U.S. faces tough draw in Rugby World Cup

Nick Firchau

The United States has made tremendous strides in the last few years in its three-decade quest for respect on the global rugby scene.

Still, the Americans can’t seem to catch a break.

Witness the Americans’ exceptionally tough draw in next month’s Rugby World Cup in France: an opening match against defending champion England and a preliminary-round capper against South Africa, a team ranked fourth in the world with a tradition in the sport dating to the 19th century.

It’s a tough order to tackle for the Americans, who were dubbed the U.S. Eagles when they made their first appearance on the rugby scene in the mid-1970s. Ranked 13th in the world, the Eagles are slated to play a final World Cup tuneup against Irish provincial pro team Munster at 2 p.m. Sunday at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill.

“Looking at the draw, obviously it’s a tough one for us,” said Phillip Eloff, a 28-year-old South Africa native and a veteran of the American squad. “I think you can look at the England and South Africa games and see that it will take a lot just to keep up with them, but we’ll do whatever it takes.”

With eight years and 32 caps with the Eagles under his belt, Eloff is one of the squad’s stalwarts. He’s also spent 10 years as a fixture on the Chicago Lions, the area’s amateur rugby team that will send three players to France when play begins Sept. 7.

The Eagles are to open Sept. 8 against England and wrap up the preliminary round Sept. 30 vs. South Africa. Those two buzz-saw match-ups bookend a pair of winnable games for the Americans. The Eagles are to play Samoa (ranked 11th in the world) and Tonga (14th) in two matches that could boost the team’s growing reputation worldwide.

Eloff and the Eagles fared surprisingly well in the 2003 Rugby World Cup, gaining their first World Cup win in 16 years by topping Japan and coming within a point of stunning rugby power Fiji.

“There’s been a tremendous change recently, even since the last World Cup,” Eloff said. “You’re starting to see the U.S. team draw in coaches from overseas to get their input, and our coaches are going abroad to see what other teams are doing.”

Still, the Americans are battling to gain respect from their global counterparts. Much of the struggle comes from the fact the team is considered a “non-professional” squad on the World Cup scene, with just five of its players playing pro rugby in Europe.

“They still look down on us a bit, and that’s because they consider us an amateur team,” Eloff said of the Eagles, who are a combined 2-11 in four World Cup appearances. “We’re not all professionals on the team, and we have other jobs and other things we have to put our attention to.”

Eloff is an independent futures trader on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, but he’s dabbled in a host of odd jobs while trying to continue his rugby career.

The key to staying on the rugby scene, Eloff said, is flexibility.

“You need a boss who understands you’re going to be taking some time off,” Eloff said. “Sometimes, there isn’t much time for anything else. I’ve known guys who will up and quit their job because they can’t get the three or four weeks off for the World Cup. That’s how much it means to them to play.”

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