Cristian Rodriguez and Seru Vularika have earned their first starts of the season in the remodelled LA Giltinis’ backline to face the Seattle Seawolves on Sunday.
Head coach Darren Coleman has given Rodriguez (pictured above) the chance to step up with in-form scrumhalf Harrison Goddard unable to shake a hamstring niggle sustained at training.
Fijian Vularika (pictured below) slots in beside Billy Meakes to create a new centre pairing to cover the absence of former Wallaby star Adam Ashley-Cooper, who is resting a sore achilles.
Vularika’s versatility is a huge plus for the Giltinis because he’ll also act as back-up scrumhalf, the position he has filled for most of his Test rugby minutes with Fiji.
This opportunity from 7pm (PT) at Starfire Stadium, outside Seattle, is what Rodriguez, 24, has been diligently working towards since signing with the club. He is a local Los Angeles product made good from Hawaiian Gardens, just 25 miles from the Giltinis’ training base at El Segundo.
Rugby gave him the springboard to be the first in his family to earn a college degree and his passion flows into mentoring at-risk youth to create more opportunities through rugby.
To date, he has been limited to late-game cameos behind Goddard but learning from the skilful Australian has been one of the plusses of the past four months.
“Cristian has natural gifts as a player. He hasn’t had a lot of game time but he has been able to spend plenty of hours working on his pass delivery and option taking,” Giltinis’ skills coach Orene Ai’i said.
“Working with Harrison has been really helpful to understand that balance between running and being spot-on with delivering the ball to the forwards and your No.10.”
Coleman sees a big upside in Rodriguez getting his chance with the 10-2 Giltinis four games away from the play-offs.
“Cristian had been a utility player so these months doing more specialised work at scrumhalf have been a big help,” Coleman said.
“It’s a great opportunity for him because I know he’s been super-itchy to play more. For the team, it’s a win to keep developing depth in positions before the play-offs.”
In the forwards, prop Charlie Abel (ankle) has been forced out.
New Zealander Marco Fepulea’i comes in as tighthead prop after solid time off the bench a week ago while experienced JP Smith returns from injury at loosehead.
Pago Haini will start at openside flanker while new Irish recruit Sean O’Brien will be backrow back-up on the bench. Meakes has been freed to play in the centres after his five-star fill-in performance at flanker against San Diego.
The return of elusive USA Eagles squad member Ryan James (pictured below) on the wing after a week off with hamstring trouble is a big positive.
“We’re getting deeper into the season and it’s the time when you want to be building good momentum,” Coleman said.
“We have some players dealing with injuries but also keen guys jockeying for positions knowing that some of our injured players are due back over the next few weeks.”
Coleman is wary of the 2-10 Seawolves, who are better than their record suggests because they’ve lost their last three games by a single score.
“The Seawolves have had a change of head coach (to Allen Clarke) and added some players since we met them in March. We know they’ll be up for this game.”
LA GILTINIS (v Seattle Seawolves)
1 JP Smith, 2 Sean McNulty, 3 Marco Fepulea’i, 4 Dave Dennis (c), 5 Nathan Den Hoedt, 6 Angus Cottrell, 7 Pago Haini, 8 Adam Ashe, 9 Cristian Rodriguez, 10 Luke Carty, 11 Ryan James, 12 Seru Vularika, 13 Billy Meakes, 14 John Ryberg, 15 Glenn Bryce
Replacements: 16 Gelen Robinson, 17 Sione Tuihalamaka, 18 Ma’ake Muti, 19 Sean O’Brien, 20 Ben Weischedel, 21 Luke Burton, 22 Jonetani Vasurakuta, 23 Adam Channel
IN: JP Smith, Ryan James, Ma’ake Muti, Sean O’Brien
OUT: Charlie Abel, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Blake Rogers, Harrison Goddard
The Giltinis play the Seattle Seawolves at Starfire Stadium, outside Seattle, on Sunday from 7pm (PT). The match will be broadcast live on Bally Sports SoCal in Los Angeles and can also be viewed live on The Rugby Network internationally.
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