USA winger Ngwenya evades Bryan Habana to score a try during the 2007 World Cup

The Eagles have won just two World Cup matches to date. Alex Goff takes a walk down memory lane…

Victories have been hard to come by for the United States of America at the World Cup, but somehow the Eagles have managed to make their mark in other ways.

The USA have never entered a World Cup with an expectation of making the quarter-finals – qualifying from a region that includes Canada, Argentina and Uruguay is challenge enough for the Eagles, let alone making the last eight.

Along the way, however, they have developed long-standing rivalries. They have played, and lost to, England three times, including a controversial opening game at France in 2007. Their match-ups with Ireland and Australia in 2011 will be the third time they’ve faced those teams too.

But even in the RWC matches where they were the distinct underdogs, the Eagles have produced standout moments: a try to remember, a scoreline much closer than expected, or a dramatic finish. The story isn’t always heart-warming – heartbreaking more like – but it is compelling.

The USA were invited to the inaugural RWC in 1987, and started their campaign with a 21-18 defeat of Japan in Brisbane. What followed were two heavy losses to Australia and England, and it would be another 16 years before the United States would taste victory again.

In 1991 the Americans were soundly beaten by England, New Zealand and Italy – the game against the All Blacks marked the last time the USA have taken on the 2011 World Cup hosts. It was the USA’s toughest World Cup, but notable in part for full-back Ray Nelson’s try against England, putting his World Cup points total at 28, a then Eagles record.

Juan Grobler was the only player to score against Australia

In 1995 they failed to qualify, losing two very close matches to Argentina in the 1994 qualifiers, but they were back again in 1999. In that tournament the Eagles struggled with bad luck, including an injury to captain Dan Lyle, and heartache.

A 27-25 loss to Romania could easily have been a USA victory, but in their last game they did enjoy a special moment. The Eagles lost 55-19 to Australia in Limerick, but in an impressive first half of rugby, a smart pass out to centre Juan Grobler produced a try for the Eagles (right). That try was notable as it was the only one Australia conceded during the entire tournament. Not a victory, to be sure, but a distinct point of pride for the Eagles.

Four years later, the USA finally earned their second victory, beating Japan once again, 39-26. That tournament was also notable for the Eagles’ opening match, against Fiji. The 2003 RWC had been criticised for being too one-sided. Where were the close, exciting games? Well, USA v Fiji answered that question and served up a treat. The thriller was brought to a close when the USA scored in the corner, but as the conversion drifted wide the Fijians sneaked it 19-18. Still, both teams revelled in having raised the excitement quotient of the tournament.

Two players set new benchmarks in scoring. Mike Hercus recorded 51 points, the most by an Eagle in any tournament, and Kort Schubert scored three tries, including that late one against Fiji.

In 2007, the USA surprised many by holding defending champions England to a close 28-10 scoreline in the opening match. It would have been closer but for a yellow card, a ten-minute spell during which England scored two tries.

There followed a disappointing display against Tonga that ended in a 25-15 defeat and a bizarre game where Samoa ran out to a 22-3 half-time lead yet had to hang on to win 25-21. The USA found a way to set Takudzwa Ngwenya free and scored another try through Lou Stanfill near the end, but it wasn’t quite enough.

The Eagles left France winless, but produced one of the great moments of the tournament. As the first half closed against South Africa, flanker Todd Clever intercepted a South African pass and set off out of his own 22. He casually brushed away Butch James, who landed on his backside for his pains, and linked up with lock Alec Parker. Parker passed to fly-half Hercus, who looked across the field and saw Ngwenya in space. Hercus lofted a long, looping pass to his wing, and the speedster did the rest.

Ngwenya was confronted by the Springbok star Bryan Habana, but rather than being overawed he cut outside, then inside, then outside again, and turned on the gas, leaving one of the world’s best wingers grasping at his heels. It was one
of two USA tries scored in a 64-15 loss, but it was the try everyone remembered, the one that won IRB Try of the Year in 2007.

Moments of magic, then, for the United States on the world’s biggest rugby stage. But players would certainly trade a fleeting celebrity for a few more victories.

In all the Eagles have only won two matches while losing 15. On three occasions – Romania in 1999, Fiji in 2003 and Samoa in 2007 – their losing margin has been four points or less. It’s also worth noting that in those 17 games, many against some of the greatest teams in the world, the USA have been held tryless only three times. Victories may remain elusive, but you can always count on the Yanks to show something that makes you get out of your seat.

USA’s World Cup record                   USA in numbers
1987 Group phase                               IRB world ranking 16th
1991 Group phase                               Clubs 2,433
1995 Didn’t qualify                               Registered players 88,151
1999 Group phase                               Senior male players 35,794
2003 Group phase                               Referees 1,858
2007 Group phase

And here’s the try against South Africa in the 2007 World Cup…

This article appeared in Part 1 of our Rugby World Cup Supplement.

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