These Eagles Were Grounded The U.S., as expected, lost its first two matches in the World Cup

October 17, 1999

In a renovated castle south of Dublin, in the Irish coastal
village of Killiney, sat 30 jet-lagged Americans. Among them
were seven college students, an engineer, a miner, an interior
designer and four rugby professionals. Together these men were
2,500-to-1 long shots to win the world's third-most-watched
sporting event, the Rugby World Cup.

To all the world Team USA--also known as the Eagles--might as
well have been convening belowdecks on the Titanic. That's how
much of a chance they were given to survive the opening round of
the World Cup. Three matches had been scheduled for the Eagles,
and they were underdogs in all of them, starting with an Oct. 2
game against Ireland, in Dublin. The second match, against
Romania last Saturday, would be followed in five days by a
likely thrashing at the hands of Australia, the 1991 champion
and a 5-2 choice to win this time. (New Zealand, England and
South Africa were the other favorites to take the final on Nov.
6 in Cardiff, Wales.)

To prepare themselves for the World Cup, the Eagles had traveled
to Britain in August for a series of "friendly" matches. But
against England's World Cup team the play got unusually serious,
and the U.S. wound up losing 106-8. Which means that a lot of
people were happy to welcome the U.S. team to Ireland last month.

The customary approach for a team as overmatched as the Eagles
would be to focus all its energies on the one tournament foe it
was capable of beating. Romania was taking this approach, openly
targeting the U.S. For Romania to think of upsetting Ireland or
Australia was "unrealistic," explained coach Mircea Paraschiv.
Fellow underdogs Spain and Uruguay were raising similar white
flags, as if pleading for mercy before the first whistle.

There was no shame in these concessions. It takes amazing
courage to play rugby at the highest level. It is a sport of
violent collisions, with just a thin layer of padding under the
uniforms and no huddles for catching one's breath between plays.
The players are not quite of NFL girth (backs usually weigh
about 200 pounds, forwards 240), but they are very big,
considering the demands of running up and down the field for 80
minutes.

U.S. coach Jack Clark laid out the team's options. Should we
play conservatively and accept defeat against Ireland, he asked
his players, to save our best efforts for Romania? The players
answered soberly and unanimously: absolutely not. They decided
that they should try to beat Ireland. They had come too far,
sacrificed too much, not to give their all in every match.

"This is what is so beautiful about the American mentality,"
says Richard Tardits, 34, a French-born U.S. resident who spent
four NFL seasons as a linebacker for the Arizona Cardinals and
the New England Patriots before returning to the sport of rugby
and joining the Eagles in 1993. "As long as we are not dead, we
always believe that we have a chance."

Four years ago, at the last World Cup, rugby was still
officially an amateur sport. It was against the rules to pay
players (although the best of them were paid anyway). But with
escalating television revenue, mostly from Rupert Murdoch, the
International Rugby Board voted in August 1995 to make rugby
"open" to all players. A dozen of the top rugby nations,
including Ireland, quickly made their players professionals. The
Irish ruggers didn't get rich--their biggest star, Keith Wood,
was said to be making less than $200,000 in salary and
endorsements--but for the first time they were making careers of
the sport.

The U.S. team, in the meantime, has fielded only four men who
play rugby professionally, in Britain and Italy. Among these
four, the only world-class player is 6'4", 245-pound captain Dan
Lyle (SI, Sept. 6), who earns about $200,000 from the English
club Bath. The other 26 Eagles have full-time jobs or are
students. Not many team sports are left in which amateurs line
up alongside pros, especially for a world championship. The
Eagles are among the last of a dying breed.

Between practices and team meetings during the World Cup, the
Eagles checked their E-mail and voice mail and phoned their
offices in the States. Fly-half Mark Williams, 38, the team's
oldest player, figured he was losing $3,500 during his four-week
absence from his interior-design business in Aspen, Colo.

