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Outclassed by Wales - Here's Why

Wednesday Jun 10, 2009 in Columns Eagle Eye

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(Brad Davis photo.)

Ah, summer, what power you have to make us suffer and like it.
-- Russel Baker


Eddie O’Sullivan’s first summer at the helm of the US Eagles has proven to be more of an uphill challenge than many of his supporters had hoped it would be when he took over the reins from Scott Johnson earlier this year. After a convincing loss to Ireland in early June, US rugby fans were eager to see their team stand tall against the formidable Welsh last weekend. They searched for signs of progress as the Churchill Cup and North America 4 competitions approached.


The result: Wales was more talented, more physical, fitter, smarter, and played a more punishing style of rugby that the US couldn’t counter. Wales dominated all aspects of the match en route to a 48-15 dismantling of a severely outmatched and outclassed Eagles squad.


Despite this weekend’s disappointing outcome, The Eagles’ continuous effort to construct a formidable, professional rugby outfit amidst a laundry list of dire challenges needs to be acknowledged and appreciated by every rugby enthusiast worldwide. Why? When one of your weakest links in the chain happens to be the United States – a country chockfull of elite, marketable athletes who could potentially lift the sport of rugby to Olympic proportions and beyond – your vested interest in their progression becomes increasingly more significant.


Naysayers of America’s cause will point to last weekend’s scoreboard and state otherwise, declaring that we are taking steps backwards in our movement toward professionalism, that we will never become a competitive outfit, that we lack the cultural and social support (as evidenced by a paltry crowd of only 6,200 people – mostly Wales fans) to grow the game like we need to in order to become relevant in our nation’s eyes. Those not on board with where the Eagles are attempting to fly will shine a seething spotlight upon our lackluster international win/loss test record, and point out that nations with half of our population and a quarter of our financial means seem to perform better than we do. And partially, what they say is tough to deny.


No one is making an excuse for this team, this coaching staff, or this administration – the Wales loss was brutal, and not something we can walk away from with many things to be proud of. No matter which entity is or is not to blame for the outcome against Wales, the bottom line is this: We cannot benchmark our success by comparing our status to teams like Ireland and Wales. We’re not even close to obtaining their level and running an outfit like they enjoy. And ya know what - that’s OK. Really, it is.


Because for now, while a new coaching staff becomes acquainted with new players, we need to judge our success by how we respond to our own shortcomings when measured against ourselves and teams who share our talent level and circumstance.


We live in a nation where the professional sports that reign supreme here also reign supreme in the world. Basketball, football, baseball, even hockey – if you are the best at any one of these sports, no matter where you live in the world, your goal is to play in America against the world’s best competition. If you are a rugby wunderkind growing up in Nebraska or Atlanta, your end-goal isn’t to play in America. You are going to want to play where the world’s best are, where you can make a professional living doing what you’re best at, where you belong, which, today, is not in America. That doesn’t mean that American rugby players are lost causes or have no path to get to where they want to go, but it does mean that the support, fanfare, and ultimately, dollars that propel the other sports in this country will not be there for our sport of rugby to enjoy in the same propensity. Which is, again, OK for now. Right now, we are in need of building up ourselves before we go looking for anyone else to help us do so.


Despite the fact that O’Sullivan’s uphill start has been difficult, he knew what he was getting into when he signed on. He knew the American rugby landscape, the state of our union, our structural challenges, the paths and obstacles our players endure in order to participate, and how those aspects stood up comparatively to those nations we would face.


He knew this summer was going to be a humbling, grueling experience, but one that would outline our gameplan for how to get where we need to be. As the summer burns on, the Eagles will adjust their style of play so it’s more contoured to our competition, but more importantly, to the talent we have internally.


Have faith in our leaders’ vision and recognize that it’s going to take years of teams like Wales beating us soundly before we make that leap is the only way we’re going to get there. Though it sickens me to write it, there is a beauty in these beatings we are going to continue to receive, a joy that we will be able to extrude, all of which in the form of a light that should go off in every player, coach, and supporter that reminds us that we have a significant battle ahead of us to earn respect and our place in world rugby. Teams like Ireland and Wales, New Zealand and South Africa, England and Australia – their places within the top tier were not given to them. The honor and pride they play with was not inherent upon birth, it was not guaranteed. It was earned. There is no other way to obtain that confident and cognizant swagger that those nations play with.


There should be an unprecedented level of optimism and hope for everyone involved in our great sport throughout America, because in reality, we can only climb up from where we stand in the eyes of the world, and if we’re honest, in our own eyes. The looming financial recession may mean there are less jobs for us all to perform throughout our various professions, but in the business of USA Rugby, isn’t it obvious that we have more work that is in drastic need to be performed by able bodied players we have waiting in the wings of our system? The rolling (backwards) maul, an uncreative and predictable offensive attack, the inability to effectively counter smart kicking placement – all of these crucial game aspects were exploited as insufficient against a dominant Wales team last weekend. What does that mean? Are we doomed? No. It just means we have work to do, and plenty of it, before we can start expecting strong showings, and ultimately victories against teams like Wales and Ireland. It means that until that progress is made, we stop acting like the sky is falling on USA Rugby and the goals we are attempting to reach every time we burn from the summer heat that is international competition.


We are not ready for the World Cup stage yet. Today, we’re about as ready for New Zealand 2011 as Welsh scrumhalf Dwayne Peel was for Van de Griessen’s decleating hit in the first half. But it’s worth noting that Peel got up smiling.

But we’ve got the time and personnel to become better suited for what awaits us there. What we need now is the proper mindset and understanding that will allow us to get there, without becoming our own greatest roadblock. Can we take these losses, and understand that they are the by-product not of our own vast insufficiencies, but rather from the tremendous foundational structure those nations have already established? Can we believe that those at USA Rugby see the long, meandering path in front of them, and build their plan to take the small, necessary steps to walk it without panicking or rushing to ill-fate decisions designed to please the masses that expect us to beat Wales immediately? Can we all be smart enough, and humble enough, to realize that this game, this culture, and this life that rugby provides, does not yet truly belong to America yet? It can, and it will over time. But we are still far too premature in our development for us to think that right now we deserve to step on the same field and win by 5 tries against anyone in the world. Those who criticize our players, coaches, and administration for not delivering that result today, are castrating our progress for tomorrow.


The biggest question that remains is, can USA Rugby players, coaches, fans, and administration take the suffocating heat of 2009's summer schedule, and allow the burns and scars along the way to soak in like they undoubtedly will, without melting? We can, if we just pick up a pair of dark shades, break out the sunscreen, keep our cool, and enjoy this summer for all it's going to do for our skin's ability to tan, and not burn, in the years to come.

- An Eagle Eye Guest Column by Dennis O'Donnell

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