Samu Manoa
Samu Manoa, who recently signed with French giants Toulon, will be one of the key performers for the United States against Australia. Getty Images

Just two weeks before the Rugby World Cup kicks off in England, the United States will get a look at just where they stand against the best around when taking on Australia in a showpiece encounter at Chicago’s Soldier Field. Ranked 16th in the latest rankings, the match against the world’s second-ranked team presents a rare opportunity for the U.S. Eagles to test themselves against one of the top teams.

Rugby in the U.S. is growing fast at youth level, while earlier this year the country tasted a first ever World Series event win in the Sevens version of the sport. But those developments bring pressure for the senior 15-a-side team to show they are also on the up.

“This will indicate where we are,” head coach Mile Tolkin said in the buildup to the Australia match, according to the official website of USA Rugby. “Win, lose, or draw, we want to see a quality performance over 80 minutes, where the opposition feels pressured on both sides of the ball all game. Whatever the outcome, if we can do that, we will have had a successful final tune-up match.

“No matter the lineup that Australia put out, it will be very talented; but if we want to consider ourselves a team who is on the rise in world rugby, then we need to stand up to them.”

The last time the U.S. faced such high-quality opposition was at a sold-out Soldier Field last November, when world champions New Zealand made their first venture to American shores in 34 years. The event was a major success, but the action on the pitch was a reminder of the gulf between the teams, as the All Blacks ran out 74-6 winners. So close to the World Cup, the U.S. will be keen to avoid a similar scoreline.

There have been more encouraging results of late, however. Last month the U.S. recorded back-to-back wins over Canada, the second by a full 18 points, before going down narrowly to leading English club side Harlequins.

A full 13 of the players selected in the 31-man squad for the World Cup now play professionally overseas, although 20 of them will be playing in the quadrennial tournament for the first time. Among the debutantes is captain Chris Wyles, who replaces the experienced Todd Clever following the 32-year-old’s ejection from the squad in July for “multiple squad conduct violations.”

Wyles will lead the Eagles into Pool B at the World Cup, competing against South Africa, Samoa, Scotland and Japan, all of whom currently sit above the U.S. in the rankings. The primary objective will be to win more than a solitary match in the tournament for the first time, with the dream being to make it onto the quarterfinals.

Australia’s ambitions are, of course, significantly higher. And, having gone without a world title since 1999, the Wallabies will be going all out for victory in England. In order to do that they will have to be switched on from the start, after being drawn into the competition’s toughest group against northern hemisphere powers England and Wales, as well as Fiji and Uruguay. Only the top two will make it onto the quarterfinals.

Their preparations have so far been mixed. While coming out on top against New Zealand to claim victory in the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship, the Wallabies were on the receiving end of an emphatic 41-13 defeat to the world champions in Auckland three weeks ago. Australia coach Michael Cheika has made a host of changes from that defeat for the match in Chicago, mainly to limit the risk of burnout and injury. But Cheika also suggested that some places in the team could still be up for grabs in their opening game of the World Cup against Fiji.

“Yeah like I think what we did was just pretty much take a look at the guys who'd accumulated the most time in the Rugby Championship and we decided that we'd let them off; they've had a good component of rugby before the World Cup starts,” he said, according to ESPN.

“And then we've got a few guys who, I suppose, are in line to take for the first game that we want to play together and there's a few guys that have got an opportunity. So it's a bit of a mix and they're looking forward to the game; there's no doubt about that.”

Match time: 7:30 p.m. EDT

TV channel: NBCSN

Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra