Maybe it is good for the US’ soul to be a back-bencher.
In their own personal Standard & Poor’s rating, the US men’s rugby players have won exactly two matches and lost 15 in six previous rugby World Cups.
The Eagles, as they are known, are not expecting to win the coming World Cup in New Zealand, either.
Fresh from not winning the soccer World Cups for men last year and women this year, and, for that matter, the first two World Baseball Classics, in 2006 and 2009, the US has a rugged schedule in the next rugby World Cup, which starts on Sept. 9.
Nevertheless, with the zest notable to rugby players on and off the field, the US are delighted to be heading to the home of the All Blacks, with their Maori in-your-face war dance, the haka. The All Blacks are the favorites again.
The Eagles did not win a match in the most recent World Cup, in France in 2007, but they did produce the single most memorable play — a four-man burst of lateral passes (football, eat your heart out) that ended with a stunning dash by Takudzwa Ngwenya, their Zimbabwean-born sprinter, which is still very much a video staple.
For the moment, the US are all right with just qualifying. The one time they did not, in 1995, the tournament was won by the hosts, South Africa, in a nation-changing event depicted in the Clint Eastwood movie Invictus. That film showed many Americans not only the joys and challenges of moving an oval ball against bone-crunching opponents, but also how much the sport means in a wide swath of the world.
“You’re going in there as an underdog, but it’s still exciting,” said Todd Clever, the captain of the Eagles, who played in the World Cup in 2003 in Australia.
“You’re listening to your national anthem and playing opponents who are true professionals,” Clever said. “It’s hard to compete with those countries.”
Just like the World Cups of soccer, the rugby tournament is a quadrennial jamboree of the top nations, up to 20 now. The tournament in France sold an estimated 2.2 million tickets with a worldwide television audience of 4.2 billion, making it in some ways the third-largest sporting event in the world, behind the men’s soccer World Cup and the summer Olympics.
This year, for the first time, all four Eagles’ matches will be shown on TV in the US, including the opening match against Ireland on Sept. 11, on a tape delay up against the NFL on a Sunday.
The six-week exposure will help Americans discover a sport that combines the manual dexterity of basketball with the jarring physicality of football and the full-field creativity of soccer.
“The biggest thing in rugby is that everybody plays offense and defense,” Clever said. “It’s a team sport with no timeouts and when things get tough, you have to work it out on the field. It’s not about the coaches. It’s about the players.”
Clever began the play voted the best try of the 2007 tournament. Against the eventual champion, South Africa, he intercepted the ball near the goal line, and after a 30m run, rather than be taken down, executed the alert sideways pass to Alec Parker, who unloaded the ball to Mike Hercus, who heaved it to the right flank to Ngwenya, who performed a few stutter steps and then outran Bryan Habana, one of the fastest players in the world.
Even in the 64-15 defeat, the sequence was properly recognized by broadcasters on the spot and has been memorialized ever since. Also, Ngwenya’s romp earned him a contract from a professional team in Biarritz, France.