The United States might be in one of the tougher groups at the 2019 Rugby World Cup but they’re not just there to make up the numbers.
That’s the view of American fullback Will Hooley, who plies his club trade in England with the Bedford Blues. And recent trends back that up. Team USA head into the tournament ranked 13th in the world, sitting above the likes of Italy, Tonga and Samoa.
In the past few years the Eagles have been improving, grabbing notable scalps and notching important wins. In 2017 they won the Americas Rugby Championship, their first 15-a-side rugby title in nearly 100 years.
The United States will be able to call upon heavy local support in Japan from the US Army base in Okinawa. Four years ago at the World Cup it was the Cherry Blossoms who pulled off one of the biggest shocks in the history of the sport, beating Souh Africa in Brighton.
Don’t underestimate the Eagles’ chances of doing something similar this time around given their recent transformation.
The turnaround has gathered pace since the appointment of experienced former Bath and Newcastle Falcons coach Gary Gold as national team boss. Under the South African’s coaching the United States retained the Americas Rugby Championship title last year and beat both Scotland and Samoa for the first time. While they were unable to defeat Japan in the final of the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup, they remain a team on the rise.
At the same time, rugby union in America is booming. The country now has its own full-time professional competition – Major League Rugby (MLR) – which continues to go from strength to strength, and television ratings are increasing. Rugby Sevens is becoming more popular in the States too.
Gold believes MLR has been “massive” for the development of American rugby union players.
“It is critical, there is no doubt that it was a contributor to our wins over Scotland, Samoa and Canada recently,” Gold told Reuters.
“The players will come into our first camp, which starts in mid-June, having played four or five months of rugby week-in, week-out. Over and above that, it is that tier of player who has not got a contract in France, England or elsewhere, who previously has not been in that professional environment where you train and gym regularly, understand the nutritional requirements and so on.
“In years gone by, we might have had players who would come to camp without having even trained in four months, let alone played matches. So it is massive for us.”
The Eagles have assembled a motley crew of players from across the globe for this World Cup. They include London Irish centre Bryce Campbell, Western Force winger Marcel Brache, Top 14-based props David Ainuu and Eric Fry, along with Manly hooker James Hilterbrand, Saracens star Titi lamositele (pictured above) and Cheetahs number nine Ruben de Haas. For the first time the United States will compete at the World Cup with a squad of full-time professionals.
It is Gold’s task to mould them all together and get them firing in the toughest of tournament pools which includes England, France, Argentina and Tonga. It is a terrible draw, but one that will ultimately illustrate just how far the Eagles have come when they tackle the world’s best.
Gold knows his team are heavy underdogs, but has them ready to go.
“From an ‘optics’ point of view, I am slightly less worried about the results and more about whether we can, at this moment, go out and show we can compete,” he said.
“If the by-product of that is that we can nick a couple of wins, that would be fantastic, but for me it is about the performances. We are not favourites to win any of our games in Japan, but we want to go there and feel like we have given it our best shot and played some smart rugby.
“As a squad we know the difficulty of our pool, up against England, France, Argentina and Tonga, but we are absolutely not there to make up the numbers,” Hooley told The Guardian.
“Enough match footage has been watched, countless fitness tests undertaken and sufficient flying miles racked up to give us all Gold Club status. All that remains is to get ourselves mentally ready. We intend to relish the challenge, be excited from the moment we land in Japan and throw ourselves at England come 26 September.”