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USA Eagles on a wing and a prayer

USA Eagles' Mike Petri (9). USA ProRugby has kicked off. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Expert
4th September, 2015
69
3381 Reads

While the USA Eagles may hold the most number of Olympic Gold medals for rugby, having won two in 1902 and 1924, they have had as much chance of defeating the Wallabies since then, as Alan Jones has had of ever becoming prime minister of Australia.

I remember him telling me in no uncertain terms in 1984 that he was ‘going to be prime minister of Australia one day’.

Alas for Alan, that ship seems to have sailed a long, long time ago, if indeed it ever got out of the dockyard.

As frustrating as that may or may not be for Jones, at least the Eagles are in the contest when they take on the Wallabies on Sunday in Chicago. The question is – for how long?

Like Jones, the USA is nothing if not ambitious. However, ambition is one thing but the level of skill, cohesion, fitness, rugby maturity and commitment is another.

While the Eagles will struggle with a number of the elements required, commitment will not be one of them.

Back in 1983 the Wallabies played the USA in Sydney and defeated them 49-3. As part of that team, I recall the level of intensity the Eagles brought to the match and it was impressive.

They are fearless.

However, in those days some of the American lads must have thought they were still playing American football, as their tackling style could only be described as kamikaze.

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This often meant the use of the head, albeit without a helmet. I don’t need to tell you that this didn’t end well.

We decided that provided we were prepared to take the hit, and keep the ball alive, we could suck the Americans into a two-on-one game thereby creating an overlap. This was great for our backs but not so much fun for us in the forwards.

The Eagles have come a long way since then, but still have a long way to go. Their biggest obstacle is and will remain, American football.

Ironically, American football was born from rugby in or around 1875 and has since become the number one football code in the USA.

However, rugby is making some strides from its origins as a university sport. During the last five years, the number of rugby participants has increased 14 per cent year over year to climb to a total of 1.2 million participants throughout the country, according to recent USA media reports.

NBC has been airing rugby matches since 2009, shortly after it was announced that rugby would be a part of the 2016 Summer Games. Importantly, NBC recently televised the Eagles game against the All Blacks with close to 62,000 fans packing Soldier Field in Chicago.

The key to America’s rise in world rugby lies in the growth of the sport in high schools.

A few seasons ago I had the pleasure of conducting some high school rugby coaching clinics in Tennessee and had geared the toughness and complexity of my sessions for an age appropriate male audience. What I did not expect was the number of girls that turned up to the session – almost 50 per cent.

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While I played rugby in America with former dual international Michael O’Connor in 1978 after the ’77 Australian schoolboys’ tour to the UK, I had forgotten just how popular rugby is with girls. Almost every club had their own women’s team way back then and that’s 37 years ago.

If the level of growth in high school rugby continues and there is sufficient television media coverage, there may come a day when the USA rules the rugby world.

But it will not be at the aptly named Soldier Field against the Wallabies on Sunday. At this point, the Eagles are not good enough.

For the Wallabies, this game will blow out the cobwebs for a few of the lads, particularly the named forwards, most of whom badly need a hit out. It also gives Michael Cheika the chance to look at Bernard Foley and Matt Giteau in the inside backs and the outside three.

While the Wallabies are in a difficult Rugby World Cup pool, the lead in to the tough matches is good. Fiji on September 24 followed by Uruguay on September 27, before the heavy hitters England on October 4 and Wales on October 11.

The USA face an uphill battle to make the quarter-finals with Samoa on September 20, followed by Scotland on September 27, South Africa on October 7 and Japan on October 11.

Whatever the outcome for the men in red, white and blue, it will not be for lack of trying.