We fell short this time, but a USA World Cup could send rugby skywards

For some of us the 2019 World Cup is already over. From a USA perspective it was not the tournament we had hoped for. A last-ditch defeat against Tonga in the final pool game has left our squad feeling disheartened. Despite all our hard work we weren’t able to deliver our best performances but lessons have been learned and, maybe more importantly, memories created that will last for ever.

2019 Rugby World Cup
Me celebrating with Mikey Te’o after he dots down for a try against Tonga.

It has been an immense privilege to be in Japan and share in a tournament that has already broadened rugby’s horizons. If rugby wants to get anywhere close to the level of football – or soccer if you’re reading this in the States – it’s about making this a worldwide sport that is accessible to everyone. Hopefully the next generation of Asian kids have been suitably inspired.

Japan have certainly been brilliant hosts. The way the whole country has embraced this event has been incredible. We were treated like royalty throughout and I will never forget the fan zone in Kumagaya on the evening of the Japan v Samoa game. An hour and a half before kick-off it was already packed. When they saw a couple of us it was as if they had just spotted some A-list celebrities walking through the streets of Chelsea. Dads were asking us to hold their kids for photos … everyone was just so keen to be involved in the tournament. Despite the cultural and language barriers it felt as if we were best mates. That’s a pretty powerful thing.

2019 Rugby World Cup
The atmosphere in every stadium was electric. Above is just before we kicked off against Argentina in Kumagaya.

Then there were the matches themselves. Hearing those beating drums just before going out really did make it feel as if we were in the movie Gladiator, waiting to enter the Colosseum. Every time I ran out I would be thinking: “This is what it’s all about,” and my nerves would turn to joy. Standing there and singing the national anthem on such a great stage is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

Even watching Japan play from afar in our team room was pretty special. As predicted in this column before the tournament, the Brave Blossoms are an excellent side. They are making the game look simple, showing you don’t always need to be one of the most talented teams in the world to become one of the better teams. They have played with pace, good skill and rugby nous and absolutely deserve their place in the quarter-finals. Their success has generated a buzz across the host nation that otherwise might not have been quite so widespread.

As for the humidity, wow! We experienced something like it in Fiji but I didn’t think it would be so extreme. Playing under the roof in Kobe was like being in a vast greenhouse with a slippery ball that had been left out in the rain. In the second half it looked as if all the players had stood in the showers at half-time. It puts your skills to the ultimate test and makes you realise that the teams who go furthest in this tournament will be the ones who control the ball the best.

Deep in thought. The Rugby World Cup in Japan will always hold special memories.

The other big lesson? That those of us currently labelled as tier-two nations simply have to be allocated more fixtures against the likes of Argentina, France and England over the next year or two. We are not that far away. We just need that extra bit of knowhow that comes from more regular exposure, not least how costly it is to make mistakes against the leading teams. You can’t just expect the USA, say, to go through their Americas qualifying group and then be instantly ready to step up at a World Cup.

At this tournament you have already seen the gap closing. Uruguay beat Fiji, who then had a great game against Wales. We stood toe to toe with France for 60 minutes. And then there’s Japan. In 2003 there were 100-point winning margins. You’re never going to get that now because defences are better organised and teams are fitter. If you want to reduce the gap further you need at least a couple of tier one v tier two games each year. It’s absolutely crucial.

There is also an eagerness within USA rugby to stage a World Cup on home soil, preferably sooner rather than later. We have all seen the ascent of Japan over the past eight years as the nation built towards hosting this tournament. I am convinced that we, the US, absolutely have the potential to “do” a Japan. Venturing into new territory does not just grow rugby worldwide but could catapult the sport to another level.

For now I will have to settle for being a spectator and enjoying the knockout games from home. There are some really exciting quarter‑finals in store and I’m sure this World Cup will continue to surprise and entertain. Hopefully we will see no more typhoons and I wish all the teams still standing the best of luck. Now we’re out I will most certainly be cheering on England.

2019 Rugby World Cup
The customary bow to the crowd after the game. A special moment thanking the fans, aiming to inspire the next generation into rugby.

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