THESE EAGLES WERE GROUNDED
(by Ian Thomsen Sports Illustrated, 10/18/99)
IN A RENOVATED castle south of Dublin, in the Irish coastal village of Killiney, sat 30 jet-lagged Americans. Among them were seven college students, an engineer, a miner, an interior designer and four rugby professionals. Together these men were 2,500-to-1 long shots to win the world's third-most-watched sporting event, the Rugby World Cup.
To all the world Team USA--also known as the Eagles--might as well have been convening belowdecks on the Titanic. That's how much of a chance they were given to survive the opening round of the World Cup. Three matches had been scheduled for the Eagles, and they were underdogs in all of them, starting with an Oct. 2 game against Ireland, in Dublin. The second match, against Romania last Saturday, would be followed in five days by a likely thrashing at the hands of Australia, the 1991 champion and a 5-2 choice to win this time. (New Zealand, England and South Africa were the other favorites to take the final on Nov. 6 in Cardiff, Wales.)
To prepare themselves for the World Cup, the Eagles had traveled to Britain in August for a series of "friendly" matches. But against England's World Cup team the play got unusually serious, and the U.S. wound up losing 106-8. Which means that a lot of people were happy to welcome the U.S. team to Ireland last month.
The customary approach for a team as overmatched as the Eagles would be to focus all its energies on the one tournament foe it was capable of beating. Romania was taking this approach, openly targeting the U.S. For Romania to think of upsetting Ireland or Australia was "unrealistic," explained coach Mircea Paraschiv. Fellow underdogs Spain and Uruguay were raising similar white flags, as if pleading for mercy before the first whistle.
There was no shame in these concessions. It takes amazing courage to play rugby at the highest level. It is a sport of violent collisions, with just a thin layer of padding under the uniforms and no huddles for catching one's breath between plays. The players are not quite of NFL girth (backs usually weigh about 200 pounds, forwards 240), but they are very big, considering the demands of running up and down the field for 80 minutes.
U.S. coach Jack Clark laid out the team's options. Should we play conservatively and accept defeat against Ireland, he asked his players, to save our best efforts for Romania? The players answered soberly and unanimously: absolutely not. They decided that they should try to beat Ireland. They had come too far, sacrificed too much, not to give their all in every match.
"This is what is so beautiful about the American mentality," says Richard Tardits, 34, a French-born U.S. resident who spent four NFL seasons as a linebacker for the Arizona Cardinals and the New England Patriots before returning to the sport of rugby and joining the Eagles in 1993. "As long as we are not dead, we always believe that we have a chance."
Four years ago, at the last World Cup, rugby was still officially an amateur sport. It was against the rules to pay players (although the best of them were paid anyway). But with escalating television revenue, mostly from Rupert Murdoch, the International Rugby Board voted in August 1995 to make rugby "open" to all players. A dozen of the top rugby nations, including Ireland, quickly made their players professionals. The Irish ruggers didn't get rich--their biggest star, Keith Wood, was said to be making less than $200,000 in salary and endorsements--but for the first time they were making careers of the sport.
The U.S. team, in the meantime, has fielded only four men who play rugby professionally, in Britain and Italy. Among these four, the only world-class player is 6'4", 245-pound captain Dan Lyle, who earns about $200,000 from the English club Bath. The other 26 Eagles have full-time jobs or are students. Not many team sports are left in which amateurs line up alongside pros, especially for a world championship. The Eagles are among the last of a dying breed.
Between practices and team meetings during the World Cup, the Eagles checked their E-mail and voice mail and phoned their offices in the States. Fly-half Mark Williams, 38, the team's oldest player, figured he was losing $3,500 during his four-week absence from his interior-design business in Aspen, Colo.
Three days before the match against Ireland, Clark presented the team with its final game plan. The Irish were 38-point favorites. Clark's hope was to keep them off-balance with slightly unconventional play, such as punting the ball away to gain territory. The U.S. was going to try to run the ball from inside its 22-yard line, which, in NFL terms, is like trying to return a punt from inside your 10.
Defensively, knowing that they could not match up with the fierce Irish scrum, the Eagles would remove one or more of their athletic big men, such as Tardits and Lyle, from the scrum and position them like linebackers to pick up the Irish ballcarriers. Clark had been preparing the team to play this way, having figured all along what it would take to "turn the world upside down," as he referred to an American victory. If the U.S. played conventionally, it would be certain to lose.
George Sucher, a 30 year-old prop (one of those front-row players whose heads disappear like a turtle's when two teams thump together shoulder to shoulder in a scrum), was happy that in Dublin his fiancee, Christine Evans, would be attending her first game of international rugby. Having never seen Sucher play at the highest level, she was understandably suspicious of the time he was giving to the sport. "The American fans don't know what rugby is, what it means to go to another country and play in front of 30,000 people," said Sucher, a 6-foot, 250-pound computer software salesman. "My girlfriend's family doesn't understand. They think it's a little weird that I'm away so much. You know how it is when you miss family weddings."
At last their long-anticipated Saturday in Dublin arrived. In the early afternoon, hours before kickoff, the U.S. coaches and Lyle moved in a pack from room to room, emphasizing two or three points of strategy with each player. Each meeting ended with Lyle looking in his teammate's eyes and asking, "Can I count on you for 80 minutes?" Then he handed the player his match jersey, white with red trim and, across the shoulders, a sea of blue.
A wedding was being held in the hotel, and the guests applauded the players as they walked through the lobby. Outside on the steps a bagpiper saluted them with I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy. A police motorcycle escort rushed the team bus through traffic to Lansdowne Road, the stadium that is the traditional home of Irish rugby.
As the U.S. took the field, the clouds were a blushing pink in the twilight chill. A band played The Star-Spangled Banner as the 15 starters stood side by side on the field, hands over hearts, shouting out the lyrics, some with their eyes shut tight.
With no further pageantry the game began. It was never close. After the Irish scored 10 points, the Americans forced a fumble, which their smallest player, Kevin Dalzell, ran back from midfield for a try (the equivalent of a touchdown) to make the score 10-5. In the 26th minute Dalzell kicked a 40-yard penalty, not unlike a field goal, to keep the Eagles within 17-8. But the Irish were too strong.
Tardits and Lyle were effective in their linebacker roles, but there were too many options to be covered. It was like trying to defend against a pro offense, with not two backs coming out of the backfield but four or five or six, crisscrossing like a flock of birds and giving no clue as to which one would receive the pass. The Eagles tried to mimic their hosts but kept dropping their laterals in the punishing traffic of the Irish defense. In the end the Americans were running as if in ocean surf. The final score was 53-8.
The next morning Clark called a team meeting. "I could see in [the players'] eyes that they felt they had let people down," he says. "All I could tell them was, 'Hey, you were there, and someday you will be proud of that fact.'" Then he got on with preparing them to play Romania.
On Saturday, in Dublin, the Eagles lost again, 27-25. They rallied from a 10-point deficit to Romania in the final 13 minutes. They had chances to tie the game or win it outright. Although they didn't do either, they felt they were improving dramatically. Still, most of them realized that in a week, after an almost certain loss to Australia, they would be back at their jobs, with the chimes ringing on their trip to Ireland, and an eternity of four years to wait until the next World Cup.
To the world the Eagles might as well have been convening belowdecks on the Titanic.