US rugby in despair after World Cup flop but Eagles insist on signs of hope

In Dubai on Friday night, in a frantic last-minute scramble, American prop Jack Iscaro missed the penalty Portugal kicked for a 16-16 draw, enough to secure a place at the Rugby World Cup in France and condemn the Eagles to watch from Home.

The Americans were in the final qualifying tournament because they lost an equally tight match against Chile in Colorado in July. Then a last-minute penalty that might have saved the game was overturned, as prop Chance Weglewski committed an illegal clear-out.

Weglewski, 25, is a product of Lindenwood University in Missouri who plays for New York, the Major League Rugby champions. Iscaro, 22, played in California Berkeley and is now a prop for Old Glory DC. Both have gone through top college programs to play for pay at home. Neither has Test rugby experience, Weglewski with 10 caps, Iscaro just two.

Now is perhaps their darkest hour, but such mishaps can happen to any player and there are lessons to be learned from. Weglewski and Iscaro could be key members of the Eagles team until the 2031 World Cup, eight years from now, which will take place on American soil. At 33 and 30, injury and form permitting, they could be in their prime. There isn’t a prop in world rugby that hasn’t experienced its fair share of terrible things. That’s the whole point. They like it.

Another Eagles prop, David Ainu’u, spoke to reporters after the match in Portugal. Born in American Samoa, he is also only 22 but has seen a bit more of the world, with 20 caps and a contract with Toulouse.

Ainu’u said: “If we were in a situation where I didn’t feel the effort of the boys, every bit of grit and blood, sweat and tears on that field, I think I would feel something else. But I just think now, that’s just the game. It came down to a little decision and I can’t blame the boys. Every single one of those guys that stepped on that field gave everything they could and we were just the unlucky ones at the end of the day.”

Huge lock Greg Peterson, who plays for Newcastle, rumbled a bit about the penalty against the Eagles on an attacking five-metre scrum, at 16-13, allowing Portugal to race up.

“I think they’ve matched our scrum and maul really well, so credit to them,” he said. “They really stepped up from their previous games. We were pretty good in terms of penalty counts except for probably the last 20 minutes. And yes, it just came to a few things in the last few minutes … the referee gave it to the other side at the scrum five , but that’s just sports, right.”

It’s also only sports that the Eagles’ coaching could change. Gary Gold, once an assistant in South Africa, later at London Irish, Newcastle and Worcester, oversaw results including a first win over a Tier One side, Scotland in 2018. But since Covid ruined 2020, nothing has been straightforward. Through qualifying losses to Uruguay and Chile, a 100-point hiding from New Zealand and on to Dubai, there has been a sense that a team cannot escape its fate.

In Dubai, Gold was assisted by Mario Ledesma, one-time Argentine hooker and head coach, John Plumtree, recently on the All Blacks staff, and another well-travelled New Zealander, Stephen Brett. Despite all that experience, it didn’t turn out that way.

Gold congratulated Portugal on a “well-fought game” and said: “There aren’t many words for how gutted this group feels right now. Both teams played an intense 80 minutes with high emotions. This one just didn’t go our way.

“I can’t overstate how proud I am of the players and staff, regardless of the result. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves and our abilities over the last year as the qualifying journey began, and those hard lessons are ones we’ll lean on going forward.

Rafael Simoes of Portugal rides a tackle from Kapeli Pifeleti, the American bitch.
Rafael Simoes of Portugal rides a tackle from Kapeli Pifeleti, the American bitch. Photo: Martin Dokoupil/World Rugby/Getty Images

“This last tour was special because we had a number of new players put their hand up, debut on the world stage and show some promise for the future. We definitely left some scoring opportunities on the pitch tonight, which is always a tough reflection in a close game. But that no effort was spared and from that we can walk away knowing we gave it our all.”

Teams that have won the Rugby World Cup are, of course, of a very different order to this American squad, which will watch France 2023 on TV. But there is something in common: crushing disappointment often precedes success.

Many of the England players who lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in Sydney in 2003 lost a quarter-final against South Africa four years earlier. Many New Zealanders who won in Auckland in 2011 (and London four years later) were in Cardiff in 2007 when France ran away with the game. Many of the Springboks who won the final in Tokyo four years ago lost a semi-final against New Zealand in 2015.

Undoubtedly, American rugby is in dark days. MLR is worried, contracts abroad hard to find and hard to keep. There are no prizes for coming second. The road to 2031 will be brutally tough. But immediately after the deadly draw in Dubai, Eagles captain Bristol fly-half AJ MacGinty suggested all is not necessarily lost.

“It was seconds away from us,” he said. “It’s the second time we’ve tasted that kind of defeat. It hurts, but we did our best… I’m really proud of the squad, the group, all the coaches for the time that’s gone into putting us in the best position for this . It was almost there.”

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