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Like probably most of you, in the wake of the USA’s 30-29 upset win over Scotland, I’m still stuck somewhere between disbelief and the urge to clothe myself in Old Glory, head-to-toe, celebrating right on through Independence Day. Between shopping for a fake mullet attached to a red-white-and-blue headband and scouring the internet for plus-sized, star-spangled budgy smugglers, I have distilled some of the reactionary thoughts racing through my mind.
Darkest Before the Dawn
USA Rugby Congressman Steve Lewis, who has been among the most vocal and active members of USA Rugby’s leadership structure in the face of financial, organizational and political ruin, wanted to end on a positive note. When we recorded a podcast, released last week, discussing the millions of dollars burned through an ill-conceived and poorly-executed attempt at creating a for-profit arm to fill USA Rugby’s coffers, he repeated a line he’s become fond of saying – it’s always darkest before the dawn – indicating brighter days were ahead.
He was right. Specifically, Lewis was integral in exposing and chasing away the board members who landed USA Rugby in its current tight spot, Chad Keck, Will Chang, Rob King and Robert Kimmitt, all of whom have essentially been jettisoned.
Saturday’s win took me back four years. When the men's and women's 7s teams qualified for the Rio Olympics by winning North American qualifiers in Cary, N.C. in 2014, Chang and former USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville were there. I distinctly remember seeing Chang, who's owned multiple professional sports franchises, including the San Francisco Giants and D.C. United, drape himself all over the players who had to endure near-poverty to realize the momentous occasion.
This wealthy, entitled member of a non-profit board was celebrating on the field with 20-somethings who paid for the victory with their lifestyles, bodies and tangible sacrifice, as though he’d had something to do with it. It didn’t sit right.
This win is for everyone in American rugby. It’s for former Eagles. It’s for Memphis Inner City Rugby’s Shane Young, who convinced Cam Dolan to join his high school rugby team. It’s for Dave Synnott, who like most high school all-star coaches, can feel at times like a glorified cat herder, but without him, who knows if Hanco Germishuys gets into the Gloucester Academy and follows the path he did, which ultimately led to catching a try off AJ MacGinty against Scotland. It’s for Belmont Shore, San Francisco Golden Gate and New York Athletic Club for helping Joe Taufete’e, Samu Manoa and AJ MacGinty, respectively, become Eagles.
Saturday was not for the rich guys in suits. It was first and foremost for the men who filled those jerseys and the coaches who worked tirelessly alongside them. Then for the USA Rugby employees who’ve had to go to work every day with a cloud over their head for the last several months, and the members who faithfully pay their CIPP fee, pop for the streaming subscription, buy the merch and fill the seats. Saturday, the match-day 23 stood on a whole lot of shoulders.
But Chang, Melville and their crew were not on the pitch dancing in loafers. That, for some reason, felt right.
Best Team Ever?
Honestly speaking, I don’t have the longevity to make that claim. I started covering rugby in 2009, a couple of years after I started playing. Since then, there’s no doubt this is the best men’s 15s national team USA Rugby has fielded.
It starts with the three playmaking positions – scrumhalf, flyhalf and fullback. For the first time I can remember, we have legitimate professionals at all three positions in Shaun Davies, AJ MacGinty and Will Hooley, respectively.
MacGinty is arguably the best American in the world right now, which is saying something, with Chris Wyles just retiring and Samu Manoa and Blaine Scully playing well in two of the world's best leagues. MacGinty is a game changer. His kicking from tee and hand are better than we’ve had, as is his attacking prowess with ball in hand.
Davies hasn’t had an easy road. He was prime to be slid under Mike Petri as an understudy, but he wasn’t favored by Mike Tolkin. John Mitchell committed to the conversion of Nate Augspurger into an international scrumhalf at Davies’ expense. Gold has been on the job for a short while, and though he’s sensitive to any suggestion that Davies is clearly his first-choice scrumhalf, the Glendale Raptor has started both June tests so far, delivered one of the best offensive performances in team history and backed it up with the biggest win since the 1924 Olympics.
Hooley is primarily a flyhalf for the Bedford Blues. Saturday marked just his second game at 15 for the USA, his second start for the Eagles, and just his third international cap. He’s been nearly perfect, adding a secondary legitimate ball handler and kicker to a team that’s usually struggled to field one. He’s the find of the year so far for Gold and his staff.
The Eagles don’t beat Scotland if anyone but Paul Lasike is lining up next to Bryce Campbell in the midfield. He was the best player in high school rugby for Highland (UT). He was the best player for the best BYU teams ever before switching to football. He’s the best player for the Utah Warriors. And he was massive Saturday. Yes, he can smash with ball in hand, but his effort, work rate and athleticism on defense were paramount to toppling the Scots.
