USA Rugby heading in the right direction
Having played out a thrilling 27-27 draw in the first leg of the home-and-away play-off that will decide the Americas 2 qualifier for Rugby World Cup 2015, both Uruguay and the USA will feel that they have what it takes to win this finely balanced tie.
The USA went into last Saturday’s clash at the Charrua Stadium in Montevideo as favourites. But while they may have shared the spoils from the first leg, the Game of rugby is blossoming in popularity domestically and the Eagles will be looking to capitalise on home advantage in Atlanta this weekend.
As the USA prepare to take on Los Teros at the Fifth Third Bank Stadium on Saturday, we caught up with coach Mike Tolkin and 40-cap veteran full back Chris Wyles to find out more about the state of the national team and what it would mean to qualify for RWC 2015.
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Was the Americas 1 qualifier defeat to Canada a big learning point for the USA?
Chris Wyles: “We had a tough loss against Canada and have obviously been looking forward to the double-header against Uruguay for a while now. We had a good end of year campaign after the defeat to Canada and it definitely feels like we have moved forward as a team. Mike (Tolkin) has been around for two years now and we’ve also recently had a restructuring of the coaching staff. We’re playing together more often and definitely gaining momentum.”
Mike Tolkin: “We are still growing as a team and learning to improve our game management. We’ve now got an exciting mix of young players and veterans like Chris. It’s a diverse squad with players based in Japan, England, France and of course in the USA.”
Does it help or hinder the national team having so many players ply their trade abroad?
Wyles: “It’s massive for the USA Eagles to have so many guys playing overseas and getting professional contracts. Ahead of a Rugby World Cup it can only a good thing to have more of our players gaining exposure to top flight rugby and playing in the best professional leagues in the world. Saying that, it would also be good to get a professional domestic set-up one day. One step at a time though.”
Tolkin: “We have many players who play in England and it’s a great advantage to have our players involved in a fully professional environment. Slowly but surely we are getting more and more players at clubs in Europe. You can see the difference in the way the professional guys hold themselves – they have an extra swagger in their step.”
Mike, what is it like to have a mix of professional and amateur players in your squad when it comes to playing in RWC qualifiers?
“It’s always a challenge bringing a squad together for fixtures like this on a Tier Two budget, but the players have been great in their attitude towards playing in these two matches against Uruguay. The professionals have taken time out of their busy club schedule to join us and the domestic players have made tremendous sacrifices with work and family – these guys have day-time jobs and have to make a living, but they’ve made the effort to do the extra work to play for their team. The thing that is consistent between professional and domestic players is that they sacrifice everything to play for their country.”
Do you take encouragement from the way that rugby is growing in the USA?
Wyles: “The Game is flourishing in the USA at the moment. We had a great match against New Zealand Maori last year that sold out, and with Rugby Sevens coming up at the Olympics the profile of the Game can only get bigger. Generally speaking it is a difficult process for a 'new' sport to make it big in the USA because there are so many different sports played here already - it’s already quite a saturated market in that sense. Something that would give rugby another massive boost here would be qualification for RWC 2015.”
How are preparations going for this match?
Tolkin: “We will not take anything for granted against Uruguay with a RWC 2015 spot on the line. It’s going to be business as usual in terms of preparation for Saturday. Avoiding the long process of going through the Repechage is an extra motivation. It’s not always easy to get players released that many times in a season, and if we have to keep on going back to the likes of Northampton Saints and Saracens to ask them to release their players then they’re not going to want to sign our guys in the future.”
Wyles: “Uruguay are familiar opposition. We’ve been developing nicely and can go into this second leg with confidence. Uruguay are a good team, we respect them and we know what’s coming on Saturday.”
Chris, what does it feel like to play in a Rugby World Cup?
"If we qualify for RWC 2015 it will be my third time at the tournament. I was lucky enough to be part of Rugby World Cups in 2007 and 2011. I’ve got so many good memories from the first two campaigns – playing the eventual winners South Africa in 2007 and Ngwenya’s sensational try in that match, and of course our victory over Russia at RWC 2011. You can never replace those memories and I’m hoping to have many more at RWC 2015. Each tournament has its own unique identity, its own flavour, and I’m really looking forward to the next one. As a player you have to always focus on the immediate task at hand, but the next RWC is always at the back of your mind. It’s a huge milestone that’s just around the corner.”
Mike, if the USA qualify on Saturday you will play in Pool B alongside South Africa, Samoa, Scotland and the Asia 1 qualifier. Have you had a chance to weigh up the pool yet?
“Playing South Africa at the Olympic Stadium would be an awesome experience – I think everyone has that in the back of their minds. But only once you get into a pool do you start looking at it properly and trying to think where your advantages lie. When we have long periods of time together the improvement is dramatic. At RWC 2011 we really grew as a team in a short period of time. We played Ireland and Italy, which were tough matches. We were very good against Australia for 60 minutes and we also beat Russia. There would be plenty of big challenges for us in Pool B, but any team that plays us will come up against a big challenge too."