RWC 2015 Spotlight - USA
USA ON THE RWC STAGE
Unlike their soccer counterparts who famously toppled the once mighty England team in the association football code’s 1950 World Cup, the USA Eagles have yet to taste success against a major rugby-playing nation at the Game’s showpiece tournament.
Replicating the global dominance they enjoy in other sports is an ongoing challenge for the USA in rugby, and the odds will be stacked against them once again when they line up alongside South Africa, Samoa, Scotland and the Asia 1 qualifier – quite possibly Japan – in England next year.
Since beating Japan 21-18 in their first-ever Rugby World Cup match in 1987, the Eagles have only won two matches in 17 attempts –against Japan again in 2003 and Russia last time out in New Zealand.
A lack of regular fixtures against recognised opposition made the Eagles something of an unknown quantity heading into the inaugural tournament in 1987 when the rugby landscape was very different than it is today.
Tries from flanker Gary Lambert, full back Ray Nelson and wing Mike Purcell, all converted by Nelson, who also added a penalty goal, saw the Eagles open their campaign in encouraging fashion at Ballymore in Brisbane. Predictably the win over Japan was followed by defeats to Australia (47-12) and England (34-6).
The Eagles were handed a tough draw in 1991 after being paired with hosts England, reigning world champions New Zealand and Italy, who they played first up at Otley in the biggest match seen at the picturesque Cross Green ground since the North famously beat the All Blacks eight years earlier.
This time there was no upset, as the Italians ran in four tries to one with captain Kevin Swords crashing over for a consolation score. The Eagles then put in a hugely creditable performance against the All Blacks at Kingsholm, managing to keep their line intact for the first 25 minutes before going on to concede eight tries in a 46-6 defeat.
With a final pool match against England at Twickenham, RWC 1991 was certainly a memorable experience for the USA’s players and Nelson’s try against the host nation, which rounded off a well-worked backs’ move, was definitely one for the highlights reel. England won 37-9.
USA rejoined the Rugby World Cup fold in 1999 after the disappointment of missing the tournament in South Africa four years earlier. They opened up with a heavy defeat (53-8) to Ireland in Dublin, a match notable for Keith Wood’s four tries and Brian O’Driscoll’s first in international rugby.
Defeat to Romania (27-25) would have been avoided in their next match had Kevin Dalzell been able to convert Kurt Shuman’s late try. As it was, the Eagles went into their final pool clash against Australia destined for a whitewash. Despite losing 59-19, they bowed out in style after centre Juan Grobler scored what proved to be the only try the eventual champions would concede throughout the whole tournament.
Arguably USA’s best performance at a Rugby World Cup came in the 2003 edition in Australia, when they beat Japan (39-26) and ran Fiji mighty close (19-18) in their opening match. Again a late missed conversion cost them dear against the Islanders, with fly half Mike Hercus unable to add the extras to Kort Schubert’s last-gasp try. In their other two fixtures USA were far from disgraced in losing to Scotland (39-15) and France (41-14).
It was a case of so near yet so far again for the Eagles in France in 2007. They began with a 28-10 defeat to England in Lens, a result that flattered an English side lucky to keep 15 men on the park after Phil Vickery’s trip on Paul Emerick went unnoticed by referee Jonathan Kaplan.
Despite their impressive showing against the defending champions, USA were unable to justify their favourites tag against Tonga four days later in Montpellier, losing 25-15. Defeat to Samoa (25-21) followed before Takudzwa Ngwenya scored the try of the tournament – later named IRPA Try of the Year, after leaving Bryan Habana for dead in a 64-15 loss to South Africa.
It was not so much a Cold War, more a wet and windy arm-wrestle in New Plymouth, when the USA played Russia on the back of their opening round 22-10 loss to Ireland at the start of RWC 2011.
Mike Petri scored the only try of the match to help the Eagles to a 13-6 win – only their third in Rugby World Cup history. But that was as good as it got for the North Americans who bowed out with defeats to Australia (67-5) and Italy (27-10).
Thretton Palemo became the youngest player in the history of the Rugby World Cup when he made his debut for the Eagles at the 2007 tournament in France in the defeat by South Africa just eight days after his 19th birthday.
A few months before RWC 2007 started, Bryan Habana, one of the world’s best wingers, gave a cheetah a run for its money in a charity sprint race. However, the Springbok star was powerless to stop lightning-quick Eagles wing Takudzwa Ngwenya turning him inside and out and showing him a clean pair of heels when they came head-to-head in Montpellier.
In going 16 years between Rugby World Cup victories (1987-2003) USA built up what was then the longest losing streak (10 matches) in the tournament’s history.
“It’s a 15-man game and it’s not Mike’s job to win it at the death,” USA head coach Tom Billups defends a devastated Mike Hercus after the player’s missed conversion against Fiji hand the Eagles’ opponents a 19-18 win.
Full back Ray Nelson was the only kicker at RWC 1987 who was successful with every attempt at goal.