Eagles eye Rugby World Cup qualification
Peter Lion, ESPN.com
June 30, 2009
USA Eagles captain Todd Clever takes on the Georgia defence during their clash earlier this month © Ian Muir
Independence Day… and as the flame of the grill begins to wane, and before the night sky alights with fireworks, there are a couple of hours late in the afternoon that are the perfect time to pull up your favorite armchair, grab a cool refreshing beverage, turn on ESPN and settle in to watch what is set to be an enthralling rugby clash.
A Fourth of July showdown at South Carolina's Blackbaud Stadium pitting the US Eagles against Canada will be a slug-fest with a 2011 Rugby World Cup qualifying prize on the line. The meeting is the first of home and away matches (they'll meet again a week later in Canada) with the aggregate winner qualifying for the sport's next global showpiece in New Zealand as Americas 1. The loser will then face a home and away series against Uruguay with the Americas 2 RWC slot on the line.
With their new coach, former Ireland skipper Eddie O'Sullivan, the Eagles will come into the match well prepped having played Test matches against some of the International Rugby Board's top ranked touring teams. First up for the 18th ranked Eagles was a late May date with O'Sullivan's former squad Ireland 'A' in the annual Setanta Challenge Cup. Despite some sloppy play and a late surge by the injury depleted Eagles, Ireland claimed the spoils with a 27-10 victory.
A week later in a match aired live on ESPN Classic, the Eagles locked horns in Chicago with eighth ranked Wales where the physical but penalty-plagued Eagles were schooled by the Welsh in a 48-15 defeat. In quick succession came Churchill Cup matches with the Argentina Jaguars and England Saxons. A revamped Eagles line-up that saw the return of captain Todd Cleaver fresh from his duties in South Africa with the Golden Lions stood firm against the Jaguars' attack for most of the game but the Eagles surrendered 16 points in the last quarter that saw the South Americans triumph 35-14. Four days later, penalties and turnovers helped the Saxons wreak havoc on the Eagles with seven tries on their way to a 56-17 victory.
However a week later in a Father's Day ranking match with Georgia, the Eagles pieced together a strong second-half performance against the Lelos in a 31-13 victory. The win was the Eagles first since beating Uruguay in Salt Lake City in November 2008 and snaps an eight-game three-year losing streak for the USA in non-Test match play. By defeating the higher ranked Lelos, the Eagles jump past Romania in the latest IRB rankings to18, while Georgia falls two spots to 17.
While it should be noted that some of the European team's best players were called to tour South Africa with the British & Irish Lions, the touring teams taking the pitch against the Eagles and Canucks during North America tour Tests no doubt raised the competitive bar ahead of the qualifier showdowns.
Furthermore the Eagles demanding schedule is not without purpose. The team wanted to hone their play against formidable opponents while they shore-up the squad ahead of the RWC qualifier.
"We wanted to get a look at some of the younger players but also develop the core," said Nigel Melville, CEO for USA Rugby.
"You want to get in and qualify as quickly as possible and take the pressure off," Melville said. "Neither team wants to have to go to Uruguay to look to qualify."
Melville points out that for most of the past matches many of the Eagles core players hadn't joined the team yet as they were still playing for their domestic teams around the globe.
"We rested them for the beginning of the tournament but now they're back...so now it's about pulling the team together to play as a team heading into the matches with Canada".
The full-plate schedule for the Eagles also helps give the team exposure to more fans and showcases the game of rugby here in the US, something that Melville hopes to continue long term. An HD match on ESPN, Melville expects, will expose the game and the team to more people and not just hard-core rugby fans.
As for the upcoming qualifier with the Canucks, when asked if the playing in the heat and humidity of South Carolina's Blackbaud Stadium in July would give the Eagles an advantage, Melville said the venue was the team's choice.
"They wanted to play the match there. They've played there before and the atmosphere's been great and the fans have been great. When we played our qualifier last time against the Canadians they took us to Newfoundland. So this is our Newfoundland."
USA v Canada, Saturday, July 4, 2009 - Kick off 4pm. Live coverage on ESPN in HD.