|Photo Rugby Week: Todd Clever advances against Ireland in 2013|
With the USA looking increasingly likely to host the All Blacks this year in what will be the first time the teams have faced-off on U.S. soil since 1913. The scoreline that day was 51-3 to the visitors and the only other test match since then between the countries took place at Gloucester during Rugby World Cup 1991. The All Blacks ran out 46-6 winners.
A lot has changed since then with professionalism having reshaped how the sport is played and how it is operated. New Zealand adapted quickly by signing up the best players and establishing Super Rugby and the Tri Nations while the USA has largely been in the wilderness for most of the professional era and is yet to have a professional competition.
Changes are, nonetheless, underway. The inclusion of rugby in the Olympic Games has seen the creation of a Residency Program which has enabled selected players to train full time in the sense of the word professional. Results have, thus far, been mixed but overall the prevailing opinion is that the quality of Sevens rugby players in the USA has improved as has the Eagles Sevens team.
The status of the senior USA Eagles team is clear - the USA has a team pushing for the status of being the best team produced by the country in the professional era. The greatest accomplishment in the history of USA rugby game in the 1920´s when the USA won gold at the Olympic Games in Antwerp in 1920 and in Paris in 1924. Such accomplishments have the USA listed as the most successful rugby team in the history of the Olympic Games.
All eyes, however, are to the future and there is increasing reason to suggest that the USA is a team that could be knocking on the Tier One door before too long. A strong performance against Ireland in 2013 in conjunction with victories over Georgia and Romania since Rugby World Cup 2011 and wins over Russia have increased the perspective that the USA is better now than at any other time two years out from a Rugby World Cup. The wins though have been clouded by some not so impressive results against Canada, Fiji, Japan and Tonga. Indeed the USA was winless in the 2013 Pacific Nations Cup.
The USA´s downfall was due to one reason - depth, or a lack of it. The strong performance against Ireland in which the Eagles lost by three points featured European based Scott LaValla, Samu Manoa, Taku Ngwenya, Andrew Suniula, Chris Wyles who all play at the elite level. The captain was the Japanese based Todd Clever while others to have played professional rugby such as Chris Biller, Eric Fry, Shawn Pittman, Mike Petri, Lou Stanfill and Andrew Suniula were also all involved.
Indeed many of these players missed out on much or all of the Pacific Nations Cup. A number were also not able to represent the USA in the non-international against the Maori All Blacks in November. In the place of some who started against Ireland opportunities were given to others and, unlike in the Pacific Nations Cup, the results were positive and the USA can close to causing an upset.
Arguably the best player was Cam Dolan who played at the back of the scrum and after also impressing in Europe he was signed by the Northampton Saints. Also being signed were Titi Lamositele who is now at Saracens, Robbie Shaw who is playing at a lower level with Esher and Blaine Scully who has been a notable performer for the Leicester Tigers this season. In combination with the established USA professional players those picking up contracts this year have enabled the USA to have a better starting point that ever before to build a team for a Rugby World Cup.
2014 is set to be an imperative year for the USA Eagles with the North Americans needing to qualify for the Rugby World Cup in March and subsequently having a calendar complete with an impressive list of matches that will see the USA play a probable total of eight or nine test matches. The international year will begin in March with home and away matches against Uruguay. Based on results between the nations, IRB World Rankings and comparative performances since 2011 the North Americans will be heavy favorites. The USA is subsequently set to host Scotland in June in Houston and look for another strong, record breaking attendance before hosting both Japan and Canada in the Pacific Nations Cup.
The USA´s end of year agenda will take shape after the Rugby World Cup qualification series. As it stands the USA v New Zealand fixture will be played on November 1, seven days before the All Blacks face England at Twickenham. The USA would therefore likely play two, or possibly three, tests on November 8, 15 and 22 in Europe or, depending on results in March and June play further home internationals.
Should the USA lose to Uruguay then it would not qualify for Rugby World Cup 2015 as Americas 2 and would instead enter repercharge. Under this scenario the USA would face Asia 2, likely in July, and if successful face the winner of Europe 3 v Africa 2 in November. Also to be considered is that there will be a Pacific Nations Cup Final played in November between the winner of the North v South divisions. The winner of Canada, Japan and the USA will take-on the winner of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga possibly on November 8 which will also see one of the six countries face Italy on the same date.
2014 Key Dates
24-26 USA Sevens
22 RWC 2015 Qualification Uruguay v USA, Estadio Charrúa, Montevideo
29 RWC 2015 Qualification USA v Uruguay, Fifth Third Bank Stadium, Atlanta
7 USA v Scotland, BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston
USA v Japan (in USA in June. Date and venue tba).
USA v Canada (in USA in June. Date and venue tba).
Americas Rugby Championship
1 USA v New Zealand, Chicago or Washington D.C.
8-22 Autumn Internationals or Rugby World Cup Qualification Repercharge