harlequins), M Brache (Western Force); W Magie, S Davies (both Glendale); T Lamositele (Saracens), J Taufete’e (Worcester), P Mullen (unattached), G Peterson (Glasgow), N Civetta (Doncaster), J Quill (Glendale), H Germishuys (unattached), C Dolan (NOLA). Replacements: D Fawsitt (New York), C Wenglewski (Lindenwood University), D Waldren (London Scottish), S Manoa (Cardiff), D Tameilau (Glasgow), R de Haas (Free State), G Moore (North Harbour), R Matyas (San Diego).