(Tokyo, Japan) 9 May 1998 -- Backline injuries are a worry as the US team readies for what promises to be pressure-packed opener to the 1998 Canterbury of New Zealand Pacific Rim Rugby Championship, US head coach Jack Clark said in announcing the lineup for tomorrow's test against Japan.
The atmosphere at Prince Chichibu Stadium will likely be supercharged, as controversy has dogged the Japanese since last weekend's narrow 30-22 loss to Canada. Besides the fact that the hosts surrendered the gamewinner in the 77th minute of play, a New Zealander is captaining the Cherry Blossoms this year, and a total of six foreigners (five Kiwis) here to play professional rugby are in the test side.
Well over 10,000 spectators are expected at Sunday's match, which one Japanese official labeled his country's biggest game in ten years. Fans and the media have been sharply critical of selections, he admitted, noting that Japan does not exactly have America's immigrant tradition.
Almost unnoticed, the US has been trying to regain the momentum it built up during last month's tour of Portugal and Spain. Several test starters, including prop John McBride, center Alatini Saulala, and wing Dan Kennedy, are not here.
In the backline, starting wing Chris Schlereth strained a hamstring while stretching today, while reserve fullback Chris Morrow is still trying to recover from a more serious hamstring injury sustained about a week ago. Both will have to pass fitness tests.
Andre Blom, who took over for Morrow at fullback last month against Spain, gets another starting nod, while high-scoring Vaea Anitoni rounds out the deep three. Inside, Mark Scharrenberg and Juan Grobler form the midfield, while Andre Bachelet and Matt Alexander extend their record-breaking partnership at halfback.
Tom Billups captains the side from hooker, joined by props Chris Lippert and Ray Lehner. Luke Gross and Alec Parker form the second row, and David Care gets his second cap at flanker, alongside Dave Hodges and Rob Lumkong.
The US performed well last month in Europe, but has often languished in Asia. In the past two years, the Eagles are 1-5 in Pacific Rim road matches, but 5-1 at home. Only defending champion Canada has proven itself a consistent away winner, though the Maple Leafs certainly struggled last week and were well beaten 23-17 earlier today in Hong Kong.
"We've been a good team at home in this competition, but we've struggled on the road," Clark said. But this game isn't quite your ordinary Pacific Rim affair, he noted. "Japan is pulling out all the stops, making this a must win for both teams."
United States: Andre Blom; Vaea Anitoni, Juan Grobler, Mark Scharrenberg, Chris Schlereth; Matt Alexander, Andre Bachelet; Chris Lippert, Tom Billups (captain), Ray Lehner, Luke Gross, Alec Parker, Dave Hodges, Dave Care, Rob Lumkong. Reserves: Chris Morrow, Kurt Shuman, Kevin Dalzell; Jay Wilkerson, Jason Walker, Mike Stanaway, Sean Allen.