At the first Rugby World Cup in 1987 the version of rugby played, called rugby union, was an amateur sport . The first World Cup was originally meant to be a one off. England was uncertain if they would participate until about 6 weeks before the first match. Interest even in New Zealand, one of the host nations with Australia, could best be described as mild. The opening match was in a less than half full Eden Park. When you read tales from players who were there, it sounds like a good party with some rugby thrown in to work up a thirst. Stories of parties lasting until 4 a.m. or later in the Irish team’s hotel are legendary.
Twenty-four years later the importance of the Rugby World Cup has drastically changed. The Webb Ellis Cup has become the ultimate trophy a national side can win. Rugby Union became a fully professional sport in 1995, so most of the players participating are paid professional rugby players. (There is a version of the sport called rugby league that has been professional since 1895 when these 2 versions of rugby split over the issue of professionalism.) The South African national team the Springboks, featured in the movie “Invictus”, have recently been playing mostly B-team players in important matches with Australia and New Zealand in the annual Tri-Nations tournament in order to ensure key players are well rested and fit when they begin their quest to become the first team to win 3 World Cup titles. There have only been 6 so far, and South Africa was banned from the first two because of the anti-apartheid sport boycott. The Rugby World Cup is now the 3rd largest sporting event in the world behind soccer’s world cup and the Olympics. If you read any interviews with players who are hoping to make squads to New Zealand this year, it has been their rugby goal for at least 4 years. It is THE rugby tournament and all others fade away in comparison.
On a recent warm August evening biking around Lake Pontchartrain with DeepSouthRugby.net publisher, Fran Thompson, we stopped in the bar at the beach volleyball courts. Our discussion turned to how aware the average U.S. athlete was of rugby and the Rugby World Cup. We asked the bartender, Jennifer, a competitive athlete with a world class smile, if she knew what rugby was. Jennifer is a graduate of the University of New Orleans, a university that has had a rugby team off and on since the mid to late 70s. This year the New Orleans Rugby Club were the national division 2 men’s club side champions. There was a big billboard on I-10 by the Industrial Canal congratulating the team on its championship. Jennifer told us she knew about rugby but was unaware that there was a Rugby World Cup. Jennifer then asked, “You wear a glove in rugby, right?”
You don’t wear a glove in rugby. As a nation we are very unaware of rugby and our national team. The National Guard is a significant contributor to rugby. Our tax dollars support the game. Yet, most of us are oblivious to the fact that in September our national team will be competing for the most prestigious of rugby trophies, the Webb Ellis Cup.
The USA Eagles have participated in 5 of the 6 previous World Cups and will start participation in the 2011 World Cup with their Sept. 11th kick-off against Ireland. On the 10th anniversary of 9/11 our national team will begin their world cup campaign in New Plymouth, New Zealand. Maybe there is some alignment of the stars as our national side begins the tournament in a New Zealand town with a very similar name to the town where the Pilgrims first settled in the USA and this happens on the 10th anniversary of what many consider the most devastating tragedy in the history of our country. Are they destined to create their own Invictus-like story and lift the cup? This probably will not happen. As a weaker tier 2 side the Eagles have often struggled to be competitive when playing tier 1 sides like South Africa or England. Their 2 World Cup wins have been against Japan in 1987 and 1991. It is dubious if the Eagles could beat Japan today, and they are playing them in Japan later today, Aug, 21st. Japan has formed a competitive professional league which has developed strong Japanese players as well as providing employment for foreign players (Kiwis, Aussies, and other Pacific Islanders) who become eligible to play for the Japanese national side after residing in the country for 3 years.
In the last World Cup (2007) the USA went winless, losing their pool matches to England, South Africa, Tonga, and Samoa. The USA fell within a try of beating Samoa on a drizzly night in St. Etienne, France, and was threatening to score as the whistle blew to end the match, but in the other matches the USA never really had a hope. On the plus side the Eagles played the 2 teams that played in the final, South Africa and England. Although they lost 28-10 to England it was a terrific hard fought match against the team that would go on to beat Australia and France in the quarter and semi-finals before losing the Webb Ellis Cup to the South African Springboks in the final.
This year the USA play Australia, Ireland, Italy, and Russia in their pool matches. The Russian Bears are the Eagles best hope for a win. They beat the Bears 32-25 in June of this year. Currently the USA and Russia are ranked 18th and 19th in the world respectively. When they face off against each other on Sept. 15th, only 4 days after the USA play Ireland, the result will determine for most players on both teams and their rugby savvy supporters who had a successful World Cup even though neither side will come close to lifting the William Web Ellis Cup.
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