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On Friday night in Chicago, the US Eagles rugby union team will try again to beat the Maori All Blacks. Three years ago in Philadelphia, they lost 29-19 but entertained a noisy crowd with a rollicking push for an upset. Another sell-out is expected at another Major League Soccer stadium, Toyota Park.
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“The boys have a tough job ahead of them,” said Eagles head coach John Mitchell, himself a New Zealander, an All Black No8 in his day. “But they’ve trained smarter and we have challenged them in the decision-making space, and they are motivated for this match against arguably the best non-Test team in the world.”
The Maori are a rare thing, a team selected on racial grounds, the qualification “Maori whakapapa or genealogy confirmed”. Whether they are New Zealand’s second team or third depends on whether the Junior All Blacks are playing. They’re not at the moment but the full All Blacks are, also in Chicago against Ireland at Soldier Field on Saturday.
The Eagles, who lost 74-6 to the world champions in the Windy City two years ago, therefore face 15 highly motivated Maori, four with full All Black caps, all wanting to make an impression on All Blacks coach Steve Hanson.
The starting All Blacks are full-back Damian McKenzie, flanker Elliot Dixon, scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow and wing Reiko Ioane. Commenting on his selection, coach Colin Cooper said: “The Maori All Blacks is another home for those guys.
“This is the most experienced squad we’ve had for a while, and many of the players who played for us last year have stepped up a level from there. It means that we have a really experienced playing 23, with only three new caps.”
Naming his own squad, Mitchell said: “The New Zealand Maori is … a high-performing team where the players are either All Blacks or potential All Blacks, or certainly have played Super Rugby.
“They’re a side that always looks to express themselves and have always been that way. Coming from a country where they are world champions two times running, coming off of setting a world record [for Tests won in a row, 18] – they’re a part of that system.”
Todd Clever will captain the USA against the Maori. Photograph: Steve Bardens/Getty Images
As he named his starting team, Mitchell added: “Culturally the Maori All Blacks bond extremely well and have their own spirit and ethos as a result of their wonderful Maori culture. They’ve also got the British and Irish Lions tour next year to look forward to, so a lot of these players will be looking to impress.”
The 2017 Lions will also play a provincial select and the five Super Rugby teams, as well as the All Blacks three times. The Maori will therefore have company in their traditional role of pre-Test tourist softener-uppers, one they played to the full on the last Lions tour in 2005, when they beat Brian O’Driscoll’s tourists 19-13 in Hamilton prior to a three-Test blackwash.
New Zealanders being rather good at rugby, they tend to find their way round the coaching world. Mitchell is not the only one working with the Eagles – Marty Veale, a hard taskmaster who has the American pack playing commensurately brutally, played second row for North Harbour and Northland. There is also NZ experience in Veale’s run-on pack: Tony Lamborn is New Zealand-born and a Hurricanes flanker, the Coloradan prop Chris Baumann is fresh off a successful run with Wellington.
As usual, Mitchell’s team features home-grown talent, some of it fresh from the first season of PRO Rugby, mixed with professionals employed overseas. As usual, his selection policy has been complicated by World Rugby regulations. The Maori fixture, for which caps will not be awarded, falls outside the official window for release for international matches.
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Unlike other leading players, the Saracens prop Titi Lamositele and Newcastle second row Nick Civetta have been released by their clubs, Civetta to make his Test debut alongside Nate Brakely, a highly rated product of the New York Athletic Club. Only Lamositele, flanker and captain Todd Clever and centre Folau Niua, one of a number of sevens professionals deployed in 15s in Chicago, remain from the squad that pushed the Maori in Philadelphia.
Other overseas professionals – Samu Manoa of Toulon, Cam Dolan and Blaine Scully of the Cardiff Blues, Glasgow’s explosive Californian Langilangi Haupeakui among them – will join the squad in Europe, where Tests await against Romania in Bucharest and Tonga in San Sebastian, Spain.
“Once we get to Romania we’ll have probably our most experienced group to date,” Mitchell said.
The Maori will also fly to Europe after the game, for fixtures against Munster in Limerick and Harlequins in London.
Replacements: J Taufete’e, A MacLellan, A Maughan, M Jensen, A McFarland, S Tomasin, S Suniula, M Hughes.
Maori All Blacks: D McKenzie; R Ioane, M Proctor, T Bateman, J Lowe; Ihaia West, T Kerr-Barlow; K Hames, A Dixon (capt), B May, J Skeen, T Franklin, E Dixon, K Pryor, A Ioane.
Replacements: J Royal, C Eves, M Renata, L Price, S Christie, B Weber, M McKenzie, S Wainui
Kick-off: 8pm ET