OSAKA, 14 Oct – USA came into Rugby World Cup 2019 ranked 13th and looking to show the world that they were not just "here to make up the numbers", as said by coach Gary Gold, full-back Will Hooley and countless other squad members.
The draw pitted the Eagles into one of the two pools containing three Tier 1 teams and the fixtures meant that they faced England, France and Argentina in succession, before a short turnaround to face Tonga.
The opening defeat by England hurt them considerably. Tactically they barely fired a shot, while they also had a bad injury and a player suspension.
Keen to put in a more credible performance against France, the Eagles were much improved. There were just three points in it during the final quarter before France found an extra gear.
The build-up to the Argentina clash gave USA a chance to remind the world that finishing third in the pool and achieving automatic qualification for RWC 2023 was a real and present possibility. It was not to be. Having missed qualification for the quarter-finals themselves, the Pumas played free of the shackles in their last match and USA were well beaten.
The last match in Osaka offered USA plenty of opportunities but they failed with their execution, as did Tonga. By the time Tonga led 24-12 into the last 17 minutes, you sensed that despite the effort, the Eagles were cooked. They lost 31-19.
There was plenty of talk during the tournament about whether we might see improved fortunes for USA since the spawning of North America's Major League Rugby (MLR). By the end, it seemed the biggest improvements to the national side are likely to come from giving them the chance to face Tier 1 opponents with greater regularity.
Gary Gold seems to enjoy taking on coaching challenges with teams who have yet to meet their own expectations, and working with USA appears to be no exception. The South African will remain as head coach beyond the World Cup and will also be offering support to teams in MLR into the 2020 season.
Gold is not a tinker man but injury and suspension forced him to make more changes early on than he would have liked. His challenge was to instil a gameplan that his players could execute while knowing that improving their core basics is an ongoing project. The standard of opposition just proved too strong and his appraisal was honest, saying, "We're just not as good as them yet."
In the words of one of his favourite bands, Coldplay, "Nobody said it was easy."
Player of the tournament
Mike Te'o – given more game time than he might have expected after Will Hooley suffered a concussion against England in their opener, Te'o scored two tries and made the most clean breaks of the side (four).
Memorable moment off the pitch
While embracing everything Japan has to offer, including school and cultural visits, some old habits die hard. After three weeks of traditional Japanese fare, the appearance of the golden arches (McDonald's) next to Kumagaya station was too tempting for several of the squad who concluded their travel day from Fukuoka by loading up on burgers, fries and nuggets for a more familiar taste of the west.
Memorable moment on the pitch
Ruben de Haas making a cover tackle as the Tongans romped into the goal area. The Cheetahs scrum-half's hit was enough to dislodge the ball and keep the USA hanging in there in their last match.
The players are scattered across the globe. While MLR is now offering a domestic opportunity to play professional club rugby, almost half of the squad will link up with clubs in England, France, South Africa and Australia. Two Eagles players are likely to return to Japan next year. RWC 2019 squad members Ben Pinkelman, the back-rower, and centre Martin Iosefo represented the Men's Eagle's Sevens when USA finished ninth in the Rio 2016 Olympic sevens tournament and are on course to appear at the Tokyo 2020 Games, too.
Quotes of the tournament
"For us, Japan are an unbelievable role model for so many reasons and I'm talking about the USA particularly. This is the reason why I feel so very strongly that if World Rugby genuinely do want to grow the game, as they claim they want to, then USA have to be a contender for the 2027 Rugby World Cup." - coach Gary Gold
"When you've got 18,000 fans screaming at a giraffe running down the midfield, that's not supposed to be there, you panic a little bit. There was a little bit of panic." - second-row Greg Peterson on his clean break into the opposing 22m against France.
How did they do?
Lost to England 45-7 in Kobe
Lost to France 33-9 in Fukuoka
Lost to Argentina 47-17 in Kumagaya
Lost to Tonga 31-19 in Osaka
USA by numbers
202 – the number of hotel rooms USA players and staff occupied from Okinawa, through Kobe, Fukuoka, Kumagaya and Osaka.
21 – the age Ruben de Haas turned on the day USA played Argentina in Kumagaya. He became the youngest member of the Eagles squad after 19-year old David Ainu'u was injured and sent home after playing less than three minutes in their opener against England.
15 – the number of current USA squad players playing professional rugby outside the United States.
10 – the number of successive World Cup games lost by USA since 2011.