The United States will again look to provide tangible evidence of its rugby progress when taking on two-time champion South Africa at the Rugby World Cup in the famed surroundings of London’s Olympic Stadium on Wednesday. The USA Eagles came into the competition with its grandest ambitions yet at a World Cup, but it has tasted defeat against both Samoa and Scotland so far.
Already the ultimate aim of making it to the quarterfinals for the first time at the seventh attempt has gone by the wayside after a 39-13 loss to Scotland. The secondary target of securing third place, which would mean an automatic berth at the next World Cup in Japan in four years’ time, is still a possibility, although even that would require an unlikely win against Pool B leaders South Africa as well as a victory over Japan on Sunday.
“We envisioned every game being a battle in the Rugby World Cup, but also each game presented an opportunity for us and getting a third-place finish was certainly on the list of goals,” said head coach Mike Tolkin, according to the official website of USA Rugby. “Overall, however, we target each match and keep the focus on winning the battles within that match.”
More pertinent for the U.S. is the desire to leave a mark on rugby’s biggest stage. It is a sport on the rise in the U.S., with the Sevens team recently winning its first ever World Series title. And there were encouraging results in the buildup, including back-to-back victories over Canada and a triumph over Japan. Yet so far the team has been unable to make the kind of impact produced by Japan when the Cherry Blossoms stunned South Africa in the biggest ever World Cup upset.
The U.S. threatened to do something similar last Tuesday, when taking an unexpected 13-6 halftime lead against Scotland. But Tolkin’s side couldn’t keep the performance going after the interval and eventually fell to a convincing loss. There remains a desire within the squad to show the world that they can do better.
“We came into this with our goal [as] the quarterfinals,” Louis Stanfill said, according to ESPN. “We still have two games left to prove how far we've come. The last two games I think we've let ourselves down in proving that. The direction things are going, future World Cups hold huge amounts of promise for us and America intends to fulfill that promise.”
With the match against Japan presenting a more realistic chance to end the World Cup with at least one victory, Tolkin has made 12 changes to his lineup for Wednesday. They include handing a first international start for South-Africa born scrum half Niku Kruger. With captain Chris Wyles starting from the bench, star man Samu Manoa will lead the U.S. for the first time.
South Africa will begin as overwhelming favorites, but the Springboks’ opening loss to Japan means the pressure remains firmly on. Should South Africa lose on Wednesday, the champions in 1995 and 2007 will be eliminated from the tournament with a Japan victory over the Eagles. And, despite recording two convincing wins, given the trials the team ranked fourth in the world has endured in the past two weeks, including losing captain Jean de Villiers to injury, it is no surprise that coach Heyneke Meyer is taking nothing for granted.
“We don’t look past this game,” he said, reports The Guardian. “I’m a very, very positive person. I believe everything is possible and the guys know this is. A lot of these guys have done it before. But we know we have to get through this game and that is a problem. We don’t look past this game. And I mean it. We really respect the USA. But this is the most important game for us. Every single game is actually a final. This is the final for us.”
Start time: 11:45 a.m. EDT
TV channel: Universal Sports Network
Live stream: UniversalSports.com