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Predators or prey? USA Eagles kick off tough Rugby World Cup mission against England

Filippo Monteforte, AFP | A woman walks by a billboard for the Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup on September 19, 2019, in Kobe, on the eve of the tournament.

The US rugby team begins its World Cup campaign in Kobe City on Thursday with a tough clash against England. And the rest of the schedule doesn’t get much easier for the relatively green Eagles in Japan.

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The United States and England rarely get to meet twice in the course of a week. A first opportunity presented itself last week, at the Oktoberfest 7s rugby tournament in Munich, with the two nations’ seven-a-side teams playing for seventh place. England won that face-off 12-7. Now for rugby union, with a World Cup clash at Kobe Misaki Stadium on Thursday and England again unquestionably the favourites.

The US will have their work cut out against the rose-clad 15 in Japan, with England ranked third in the world and the Americans, who play in world rugby’s second tier, in 13th place internationally.

Sure, the US has played in every World Cup since the event began in 1987. But their wins are few and far between in the tournament, the last coming in September 2011 against Russia (13-6). And in Japan, the Eagles find themselves drawn in a proverbial group of death: After England, the Americans will come face to face with the best France, Argentina and Tonga have to throw at them.

The Eagles’ hopes of qualifying for the quarters are, by any logic, slim. But it is key for the US team to make a strong impression during this tournament. American rugby has entered a new phase in its development following on from the 2018 launch of Major League Rugby, a pro competition that currently numbers nine clubs. The Seattle Seawolves claimed the title in each of the championship’s first two seasons. The third will see three new teams added and a change of format with the advent of two conferences, east and west.

Players spread out

The rugby-playing population in the US – which currently stands at 132,000 licensed members – is therefore likely to continue to grow, which will ultimately benefit the national squads. The new championship is also, however, attracting a lot of foreign talent, notably ex-internationals looking to try something new before the sun sets on their careers. Former France centre Mathieu Bastareaud, for one, currently with Lyon, has chosen to join Rugby United New York for a few months next season. He will rub shoulders there with former England international Ben Foden.

A dozen Major League Rugby players are among the US team’s 31 selected for this World Cup. The rest play their club rugby principally in Europe, in more or less select clubs. It is very difficult for Team USA to pull together its players spread across continents with any regularity. And international matches are rare, with the exception of the annual America Rugby Championship, which takes in Canada, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina’s reserve side. The Americans have won two of that competition’s first four editions.

But close observers believe the Eagles are on the right track and think they will be able to show as much in Japan. Former US captain Dan Lyle has stressed the fact that many more of the players are professionals. And, as Lyle told the New York Times, “We’re not limping into this World Cup.” The ex-international, who played 45 matches for his country, is thrilled to see so many young players in the group selected for Japan because they are bound to acquire experience for future World Cups. US prop David Ainu’u, for one, will celebrate his 20th birthday two weeks after the tournament concludes. Ainu’u usually plays in France for Stade Toulousain’s junior squad. On Thursday, he’ll be facing English adversaries of a whole different calibre.

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