Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Eagles "Test" Their Wings

There it is again, that phrase "sleeping giants" (commonly applied to U.S. rugby), used so often that it's now becoming a cliche. I think some touring Americans ought to name their side, just for kicks, "The Sleeping Giants." - Wes

Eagles "Test" Their Wings

(By Mark Jenkins, Wall Street Journal, 11/17/87)

Thirty thousand boozy Welshmen welcomed the U.S. national rugby team to Cardiff Arms Park with a chilling rendition of "Myfanwy," the ancient Celtic hymn. Rugby is the state religion in Wales, and Cardiff Arms Park, the national stadium, is its holiest place.
So when the U.S. Eagles stepped onto the hallowed turf, they were regarded as a misguided flock of lambs offering themselves up for the sacrifice.

For the Eagles, the game that followed "Myfanwy" capped the team's grueling three-week tour of Wales. The exclusively amateur 26-man Eagles squad -- lawyers, bartenders, senator's aides and other assorted working types -- arrived last month and plunged into a battering series of encounters with top regional and club teams before taking on the national side.

"Touring anywhere is tough," said Eagle captain Fred Paoli, a Denver-based personal-injury attorney, "but in Wales it's murder."

After 10 days the Eagles were 0 and 3 against the "warm-up" teams. "So much for the easy part," snapped 26-year-old Eagle fullback Alec Montgomery after the team's 25-6 defeat by Glamorgan Wanderers. Along with his disconsolate teammates, Montgomery, a Harvard-educated investment analyst, hardly dared contemplate what lay ahead.

British journalists darkly predicted a drubbing by the Eagles' next opponents, Neath Rugby Club, the Welsh champions. The press was also declaring the tour a financial disaster for the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU). Who in unemployment-stricken Wales would fork over #5 to watch their national team run rampant over so-called American all-stars who couldn't match local club sides?

But to the horror of the thousands of Neath supporters who did turn up to watch their club whomp the visiting Yanks, the Eagles made the Welsh club champions their first victims with a convincing 15-6 victory, running in two unanswered "tries" (touchdowns) and halting almost every Neath offense with the tooth-rattling tackles that have become an Eagle trademark.

"They hit us like they thought they were wearing football pads," grumbled one Neath player, sipping morosely on a pint of ale at the traditional postgame banquet.

The only person in Wales happier than Eagles manager Bob Watkins was WRU president Cliff Jones, who now sensed financial salvation for the Cardiff Arms Park "test" between the two national teams. Jones's spirits were further bolstered when, three days after their defeat of Neath, the Eagles steamrollered Pembrokeshire 21-15.

Within hours, the Eagles were being pursued by television and newspaper reporters, autograph hounds, and not just the occasional gaggle of giggling girls. "It's incredible," said U.S. Air Force Capt. Kevin Swords, the Eagles' 6-foot-5-inch, 250-pound lock forward. "Nobody knows who the hell we are in the States, but we're celebrities here."

The Eagles did not, in fact, come from nowhere. Unbeknownst to most Americans, rugby has enjoyed a long and distinguished history in the U.S. First played at Harvard in 1840, the sport soon spread from New England's soggy paddocks to the sunnier climes of southern California, where its popularity remains strongest.

In the early 20th century, as many as 26,000 spectators flocked to rugby games between the University of California and Stanford. The golden age of American rugby was the 1920s, when the U.S. won gold medals at both the 1920 and 1924 Olympics. Shortly after the 1924 Olympics, however, the International Olympic Committee canceled rugby as an Olympic sport. Rugby continued to flourish all over the rest of the world, but without the Olympic incentive, the sport all but died in the U.S., and remained dormant for the next half-century.

Then came the turbulent '60s, with their tense combination of social rebellion and anti-war sentiment. On college campuses, rugby's free-wheeling but tough amateurism provided an alternative to football's hawkish image.

In 1975, the U.S. Rugby Football Union was formed, and soon afterward announced that it would be represented abroad and against visiting national teams by an all-star select side called the U.S. Eagles. Despite an unimpressive record on paper, the Eagles, who represent an estimated quarter-million active American rugby players affiliated with some 3,000 amateur clubs in all 50 states, have made friends all over the world with their no-nonsense brand of rugby, and nowhere more so than at this year's Rugby World Cup in Australia.

The Eagles were eliminated in the preliminary round, but not before posting their biggest-ever win over archrivals Japan and putting up spirited performances against two international rugby powerhouses, Australia and England.

And now, as if the Eagles have not had enough excitement for one year, the team found itself standing on the manicured turf of Cardiff Arms Park while the strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner" drifted off into the autumn mist.

On the ramparts of the stadium the Stars and Stripes fluttered alongside the Welsh dragon for the first time, while the 30,000 spectators below, who remained respectfully silent during the American anthem, erupted into a cacophony of boos and catcalls when the band struck up "God Save the Queen." When the last bar was played, the crowd launched into "Sospen Vach," the Welsh anthem. It was clear from the opening whistle that the Eagles were in trouble.

The enormous Welsh forwards drove their American counterparts backward from the start, turning the ball over time and time again on Eagles possession. After only two minutes of play, Wales fullback Paul Thorburne opened the scoring with a penalty kick. Three minutes later Glen Webbe stretched the Welsh lead to 9-0 with a try.

In stakeless exhibition games a powerful national team will sometimes go easy on inferior opposition in the interest of international rugby brotherhood, but in this contest the Eagles could expect no mercy. With the all-important Five-Nations Championship (England, France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales) starting soon, Welsh players were out to win places on the squad for the tournament. And the Welsh coaches, criticized after poor performances by Wales against lowly Canada and Tonga at the World Cup, were not about to restrain their players in a mismatch against the upstart Yanks.

To cut a long and sad American story short, the final score was 46-0. It was the Eagles' worst defeat since their 1982 52-0 trouncing by England, and a huge setback for the team, described after recent encouraging performances as international rugby's sleeping giant. This dubious title was of little interest to the bruised, battered and bitterly disappointed Eagles slumped in the locker room at Cardiff Arms Park. All they could look forward to was a long flight home the next day, and the incessant and insensitive questioning of their co-workers on Monday morning.

"Sure it'll be tough telling people we lost that badly," said Alec Montgomery, enjoying his last taste of British beer at London's Heathrow Airport. "But Americans have to realize that compared to teams like Wales, we're novices. And don't forget, more than any other game, rugby is less about winning than playing the game."

"Yeah, right," said Kevin Swords, rolling his eyes. "Except we have to learn to play the game a lot better."

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