The Americans head to the World Cup in Japan trying to hold their own in the Group of Death.
Shawn Pittman looked out at the players on the United States national rugby team, the Eagles, going through their drills and thought back eight years to when he was preparing to play in the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
At the time, he was one of a handful of players on the team who played professionally. Most of his teammates came from the semipro and amateur ranks. The team had only a few weeks together to prepare, and coaches increased practices to catch up, leaving some players worn out.
The per diems were small, and there were no bonuses for winning. The results, like many other trips to the World Cup, were dismal. The American team won one match out of four, scoring just 38 points, their second fewest ever.
Much has changed as the Eagles prepare for the Rugby World Cup that begins Friday when Russia plays the hosts, Japan. Pittman, now an assistant coach, said every player on the Eagles now earned a living, however meagre, from rugby.
When the team convened in June after their professional seasons ended, the players were already in good shape and their playing skills were sharper, which allowed coaches to use practices to focus on strategy and the finer points of the game.
"The big contrast is how much more professional it is, from a coaching standpoint all the way to performance," said Pittman, who played on London Welsh, which was then in English Premiership, and collected 30 international caps with the Eagles.
"Back then, players mostly only had time with each other around the Rugby World Cup. Now, we have players coming in fit because they're playing full time here and overseas. There were maybe 10 of us overseas at most back then."
Whether the Eagles can improve on their best performance at the tournament — one win and 86 points scored in 2003 — is unclear. Despite their strides, the Americans must face rugby powerhouses from England, France, Argentina and Tonga in their pool, the so-called Group of Death. Only the most starry-eyed supporters say the Eagles can notch the minimum of two victories needed to advance.
Still, many members of the rugby establishment who gathered here in late July to watch the Eagles thrash the Canadians, 47-19, in a Pacific Nations Cup match, were optimistic that the national team, and the sport of rugby more broadly, had turned a significant corner in the United States.
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Not only is the national team on the upswing, but a domestic league, Major League Rugby, just finished its second season and will add three more teams next season, giving more players a chance to focus full time on honing their skills.
"This is the beginning of our professional era. Gary has a fully vetted squad, so he doesn't have to teach the basics of the game," Dan Lyle, a former Eagles captain who played professionally in England and is now an analyst for NBC Sports, said of Gary Gold, the head coach. "This will be the benchmark moving forward. We're not limping into this World Cup. "
Part of the team's success is not only the increasing opportunities to play professionally, but also the growing number of players at the lower ranks. Since 2012, the number of people who played rugby more than eight times a year had grown 56 per cent, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Rugby is the country's fastest-growing team sport.
That growth has translated into a more experienced national team. More than half of the players on the Eagles' 31-man roster began playing in youth leagues or middle school, and an additional 12 started playing in high school. Just three players took up the game in college or when they were college age.
While rugby participation continues to grow, so do attrition rates. For years, USA Rugby, the national governing body, has tried to figure out how to give players more opportunities to keep playing so they do not drop out.
The organisation has been hampered by infighting over its mission and bad financial deals. But in the past year, the group went through an internal overhaul, replacing most of its board. Thanks in part to loans from World Rugby, the group's finances have stabilised, freeing more money to spend on developing the amateur ranks.
"The biggest issue we have to address is mass participation and to build on that base and push them through the funnel and out the other end," said Ross Young, chief executive of USA Rugby. "The total number of people playing rugby is increasing, but trying to retain them is a major initiative."
Over time, Young and others hope the growth of homegrown talent benefits the Eagles' 15-man squad much as it has aided the national men's and women's rugby sevens teams, which are both ranked second in the world. The men's and women's teams have already qualified for the Olympics next year in Tokyo.
The 15-man squad has improved, albeit more slowly in part because of the continued dominance of New Zealand, Australia and other Tier 1 nations. This year, the Eagles rose to a record 12th in the world after defeating Scotland last year, its first victory over a Tier 1 nation, and knocked off Samoa, another formidable opponent.
The Eagles are 13th in the World Rugby rankings, but Gold, who led teams in England, Japan and South Africa, is focused on trying to get his team more chances to compete against elite teams and letting players develop even after setbacks. The team is also bringing in more players from the national rugby sevens squad.
Young said that he would be delighted if the Eagles "upset one of the big boys" in the group stage, but that he also would be pleased if the team simply held its own in every match. In four years, he expected the Americans to be in better position to finally break through to the knockout stage.
Young said his group was also considering bidding to host the Rugby World Cup in 2027 or 2031 to jump-start enthusiasm for the sport much the way soccer benefited when America hosted the FIFA World Cup in 1994.
For now, rugby remains most popular on the East and West Coasts and in Colorado, where the city of Glendale, south of Denver, is known as RugbyTown USA. Mayor Mike Dunafon, a former player, has promoted rugby to help the local economy, keep children active and build community spirit.
Since 2006, the city has run youth leagues and camps, an academy for 18- to 22-year-olds and an under-19 team. Dozens of club and high school teams have sprouted in the area. Many play in Glendale's rugby-only stadium, which hosts international matches, a Major League Rugby franchise and the Eagles training camp.
"Fifteen years ago, I struggled to get people interested in rugby as a way to build civic pride," Dunafon said. "But I knew that once Americans saw the real game, they'd get hooked. Glendale is a completely different place in the last four years."
Still, Glendale's all-in approach to rugby is a rarity in a country dominated by football, baseball, basketball and soccer. Dunafon noted that Glendale is "more famous worldwide than we are in Colorado because the world plays rugby."
For the Americans to build a team able to truly compete with the best rugby nations, the United States will need more cities like Glendale.
"This is the Vatican of rugby in the United States," said Matt McCarthy, who runs Rugby Wrap Up, a rugby website. "We need 11 more Vaticans."
Written by: Ken Belson
Photographs by: Nick Cote
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