Three days before the match against Ireland, Clark presented the
team with its final game plan. The Irish were 38-point
favorites. Clark's hope was to keep them off-balance with
slightly unconventional play, such as punting the ball away to
gain territory. The U.S. was going to try to run the ball from
inside its 22-yard line, which, in NFL terms, is like trying to
return a punt from inside your 10.

Defensively, knowing that they could not match up with the
fierce Irish scrum, the Eagles would remove one or more of their
athletic big men, such as Tardits and Lyle, from the scrum and
position them like linebackers to pick up the Irish
ballcarriers. Clark had been preparing the team to play this
way, having figured all along what it would take to "turn the
world upside down," as he referred to an American victory. If
the U.S. played conventionally, it would be certain to lose.

George Sucher, a 30 year-old prop (one of those front-row
players whose heads disappear like a turtle's when two teams
thump together shoulder to shoulder in a scrum), was happy that
in Dublin his fiancee, Christine Evans, would be attending her
first game of international rugby. Having never seen Sucher play
at the highest level, she was understandably suspicious of the
time he was giving to the sport. "The American fans don't know
what rugby is, what it means to go to another country and play
in front of 30,000 people," said Sucher, a 6-foot, 250-pound
computer software salesman. "My girlfriend's family doesn't
understand. They think it's a little weird that I'm away so
much. You know how it is when you miss family weddings."

At last their long-anticipated Saturday in Dublin arrived. In
the early afternoon, hours before kickoff, the U.S. coaches and
Lyle moved in a pack from room to room, emphasizing two or three
points of strategy with each player. Each meeting ended with
Lyle looking in his teammate's eyes and asking, "Can I count on
you for 80 minutes?" Then he handed the player his match jersey,
white with red trim and, across the shoulders, a sea of blue.

A wedding was being held in the hotel, and the guests applauded
the players as they walked through the lobby. Outside on the
steps a bagpiper saluted them with I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy. A
police motorcycle escort rushed the team bus through traffic to
Lansdowne Road, the stadium that is the traditional home of
Irish rugby.

As the U.S. took the field, the clouds were a blushing pink in
the twilight chill. A band played The Star-Spangled Banner as
the 15 starters stood side by side on the field, hands over
hearts, shouting out the lyrics, some with their eyes shut tight.

With no further pageantry the game began. It was never close.
After the Irish scored 10 points, the Americans forced a fumble,
which their smallest player, Kevin Dalzell, ran back from
midfield for a try (the equivalent of a touchdown) to make the
score 10-5. In the 26th minute Dalzell kicked a 40-yard penalty,
not unlike a field goal, to keep the Eagles within 17-8. But the
Irish were too strong.

Tardits and Lyle were effective in their linebacker roles, but
there were too many options to be covered. It was like trying to
defend against a pro offense, with not two backs coming out of
the backfield but four or five or six, crisscrossing like a
flock of birds and giving no clue as to which one would receive
the pass. The Eagles tried to mimic their hosts but kept
dropping their laterals in the punishing traffic of the Irish
defense. In the end the Americans were running as if in ocean
surf. The final score was 53-8.

The next morning Clark called a team meeting. "I could see in
[the players'] eyes that they felt they had let people down," he
says. "All I could tell them was, 'Hey, you were there, and
someday you will be proud of that fact.'" Then he got on with
preparing them to play Romania.

On Saturday, in Dublin, the Eagles lost again, 27-25. They
rallied from a 10-point deficit to Romania in the final 13
minutes. They had chances to tie the game or win it outright.
Although they didn't do either, they felt they were improving
dramatically. Still, most of them realized that in a week, after
an almost certain loss to Australia, they would be back at their
jobs, with the chimes ringing on their trip to Ireland, and an
eternity of four years to wait until the next World Cup.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN The Eagles gave their all against the Irish (in green), but it was never close.

To the world the Eagles might as well have been convening
belowdecks on the Titanic.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)