(Lautoka, Fiji) 21 July 1998 -- Four players make first-ever starts for the United States in today's tour-opening match against the Fiji Warriors at Churchill Park.
Hooker Kirk Khasigian, flanker James Cassidy, and centers Jeff Preston and Geoff Alley face difficult debut conditions, taking on a shadow Fijian test team in front of an expected crowd of 12,000.
Number eight Jason Walker will captain the fresh-faced Eagles, who field several untried combinations in an effort to begin recovering momentum before next month's Rugby World Cup qualifiers in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Lock Luke Gross is the only other first-choice starter in the lineup.
In the backline, halfback Kevin Dalzell and flyhalf Kurt Shuman--each just one year out of college--will trigger the US offense. Meanwhile, Preston and Alley will combine for the first time in midfield. The deep three is a slightly more experienced group, comprising wings Dan Kennedy and Malakai Delai and fullback Chris Morrow, back from a recent string of injuries.
Chris Lippert and Ray Lehner join Khasigian in the front row, while veterans Gross and Cliff Vogl pair at lock. The backrow includes Cassidy, Richard Tardits, and Walker.
The two-game Fijian tour is intended to refocus the team's attention on the more precise execution that led to a three-game win streak at the start of the year. Looking a bit reckless, the US then slumped to a surprising home losing skid.
The Fiji Warriors established their bona fides last month with a narrow 36-32 loss to touring France. The team comprises national squad players based in Fiji; much of the test team plays professionally overseas.
"This is a relatively inexperienced [US] team, so execution will be key to its performance," said US tour manager Rick Humm. "I don't expect a lot of flair, but I expect focus on strong defensive effort. The team has worked hard this week on minimizing mistakes."
After today's game, the US moves on to the capital, Suva, for Saturday's full international.
United States: Chris Morrow; Malakai Delai, Geoff Alley, Jeff Preston, Dan
Kennedy; Kurt Shuman, Kevin Dalzell; Chris Lippert, Kirk Khasigian, Ray
Lehner, Luke Gross, Cliff Vogl, James Cassidy, Richard Tardits, Jason
Walker. Reserves: Andre Blom, Vaea Anitoni, Juan Grobler, Britt Howard;
Dave Hodges, George Sucher, Tom Billups.