US Eagles Soar At World Cup
In the end, the best of the U.S Eagles was on show at the beginning of the Rugby World Cup.
Two days after the tournament opened, all 30 players in the squad attended a memorial service to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks.
The players, all wearing their formal gray suits with red-white-and-blue ties, then filed out of a church in New Plymouth to prepare for the match against Ireland.
"We went there this morning in our No. 1 suits. It meant a lot for the boys, it hit home," captain Todd Clever said at the time. "We are going out, we are playing a game today, and some people lost their lives," in the attacks.
"They would do anything to be in our shoes, so we played for them."
The preparation was unprecedented at a Rugby World Cup. Scrumhalf Mike Petri received his jersey for the opening match against Ireland from the brother of a victim on 9/11 who had also attended Xavier High school in New York.
"He spent the anniversary here," Petri said of John Lugano. "He chose to fly down from New York just for the weekend to be with us. It was a real honour to get my jersey from him."
The players showed nothing but heart in losing 22-10 to the heavily favoured Irish. Indeed, the near capacity crowd of 24,000 at Stadium
Taranaki erupted when U.S. centre Paul Emerick intercepted the ball and ran 50 metres to score under the posts in the final play of the game.
"In the grand scheme of things, this is just a game and we're talking about thousands of lives (lost)," Clever said afterward.
Four emotionally draining days later, the Americans met a Russian team playing its opening match - the last of the 20 nations at the tournament to take to the field - in an encounter that coach Eddie O'Sullivan declared would define whether their campaign was a success.
Having won only one of its previous 17 World Cup matches, the U.S. was also battling fatigue from the short turnaround in energy-sapping conditions from the heavy rain that drenched the New Plymouth ground.
No matter. Petri scored a first half try in a 13-6 victory that was only the Americans' third in six World Cups, after having beaten Japan at the 1987 and 2003 tournaments.
The players' performance in attending the memorial service, running Ireland so close and then beating Russia inspired Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives to pay tribute to them in Congress on September 15.
"I applaud the Eagles' victory today and commend each of these young men from across the country for the hard work and dedication they have committed representing our country at their sport's highest level," he said.
O'Sullivan then changed almost his entire starting line-up to play Australia, which had just lost in a stunning upset to Ireland. Despite the weakened team, the Americans caught the Tri-Nations champions napping with a close-range try from a scrum to only trail 22-5 at half time.
The Wallabies scored 45 unanswered points after the break to reassert their dominance but the U.S. second-stringers were not disgraced.
Four days later, the Americans' quintessential resolve was in evidence again despite being outgunned in a set piece showdown with Italy on Tuesday. The Eagles battled courageously in defence before eventually succumbing 27-10 but still almost certain to finish fourth in Pool C.
There was no single sparkling American moment at the World Cup to match Takudzwa Ngwenya's try against South Africa in 2007, the winger finishing the length-of-the-field team move by beating Springboks speedster Bryan Habana for pace in what was the try of the event.
But there were some standout individual performers. None better than Clever, the first American to ever play Super Rugby and whose aggression and inspirational leadership from the openside flank was as strikingly obvious as the long-haired ponytail he sports.
Lock Hayden Smith was the only American to play every match and formed a solid lineout partnership with John van der Giessen, the team winning half the throws of Italy's much-respected lineout and the same percentage against Russia.
Loosehead prop Mike MacDonald set two American marks at the tournament, passing Luke Gross to become the Test record-holder with 65 caps and eclipsing Alec Parker with his 11th World Cup match in which he performed so well he drew exasperated praise from Italy's coach.