The United States will strive to keep its dream alive of reaching the quarterfinals of the Rugby World Cup for the first time when taking on Scotland at Elland Road, Leeds, on Sunday. The U.S. Eagles began its campaign in disappointing fashion this past weekend when falling 25-16 to Samoa. Going into its second contest, Mike Tolkin’s team sits bottom of Pool B.
Things are unlikely to get any easier against Scotland. While ranked only four places ahead of the U.S. in the World Rugby Rankings, the gulf in experience between the sides is significantly greater. Although the Eagles have an increasing number of players operating at a high-level professionally, including star man Samu Manoa of Toulon, the majority of the squad in England have to combine rugby with a day-job. In contrast, Scotland’s squad is made up entirely of professionals playing regularly against quality opposition.
Internationally there is also a sizable gap. The U.S. has begun to attract better opposition, taking on New Zealand and Australia in Chicago in the past year, and for the past three years competing in the Pacific Nations Cup. Scotland, though, is a founding member of the annual Six Nations tournament, where it faces off against England, France, Ireland, Italy and Wales. And Scotland has also made it to the quarterfinals of every World Cup, except for in New Zealand four years ago.
Getting out of the Pool stage for the first time is the Eagles’ stated aim, but. , already a huge ask ahead of the event, it is now an even more arduous task. A day before the U.S. went down to Samoa, the team that on paper represented the Americans’ best chance of a victory, Japan, caused the biggest upset in the history of the Rugby World Cup by beating two-time champion South Africa. While on the one hand the result can be taken as encouragement for the U.S. that the bridge to the world’s top teams can be bridged, it may also be construed as its nearest rival having moved ahead.
Certainly it is clear that it will be no simple feat for the U.S. to even match its previous World Cup best performance of a solitary win. After taking on Scotland, Tolkin’s men will go up against South Africa and then Japan.
Japan followed up its giant-killing exploits by being comprehensively brushed aside 45-10 by Scotland off just four days’ rest. For Scotland it was an ideal way to get its World Cup underway as the team coached by New Zealander Vern Cotter scored five tries in the second half. But the U.S. will now hope that it can take advantage of its longer recuperation time on Sunday, just as Scotland did against Japan.
History does not provide a great deal of encouragement, however. The two sides have met four times before, with Scotland unsurprisingly triumphing on each occasion. Last time they faced off was in Houston last June, when the tourists won 24-6 in what was Cotter’s first match in charge.
It has not been plain sailing for Cotter since then, and Scotland finished bottom of the Six Nations table earlier this year. But having gotten off to a strong start, it promises to present a huge obstacle to the U.S. attempting to kick start its World Cup campaign and make a sizable statement on a global stage of the country’s growing rugby potential.
Prediction: Japan’s victory over South Africa showed that anything is possible and that just perhaps the gap between world rugby’s elite and those teams just below is narrowing. Yet, while the U.S. should benefit from the extra rest, Scotland should have sufficient depth in its squad to rotate and likely still secure victory by a couple of tries.
Match time: Sunday, 9:30 a.m. EDT