LONDON (Reuters) - Although overshadowed by another game played with an oval ball, the United States Eagles head into the Rugby World Cup knowing their sport has made great strides in popularity in the last few years.
More than 61,000 people packed Soldier Field, home of the NFL’s Chicago Bears, to watch the Eagles take on New Zealand last November. Never mind that they got thumped.
They beat a tough Uruguay side in an epic two-match Americas playoff to qualify for the tournament. But pitted against Scotland, Samoa, South Africa and Japan in Pool B, the Eagles are likely to find their wings clipped.
With the Springboks among the tournament favourites and Scotland resurgent, the U.S. will be targeting Japan to avoid bringing up the rear in the pool.
Two of their three victories in seven previous World Cups have come against the Japanese.
They beat Japan 23-18 in Sacramento, California, in July, ending a run of five defeats against their opponents.
The Eagles have some handy players and an upset against Samoa or even Scotland cannot be discounted.
Saracen’s Chris Wyles, the United States’ most capped fullback, will bring his experience of top class European rugby to the festival.
Wyles captained the side in the recent Pacific Nations Cup after flanker Todd Clever, who has Super Rugby experience with South Africa’s Lions, was suspended for squad conduct violations and looks set to miss out on the World Cup.
The man to watch is Samu Manoa, playing at number eight or lock. A terrific tackler and fast and strong with the ball, he is considered among Europe’s finest forwards and is now signed to Toulon in France after four years with Northampton.
And whatever happens at the World Cup, when rugby returns to the Olympics at Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the United States will be the defending champions having won the gold medal the last time the sport was played at the Games, in Paris in 1924.
Editing by Rex Gowar