After its most comprehensive, encouraging buildup yet, the United States enter the 2015 Rugby World Cup looking to make a breakthrough on the sport’s biggest stage. In a game that has historically been on the very fringes of public consciousness at home, the U.S. has unsurprisingly failed to make an impact internationally against the world’s traditional powers. While it has been at all but one of the previous seven World Cups, it has won a grand total of three games, never threatening to last beyond the opening pool stage.
But, while the XVs are not at the same level of the U.S. Sevens team that won a first ever World Series title earlier this year, there is now a growing optimism that England in 2015 could sow the seeds for the Eagles to become far more than also-rans.
The preparations have certainly provided encouragement. In this summer’s Pacific Nations Cup, there were victories over Japan, who the Eagles also will face in their World Cup pool, as well as Canada. Their rivals to the north were beaten again last month and even the U.S.' 47-10 defeat to Australia at Chicago’s Soldier Field had its moments. Against the world’s second-ranked team, the U.S. trailed by just four points at halftime.
And coach Mike Tolkin can now count on players operating at a high level in countries where rugby is very serious business. Among those is captain Chris Wyles, who represents English Premiership side Saracens. The star of the team, though, is undoubtedly Californian Samu Manoa. The No. 8 is regarded as one of the finest players at his position in the world and after four years with perennial English title challengers Northampton will join French powerhouse Toulon following the World Cup.
With the likes of Manoa on their side, the dream for the U.S. is to progress beyond a pool that also includes South Africa, Scotland, Samoa and Japan.
But there are huge hurdles that remain in the way of that ambition. While there are now some notable exceptions, the majority of Tolkin’s squad are players who compete at an amateur level in the U.S., combining playing rugby with working a day job. Adding to the challenge, two of the players in the U.S. ranks who do play professionally overseas will not be with the squad in England.
Forward Scott LaValla, who plays for Stade Francais was ruled out earlier this month with a fractured elbow. Meanwhile, Tolkin bravely took a tough stance with the one of the team’s most well-known faces and the captain of the squad at the last World Cup, Todd Clever. After alleged “multiple conduct violations,” Tolkin sent Clever packing from the squad in July, deciding that harnessing a healthy team spirit was more important than indulging a talented individual.
Tolkin now has to hope that the team’s bond can inspire them in the challenges ahead. The USA Eagles’ World Cup will begin on Sunday against a Samoa side that triumphed 21-16 when they last met at the Pacific Nations Cup, before facing Scotland, two-time champions South Africa and finally Japan.
Prediction: While making it to the quarterfinals is the dream, the realistic goal has to be improving on the United States’ previous best performance of a solitary victory. Defeating Japan in the final game is a very real prospect, but the Eagles will be solid underdogs in their other three matches. Keeping the score down against South Africa should be a challenge, but they could make an impression against Scotland and Samoa. And, while they may not get more than a single win, the Eagles are capable of giving Samoa and Scotland a real test to suggest to the world that the future of rugby in the U.S. is bright.
USA schedule (All games will be shown live on the Universal Sports Network, with a live stream on UniversalSports.com)
Sunday, Sep. 20: vs. Samoa, 7 a.m. EDT, Brighton Community Stadium, Brighton
Sunday, Sep. 27: vs. Scotland, 9:30 a.m. EDT, Elland Road, Leeds
Wednesday, Oct. 7: vs. South Africa, noon EDT, The Olympic Stadium, London
Sunday, Oct. 11: vs. Japan, 3 p.m. EDT, Kingsholm, Gloucester