As someone who represents the USA Eagles, I fully appreciate the opportunity and pressure awaiting our squad in Dubai. The final ticket to be booked to rugby’s pièce de resistance in France next year, is about to be decided.
With a higher world ranking than all of our opponents, the USA Eagles (ranked 19) will be regarded as favourites to qualify from World Rugby’s November Repechage tournament. However, a nerve-racking challenge awaits, as Kenya (ranked 33), Hong Kong (ranked 22) and Portugal (ranked 20) plan to have their say.
Many rugby fans may look at us, the Eagles, and ask, how have we found ourselves in this position? After all, back in May this year, jubilant celebrations ignited rugby in America as the USA successfully bid to host the men’s 2031 and women’s 2033 world cups. Whilst I truly believe the news was uplifting for the sport, let alone American rugby, the long-term excitement may have overshadowed the significant short-term challenges.
The pandemic caused havoc for all unions, none more so than that in North America. First round qualification for us, and our Canadian counterparts, came with little to no preparation. Asking any coaching team to bring a group together from around the world with no budget would be a challenge, even for an RFU-backed Eddie Jones. As we, the USA, progressed through into the next stages, defeating Canada in a two-legged affair, the Canucks found themselves up against it, as only a few weeks later Chile knocked them out, resulting in the Canadians missing their first ever world cup.
I must praise South American rugby. I’d be the first to admit that I did not foresee the improvement Uruguay and Chile have made over the last few years. What did they have, that we didn’t? The answer put simply is time. Their squads mostly made up from domestic players operating professionally for their national domestic side, were galvanised in the Súper Liga Americana de Rugby, playing constantly together, all the way up to the qualification matches.
When taking on Uruguay, I was struck by their cohesion, and although we won on home soil 19-16, we were convincingly beaten in Montevideo in front of a deafening Estadio Charrúa crowd. Los Teros won on aggregate 50-34, taking the ‘Americas 1’ qualification spot. We were left scratching our heads.
Pick yourself up and go again, was the cry. But first, we had to take on a fresh and energetic All Blacks side, who were sharpening their knives, readying themselves for their European autumn tour. All of this took place outside an international window, resulting in non-US based Eagles flying back to their European clubs. Match day in Washington DC was one of mixed emotions. A fantastic showcase of American sporting extravaganza, with rugby fans jammed into the FedEx Field. It was a demonstration to World Rugby that the USA was ready to host a Rugby World Cup.
The match was an experience I’ll never forget. An honour to cherish. Yet a dream that became a nightmare. An onslaught of black jerseys, constantly threading their way through to the backfield. Playing fullback, I was about as useful in defence as one of the many statues found in the nation’s capital!
Then came Chile. Out with a long-term injury, I watched from the sidelines this July, as our lads took on the new challenge of winning the next qualification spot, ‘Americas 2’. Anyone who observed the two qualifying games cannot fault the effort put in by both sides. If Noah and his ark were close-by in Santiago, he would have offered his service. Game one was played in some of the worst conditions I’ve seen. If the boys were worried about drowning on the pitch, they had the other issue of visibility, as the floodlights went out with twenty minutes to go. In the end, it was a brilliant 22-21 win by the Eagles in tough circumstances.
The returning leg in Colorado probably summed up our qualification campaign; a game of two halves. A first half of some of the best rugby we’ve played in a long time (19-0 up on thirty minutes), yet a second half of errors that allowed the opposition back into the game, handing Chile a 31-29 victory. Sport is cruel, and that day, for the players, staff and USA fans, hurt. Really hurt.
Los Cóndores won 52-51 on aggregate, the South Americans booked their spot in France and a first Rugby World Cup. It left us, the USA Eagles, with one last shot at qualification this November.
That last chance has given USA Rugby’s coaching staff and players the rare commodity of time together. The last month enabled head coach, Gary Gold, to bring his refreshed and healthy domestic players into camp. A pre-qualification tour in Gold’s familiar surrounds of South Africa was a master stroke, allowing the domestic Eagles to go up against the stiff contests of the Cheetahs and Pumas in the Toyota Challenge, held in Bloemfontein. I have no doubt the side will be as prepared as it can be, bolstered with the experience of the overseas based players joining the core group in Dubai.
As my injury continues to keep me out of action, what’s my message to the USA Eagles landing in Dubai? What has gone before is simply the past. What matters is three games of rugby coming up. With an internal confidence, cemented with the extra time together, it’s about being in the moment. All teams at the tournament I’m sure have their own tough story to tell. I’m hoping, and cheering loudly, the USA Eagles’ story is one with a rewarding ending. A last chance for us to be in France next year. Bonne chance!
(Article as featured on The Rugby Network)