Joe Tauefete’e played out of his skin, headlining the USA’s deepest stable of effective ball carriers I can recall. Usually, the Eagles have fielded a forward or four who are on the pitch for set piece prowess or lack of better options but don’t pose much of a threat toting the rock. You can’t put that label on any starter from Saturday. All of them were dynamic ball carriers, helping open up the game and finish off opportunities like never before.
All That Glitters is Gold
Don’t look now, but the Eagles are a perfect 7-0 under Gary Gold. Five of those wins came in the fledgling Americas Rugby Championship, where the USA hasn’t lost a game since 2016. But it’s still a remarkable feat never matched in the 42-year history of the team.
Gold jumped on a bucking bronco in taking the job. USA Rugby was in the middle of extreme tumult financially, organizationally and politically. It still is. He took the job knowing he wouldn’t likely have any meaningful time with his players before taking the field at the ARC, and he still won. He dealt with the player availability drama every American coach is subjected to, and he still won.
Gold and his staff have taken the challenge head-on, they haven’t publicly complained, and they’ve kept their heads down and put in the work. When Gold presented at the National Development Summit back in January, his first time being paraded around the American rugby community, what stuck out to me most was his focus on the mental game. He seemed marginally obsessed by Tiger Woods’ once-God-like ability to put away distractions, pressures and outside influences and focus on the task at hand. Halfway through his first year on the job, Gold has put his own mental toughness to practice, and it’s permeated the entire team.
Shot not Heard ‘Round the World
At ESPN UK’s rugby home page, the first mention is 10 stories down. At Sky Sports’ rugby home, there are seven stories with photos, none of them acknowledging it – just a six-word headline drown out by many others. It’s a sidebar on the Telegraph’s page dedicated to union. No mention at all on Rugby World Magazine’s site. It’s the third story on the Daily Mail, behind the broken arm of England’s Billy Vunipola and Eddie Jones’ walking back of his comparison of Bath’s owner to Donald Trump.
At nearly all of those prominent Eurpoean news sources for the sport, the USA’s historic first win over a Home Nation, first win over a tier-one opponent, and the upset of the year so far, was a below-the-fold afterthought, couched as a Scottish collapse instead of an American triumph. Throw out an out-of-context quote about Super Rugby or the Pro 14 coming stateside as clickbait, and it goes viral. The Eagles beating a Home Nation makes the paper, but only just.
World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper is fond of talking about tapping the American market and getting a World Cup stateside. He did tweet about the win once, which is the same number of tweets he dedicated to prodding fun at the South Africa versus Wales match played in Washington, D.C. two weeks ago at USA Rugby's expense. World Rugby’s site has no mention of Saturday’s historic win.
This is just the latest piece of evidence suggesting the international rugby community, its powers-that-be and media, don’t care about the USA’s success on the field. They’re drunk in love with our stadia, media, and market.
They want rugby to grow in America so far as it benefits them financially and our shores can serve as a glamorous getaway for them and theirs, but is there a genuine desire to see the national teams grow and be competitive? It would appear those two outcomes would be best served together, but the lack of coverage of Saturday’s monumental win and the nature of what scraps were thrown our way suggests one is more important than the other.
(Don’t forget Welsh Rugby’s chief executive was quoted just a handful of months ago saying Wales wouldn’t play the Eagles in America, but a “proper side” instead. Scotland, the team the Eagles just beat, is ranked one spot below Wales.)
This win would not have been possible without a seasoned, experienced, composed referee like Wayne Barnes. There are few more recognizable sirs in the world than he.
That couldn’t have been said about Francisco Pestrana, the green Argentine ref who oversaw Ireland’s 15-12 win over the USA in Houston in 2013, in which Ireland scored all their points from the tee, with four of the five penalties coming in the scrum. It couldn’t have been said at the time when Jerome Garces whistle-whipped the USA, handing out two red cards while allowing Italy’s Martin Castrogiovanni to officiate the scrums in Houston in 2012.
Younger referees, especially those new to being in the center of international tests, have a tendency to lean on the teams’ perceived strengths and weaknesses when making difficult calls. This has traditionally manifested itself in the scrum for the Eagles, as tier-one opponents are given the benefit of the doubt when a scrum goes down and the referee isn’t sure why.
Barnes signaled his intentions early when he penalized Scotland for collapsing the game’s first pack down. He wasn’t affected by pleas from either side for more favorable calls. He was confident and sure of himself and delivered a great match, allowing it to be decided by the players.
If Barnes had been in the center at BBVA Compass Stadium in 2012 or 2013, the Eagles might have gotten their coveted scalp a bit sooner.