Today in Rugby: A U.S. Team Preview
The Rugby World Cup begins on Friday. From now until the RWC's end, or at least until I run out of material, I will be attempting at least one rugby post per day. Let me know if you can guest-write a team report, or if you can invite me to an embassy RWC watch party, or if you can comp me into a bar showing every match, or if you have any other coverage ideas. Bear in mind that, if you're still reading this, you know more about the actual game than I do.
There was no rugby post yesterday, because I had to work on a feature story about Whitman High's Inaki Basauri, a 22-year-old pro player in France who will be with the Eagles for the World Cup. There's not much point in me repeating that information here; you can just go read it, or buy the paper.
I will say that Inaki has managed to garner some British press headlines in recent days. From The Daily Mail:
United States flanker Inaki Basauri has urged his team-mates to "be courageous" when they face a daunting World Cup opener against defending champions England on Saturday....
Basauri said: "I believe we have the team that can take it to them, as long as we play to our potential."
"And I think the fans back at home are behind us. They expect us to play to our potential.
"We are all going out there to show the world what we have, and what we have been preparing for over the past four years. It will be a great experience. I think we just have to play what is in front of us and do our best, be courageous, make tackles and make plays. It is about making everything happen."
Ah, the courage of youth. On the other hand, an ankle injury to English star Jonny Wilkinson apparently has the defending champs "in a tailspin."
While we all look forward to Saturday's game, here's a U.S. team primer from reader and actual rugby fan Chris Jenkins, who highlights an implacable truth: a single win at this RWC will be considered a major triumph for the Eagles. Chris's words after the jump.
Drawn into possibly the toughest group at the 2007 Rugby World Cup finals, the USA Eagles head off to France with low expectations, excellent fitness and high morale. Our team, mostly comprised of amateur rugby players, many of whom have given up their jobs in order to represent their country at this world cup, will spend the next four weeks playing some of the finest professional players in the rugby world. First up opponents are reigning world champions England who await in Lens on September 8th, to be followed four days later by Tonga in Montpellier. A break of a full two weeks is followed by matches against Samoa, one of the most physical sides in this most combative of sports, and then after a rest of just three days, the mighty South African Springboks.
South Africa are in most rugby pundits' eyes the joint favourites, with New Zealand, to lift the William Webb-Ellis trophy at the final match in Paris on October 20th. No rugby team in the world would wish to play Samoa and South Africa just three days apart, and the Eagles' group highlights what many critics view as the key flaw of the format for this tournament - that is that the timetable favours the top ranked professional teams and leaves the so called minnows, such as the U.S., with almost no chance of causing any kind of an upset.
South Africa for example will have had a full seven days of rest prior to their meeting with the U.S. on 30th September. Their shortest break between matches is five days between their first and second matches. No team would want a break of two weeks between matches either, as faced by the U.S., during which time match sharpness will decline and boredom set in. A quick look at the schedule shows decent rest periods for top-rated teams such as England, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland. Perhaps next time, each of the teams should be seeded and the lower ranked teams should receive the easiest schedule?
The above being said, the U.S. go into the tournament as fit as any amateur team could be, and with enough experienced players to be at least able to give a good account of themselves against the toughest of opponents. Key to their game is their first up defence and a set of forwards capable of dogging it out with the best of them. The forward unit is built upon the sturdy foundations of Mike McDonald, the Berkeley-born prop who plays for Leeds in England, and highly experienced second row Alec Parker of Aspen Colorado who will play in his third Rugby World Cup finals. An exciting back row sees the hard tackling Louis Stanfil, a student at UC Berkeley, and Todd Clever - a standout U.S. 7's player from Palm Springs, augmented by newcomer and man mountain Henry Bloomfield.
The team will be led by Mike Hercus, a native of Falls Church, Virginia from the position of fly half - essentially the quarter back equivalent in Rugby. Hercus, on his second trip to a World Cup, is well on his way to scoring 400 points in international rugby. As the team's first choice kicker and play maker, his form after a spell recuperating from recent surgery will be key to the team's success.
Other standout players for the Eagles include American-born backs Paul Emerick and Chris Wyles, who play with professional teams in Wales and England respectively, and the electric wing Takudzwa Ngwenya, who has the priceless ability and speed to break the gain line and cause real problems for opponents. Many of those who follow rugby in the U.S. will be hoping that Philip Eloff, the centre and another potential line breaker who has an excellent try scoring record at international level, recovers from a broken ankle in time to be fit for the first match against England.
The Eagles played their final warm up match against former European Club Champions Munster of Ireland last weekend in Chicago. While somewhat ring rusty -- this was their first competitive match for some time -- spectators saw signs of the strengths of this team in that first up tackling was strong and at times the forwards looked like they had the ability to dominate their opponents at the set piece. Hopefully team coach Peter Thorburn will be working hard to rectify the unfortunate number of handling errors which occured at critical times and probably denied the Eagles at least three tries.
For pretty much the first time ever, U.S. Rugby fans will be able to watch every single match of the 2007 Rugby World Cup live as all matches will be broadcast live on Setanta Sports North America. Additionally, Versus will be the national cable TV broadcaster showing all four Eagles matches and the quarters, semis and final on tape delay.
The Eagles will no doubt play their hearts out - I've yet to see a U.S. team either give up, or ever have a player sent from the field for foul play, whoever the opposition. However, even Tonga, the weakest opponents we face in this year's competition, will take the field with fifteen full-time professionals drawn from the top clubs of Europe and Australia/New Zealand. Having made tremendous personal sacrifices to get to the tournament the mostly amateur members of the U.S. squad deserve your heartfelt support for just turning up. Any victory will just be icing on the cake.
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