John Mitchell's feet had hardly touched the ground when the inaugural Americas Rugby Championship kicked off in 2016.
The vastly experienced New Zealander was fresh off the plane from his home in Durban, South Africa, but made an immediate impact to steer the Eagles to a second-place finish.
Now, 15 months into the job, Mitchell’s Eagles have gone one better by winning the Americas’ version of the Six Nations with four straight wins and an all-important bonus-point draw against Argentina XV in the competition’s nerve-shredding finale.
“It is 83 years since America last won a (men's) 15s international championship, and that was the Olympics in 1924. People in the past have not been able to achieve this but this group has,” said Mitchell.
“The guys continued to get better as the tournament progressed. They created a great culture and played an excellent style of football and I think we were deserving (of the title) at the end.”
While no-one within the US camp will pretend that winning the Americas Rugby Championship has turned them into world-beaters overnight – they are still 17th in the World Rugby Rankings – there are definite signs of progress.
Former All Blacks coach Mitchell has strengthened the depth of the squad throughout the five exhausting weeks of competition, admitting “I don’t think I’ve ever travelled as much in my life,” while also developing the leadership group to support co-captains Todd Clever and Blaine Scully.
“I’d like to think that in a year we’ve brought other talent to the surface in areas where we were very thin. We were certainly very light in locks but we have a huge amount of competition there now.
“Likewise, at scrum-time, we only really had a starting scrum but we’ve definitely got two scrums now, and at fly-half and inside-centre we have a lot of competition and some versatility as well.”
World Rugby U20 Trophy graduate Ben Cima was one of the players to shine. Capable of playing fly-half or full-back, the 21-year-old held his nerve to convert David Tameilau's try and level the scores with the last act of the game against Argentina XV.
"It is 83 years since America last won a XVs international Championship, and that was the Olympics in 1924. People in the past have not been able to achieve this but this group has"
“Ben has got a good future and his self-awareness around his game and the areas he needs to continue to work on, grew on this trip," said Mitchell.
“With him and Will Magee and a couple of others surfacing as well, we’ve got good healthy competition at fly-half and inside-centre.”
The equally versatile Mike Te’o (pictured) became the second Eagle after Todd Clever in 2016 to bag himself an Americas Rugby Championship hat-trick against neighbours Canada.
Another Junior All-American, Te’o has played in every backline position apart from centre in 14 appearances for the Eagles, and at just 23 years of age has his best years ahead of him.
“He played very well for us,” said Mitchell. “He tends to get a little close to the ball sometimes the further we get up field, but when he stays wide, he is quite exceptional.”
HISTORY AGAINST US
USA’s 51-34 victory over Canada in round three of the Americas Rugby Championship extended their winning run in fixtures between the two rivals to five matches, which augers well for them when they two meet again when it matters most – in the home and away RWC 2019 Americas 1 play-off this summer.
Before that, though, they have tests lined up with Ireland (10 June) and Georgia (17 June).
"We are looking forward to the new challenges of our summer series schedule, playing the likes of Ireland – who've beaten both the All Blacks and England – and Georgia, who have deservedly earned 12th place in the world, reaping the benefits of a centralised system," said Mitchell. "Their strengths rely heavily around their scrum, and we have also grown significantly in that area of the game.
“They’ll definitely be good warm-ups for us. We feel these two teams will help us prepare for all the game dimensions that will come our way in Rugby World Cup qualifiers.
“Obviously, we want to be more competitive against the top nations in the world, that’s important for us because it brings confidence and we’ll be striving for excellent performances against them, but the last year and a half has been geared towards the World Cup qualifiers.
“To understand the challenge that exists in June, I don’t think we’ve ever beaten Canada in a World Cup qualifier. They have set the benchmark in North American rugby since that process began. They’ve got the history.”
Canada have won eight RWC qualifying matches to the USA’s two and have never lost to the Eagles before over two legs.