(Suva, Fiji) 24 July 98 -- Four players mark their return from injury with starts in tomorrow's test against Fiji, the USA's final match before next month's World Cup qualifiers in Buenos Aires.
Center Ray Green and wing Brian Hightower make their first appearances of the 1998 season, while prop John McBride and center Juan Grobler haven't played since the road portion of the Pacific Rim.
In addition, halfback Britt Howard gains his initial cap as a starter (his second overall), while flyhalf Mark Williams pulls on an Eagle jersey for the first time since the 1997 tour of Wales. The leading scorer at the US national championships for the past two years, the Gentlemen of Aspen number 10 will likely battle with Belmont Shore's Ian Stevens for the starting role in Argentina. Both have been unavailable for professional reasons for much of the past two seasons.
But first the test team is focused on making amends for the midweek side's Tuesday loss to the Fiji Warriors.
"We'll face a very similar team in [terms of] talent to the one we met on Tuesday," said US coach Jack Clark. "But we'll put on the field a much more experienced group, and I'm hopeful of a much-improved performance."
Williams's veteran presence at flyhalf means high-scoring Vaea Anitoni goes back to his home on the right wing, joined by the returned Hightower and fullback Andre Blom. "The confidence of having Hightower back on the field, along with Anitoni where he's well established, really makes a difference," Clark said. "[After the layoff,] Hightower might make his mistakes, but he'll make them putting a Fijian on his shoulder blades."
Green and Grobler pair in the centers, while Howard and Williams will steer the offense. All save Howard are seasoned internationals.
In the forwards, McBride pairs with surging George Sucher at prop, joined by hooker and captain Tom Billups. McBride played well during April and May before suffering a knee injury--one of some 15 players to miss multiple games this year--while Sucher came on the scene in June.
Luke Gross and Alec Parker pair at lock, while Dave Hodges, Fifita Mounga, and Rob Lumkong form the backrow. Both are solid, stable groups, though the US continues to hope injured blindside Dan Lyle can win his race to recover fitness in time for the qualifiers. Medical personnel say it'll be close either way.
The US have never before met Fiji, who previously this summer have defeated Tonga and Scotland and lost to France. The hosts are readying for their own World Cup qualification matches in September. The match also carries some interest in that Fiji is one of three teams that could join an expanded Pacific Rim Rugby Championship in 1999.
United States: Andre Blom; Vaea Anitoni, Juan Grobler, Ray Green, Brian Hightower; Mark Williams, Britt Howard; John McBride, Tom Billups (captain), George Sucher, Luke Gross, Alec Parker, Dave Hodges, Fifita Mounga, Rob Lumkong. Reserves: Chris Morrow, Kevin Dalzell, Richard Tardits, Ray Lehner, Kirk Khasigian, Cliff Vogl.