A sold-out Soldier Field welcomed the biggest event ever for rugby in the United States last Saturday, but the visiting New Zealand All Blacks delivered an emphatic reality check for the USA Eagles by romping to a 74-6 win. A week on, Mike Tolkin’s squad will be in a 5,500 capacity stadium in Romanian capital Bucharest for a much less glamorous occasion, but one that could be a far more accurate barometer of the Eagles’ current standing.
Romania resides at 16th, two places ahead of their opponents on Saturday, in the International Rugby Board rankings, and like the Eagles are battling on the outskirts of the 10 tier-one rugby nations. The sides last met two years ago when the U.S. team triumphed 34-3 in Bucharest in one their most impressive results in recent years. Yet they will have their work cut out to produce a repeat performance at the Stadionul Arcul de Triumf.
The historic match with New Zealand fell outside of the IRB’s November window, meaning that clubs were under no obligation to release their players. The Eagles managed to negotiate a deal with the English Premiership to secure their presence in Chicago, but only on the proviso that they returned to their clubs rather than continue with the U.S. team for the rest of this month’s fixtures. Tolkin will thus be without seven of his top players on Saturday and for upcoming matches against Tonga and Fiji. Speaking to IBTimes ahead of the meeting with the All Blacks, he explained why it was a deal they had to do.
“It’s a big ask to begin with but to lose 25 percent at the top end of your team would be really challenging and I think it would lessen the spectacle significantly,” he said. “So I think it was really important to get those guys.”
It does mean that captain Todd Clever, who plays his rugby in Japan, is the only professional remaining for the Eagles. Danny Barrett, who suffered a fractured metacarpal on Saturday, will also be missing. Tim Stanfill will win his 50th cap in the second row alongside Tai Tuisamoa, with Nick Wallace, John Quill, Matt Trouville, Taku Ngwenya and Folau Niua also coming into the starting 15.
Meanwhile, their opponents can count on something that Tolkin and the rest of rugby’s officials in the United States are striving for: a professional league. As well as the SuperLiga, a team of players from the competition is also formed each year to compete in the prestigious European Rugby Challenge Cup, while five Romanians compete in France’s Top 14 and another, winger Cătălin Fercu, recently signed for English Premiership side Saracens.
Romania’s Oaks also have a coach with top-level experience in former Wales assistant coach Lynn Howells. Under the Welshman’s tutelage, Romania have finished as runners-up for the past two years in the European Nations Cup -- also known as the Six Nations B, a second tier to the northern hemisphere’s top competition. And Howells, in a recent interview with The Guardian, signaled his confidence that his team is on the rise ahead of next year’s World Cup in England.
“We’ve recently beaten Tonga and Canada and I think we’ll surprise a few people at the World Cup,” he said. “Our big goal is to win two games, which would mean automatic qualification for the 2019 competition -- that would be huge for Romania.”
Kickoff time: 11:30 a.m. EST
Live stream: RugbyTV.ro