Eagles facing a tough ask
August 17, 2007
It is very often said that time flies when you are having fun, and how true it is. Brian Lowe reports
Incredibly, it would seem, it was four years ago that I compiled a similar preview of the United States' prospects going into the 2003 Rugby World Cup for my colleagues at Scrum.com, and funnily enough not a lot has changed in the ensuing years in terms of the Eagles' chances of winning.
In 2003, I suggested that if the stars were aligned and that if the Americans played their best possible rugby they could very well come away from the RWC with a record of 2-2, although a 1-3 record was probably more likely. They ended up beating Japan, being pipped by Fiji, and being overpowered by Scotland and France.
Now, in 2007, I'm suggesting that if the stars are aligned and if they play the best rugby that they are capable of playing, the Eagles could come away from France boasting a 2-2 record, although 1-3 is probably more likely, and 0-4 is not totally out of the realm of possibility.
You see, not much has changed for the US national team. Sure, these days they have a new head coach and some different faces on the roster, but again they have been drawn in a tough pool.
The USA will compete in Pool A alongside reigning world champions England, South Africa, Samoa and Tonga.
The Eagles couldn't have a tougher first-up assignment than England, because even on a bad day, the English are light-years ahead. And that's just how it is.
Only a handful of the US squad play professionally overseas, most of them in the UK, the rest of the team play in America's domestic competitions. Super League and Division I provide the bulk of the squad and they are by no means equivalent to the Guinness Premiership, Celtic League, or England's National Division I.
In the four official internationals between the US and England, not including their more recent Churchill Cup outings against the England Saxons, the Americans have come out on the short end of the scoreline every time.
They lost 34-6 at the 1987 RWC, and 37-9 in 1991. In 1999, the United States played England at Twickenham and suffered a record loss when beaten 106-8, and then in 2001 England recorded a 48-19 victory. That trend is unlikely to be bucked in Lens.
Tonga will be the Eagles' second opponent and this is the one game of the entire tournament that head coach Peter Thorburn and his assistants should, and probably have, circled on the calendar as the most winnable match of the lot.
The US and Tonga have met twice previously, each having won one and lost one. The Eagles scored a 30-10 victory in 1999, before the Sea Eagles replied in kind with a 29-6 triumph in 2000. Those matches were played as part of the then Pacific Rim series.
While Tonga posted a big score against Japan earlier this year to clinch the final berth in Pool A, and even though they got by Fiji in the Pacific Nations Cup, they have been going through some rough times as a Union and have been suffering an ongoing player drain to New Zealand, neither of which will help their cause.
Third in line for the USA is Samoa, Manu or Western or whatever it is nowadays, and this too is a game that should be earmarked as a potential W for the United States.
The Samoans are always feisty no matter who they're up against, and while they usually have speed to burn out wide, as well as a seemingly endless supply of physical endurance, whether this year's team can put it all together for a full 80 minutes is questionable.
And it's that possible chink in Samoa's armor that could play into the Americans' hands.
The US has never beaten Samoa. They have played each other twice with the Samoans winning 27-20 in 1999 and 19-12 in 2000.
However, what should favor the US is that, like Tonga, the Samoan Union has been struggling financially and has also been losing its best players to the New Zealand provincial program. If the Eagles can contain Samoa's speedsters and shut down their forwards in the set piece, they have every chance of winning.
The final hit out will be against South Africa, yet another huge ask for the US. The Springboks are favored to clinch the top spot in Pool A ahead of England, at least by some pundits, and to ensure that happens, the South Africans will be aiming to win big time.
The Boks will more than likely rest their stars, but even the most ardent of Eagle supporters would have to concede that an American victory on that day is about as likely as Paris Hilton winning a national spelling bee.
The two teams have met twice in their history, once in 1981 in a game that wasn't sanctioned and so consequently was played in a park with the venue being kept a secret until the very last minute, and again in 2001. South Africa won on both occasions, 38-7 (1981) and 43-20 (2001).
The US will go into this World Cup with a combined 1-9 all-time record against their opponents and will be returning just eight players from the 2003 squad, so who are the guys to watch, and what must the Eagles do to enhance their chances?
Their success will largely depend on the health of three key playmakers - Mike Hercus, Chad Erskine, and Philip Eloff - plus the overall play of standouts Todd Clever, Mike MacDonald, and Paul Emerick. The experience of veterans Alec Parker and Luke Gross is another important cog in the wheel.
There can be little argument that on their day, Erskine and Hercus are the best halfback combination that the US can put on the field, they're just flat out good.
Erskine has been playing for Waterloo in England, while Hercus has had stints with Sale, Llanelli and Newport-Gwent.
The problem is that both have been bothered by injuries, as has Eloff, and they all need to be in peak condition for the USA to be able to exploit anyone's weakness in the midfield.
Emerick is a gifted player and is one of the Eagles' most damaging runners with the ball. He runs straight lines, can finish off a hit, and knows how to find the try zone.
Much the same can be said for Eloff, and together the 'Double-E' midfield is the best center pairing the US can muster, although coach Thorburn has a tendency to sometimes put Emerick on the wing.
Historically, the USA has struggled in the forwards, although it has never been for a lack of trying. This time though, the pack has the added bonus of being taken through its paces by ex-Eagle prop Bill LeClerc, who has come on board as the national team's scrum coach.
He, together with Thorburn's assistant coaches Marty Wiggins and Adam Friend, will be giving it everything they've got between now and September 8 to get the side primed for its opening game against England in Lens.
One other crucial ingredient up front is prop Mike MacDonald. Big Mac recently signed a contract extension at Leeds and brings a wealth of experience and talent to the American front row. Flanker Todd Clever is another player who will be instrumental in how the US fares.
He is a dynamo on the side of the scrum and rarely takes a backward step. Clever honed his skills at North Harbour in New Zealand before returning stateside earlier this year, and his uncompromising attitude towards any opposition is a constant inspiration for his teammates.
As suggested at the outset, 2-2 is doable for this 2007 Eagle team, but in order for them to finish with their best ever World Cup record they will need to stay focused, execute their game plans, and perhaps more importantly back themselves. They do that, and we'll all be doing more than whistling Dixie.