A new era for United States rugby will begin on Saturday, when the USA men’s Eagles takes on Argentina at Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium. Not only will it be the first game of new coach John Mitchell’s reign, but it will be the kick off of the inaugural Americas Rugby Championship.
Dubbed Americas Six Nations, in reference to Europe’s leading rugby event, the competition will see the U.S., Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile and Uruguay compete on an annual basis in a round- robin format. And, after several smaller in scale pan-America events were trialed in the past, the championship is set to provide each team with regular contests on the international stage.
For the Eagles, that experience could be invaluable. There is plenty of reason for optimism about the direction of rugby in the United States. In the last 15 months the Eagles have played New Zealand and Australia in front of big crowds in Chicago, participation is rapidly growing at youth level and a first professional league is set to begin play in April.
But there was disappointment at the 2015 World Cup when the U.S. lost all four of its matches and were outperformed by other Pacific Tier 2 nations, most strikingly Japan. In the aftermath, coach Mike Tolkin was replaced by 51-year-old New Zealander Mitchell. The former All Blacks coach has been given a contract through to the 2019 World Cup in Japan. And with a stated aim of making the team competitive in Japan, he has made it clear he expects the players to adopt a winning mentality.
“Everyone involved will have to give more of themselves and play in a space where they have never been before,” he told USA Rugby upon announcement of his squad for the Americas Rugby Championship last week. “We are more interested in creating a team mix and squad that understands winning for USA is more important than playing for USA.”
Mitchell’s first roster, featuring a pool of 37 players, includes just 11 of the 31 players who went to the World Cup. And there will be a change in captaincy, too, with the man who led the team in England, Chris Wyles having retired from the international XVs side last month. Taking his place could well be longtime former captain Todd Clever, who was relieved of his role and lost his place in the World Cup squad after a dispute with Tolkin last year.
Clever and the Eagles will face a tough task in their opening match. Argentina reached the semifinals of the last World Cup and have benefited hugely from competing against Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship in recent years. The team’s participation in that annual event, means it won’t be bringing its first-choice players to the Americas Rugby Championship or its regular head coach. But even with a younger, less experienced roster, the Argentina XV side, under the charge of Pablo Bouza, promise to be a formidable challenge.
Wins will be expected, though, for the U.S. thereafter. The Eagles beat Canada twice last year, Uruguay finished with the worst record at the 2015 World Cup, while neither Brazil nor Chile has ever made it to a World Cup.
USA Roster (not all players will be available for all games)
Jake Anderson (Olympic Club), Chris Baumann (Austin Rugby Club), Demecus Beach (Life University), James Bird (Old Blue of New York), Patrick Blair (Men's Eagles Sevens), Tom Bliss (London Wasps, England), Todd Clever (Newcastle Falcons, England), Cameron Dolan (Cardiff Blues,Wales), Nic Edwards (Men's Eagles Sevens), Jean Pierre Eloff (Chicago Lions RFC) Cameron Falcon (New Orleans Rugby Football Club), Lemoto Filikitonga (Metropolis RFC), Eric Fry (Newcastle Falcons, England), Mike Garrity (Seattle Saracens), Hanco Germishuys (Glendale Raptors), Alec Gletzer (Olympic Club), James Hilterbrand (Unattached), Luke Hume (Old Blue of New York), Olive Kilifi (Seattle Saracens), Niku Kruger (Glendale Raptors), Titi Lamositele (Saracens, England), Ben Landry (Seattle Saracens), Chad London (Glendale Raptors), Ryan Matyas (Old Blue of New York), Kingsley McGowan (Trinity College, Dublin), Takudzwa Ngwenya (Biarritz Olympique, France), Brodie Orth (Kansas City Blues), Greg Peterson (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland), Aladdin Schirmer (Central Washington University), Blaine Scully (Cardiff Blues, Wales), Michelangelo Sosene-Feagai (Belmont Shore Rugby Football Club), Tim Stanfill (Seattle Saracens), David Tameilau (Life West Gladiators), Joseph Taufete'e (Belmont Shore Rugby Football Club), Mike Te'o (Men's Eagles Sevens), Bruce Thomas (San Francisco Golden Gate Rugby Club), Matt Trouville (Seattle Saracens).
2016 Americas Championship schedule (all times EST)
Saturday, Feb. 6
Chile vs. Brazil (5:10 p.m., Parque Mahuida, Santiago)
USA vs. Argentina (8:10 p.m., BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston)
Canada vs. Uruguay (7 p.m., Westhills Stadium, Langford)
Friday, Feb. 12
Brazil vs. Uruguay (5:10 p.m., Arena Barueri, Barueri)
Saturday, Feb. 13
Argentina vs. Chile (4:10 p.m., Estadio Bicentenario, San Juan)
USA vs. Canada (7 p.m., Dell Diamond, Austin)
Saturday, Feb. 20
USA vs. Chile (6 p.m., Lockhart Stadium, For Lauderdale
Uruguay vs. Argentina (6:30 p.m., Estadio Domingo Burgueño, Maldonado)
Canada vs. Brazil (7 p.m., Westhills Stadium, Langford)
Friday, Feb. 26
Argentina vs. Canada (4:10 p.m., Estadio Gigante de Arroyito, Rosario)
Saturday, Feb. 27
Brazil vs. USA (6 p.m., Arena Barueri, Barueri)
Chile vs. Uruguay (6:10 p.m., Parque Mahuida, Santiago)
Saturday, March 5
Uruguay vs. USA (4:10 p.m., Estadio Charrúa, Montevideo)
Chile vs. Canada (5:10 p.m., Estadio Municipal de La Pintana, Santiago)
Brazil vs. Argentina (6:10 p.m., Estádio Martins Pereira, São José dos Campos)
ESPN2 will be showing all of the United States’ matches on tape delay
Sunday, Feb. 7, at 8:30 p.m.: USA v. Argentina
Sunday, Feb. 14, at 8:30 p.m.: USA v. Canada
Sunday, Feb. 21, at 8 p.m.: USA v. Chile
Sunday, Feb. 28, at 7 p.m.: USA v. Brazil
ESPN3 will carry live streaming coverage of all USA matches.