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Arrested development: USA rugby

By Sean Davies

Nick name: The Eagles
Colours: Red, white and blue
Rugby songs: The Star-Spangled Banner

As a nation with a reputation for breeding huge, corn-fed athletes, it should be little surprise that the USA are the reigning Olympic champions in rugby union.

USA Eagles back-row man Dave Hodges

However, that was in 1924 when the 15-man game was last an Olympic sport, and other than that the country's rugby achievements have fallen way short of its enormous potential.

The game began in the States as a phenomenon on college campuses, the first recorded match on US soil taking place on 5 May, 1874.

Harvard University hosted Montreal's McGill University at Cambridge, Massachusetts - but sadly no-one remembers who won the game.

The game took a particular hold in colleges on the west coast, and sides made up largely of students represented the USA in the 1900 and 1908 Olympics.

In 1912 the United States played their first Test match, a 12-8 loss to Australia in Berkeley.

With the game growing, in 1913 the formidable All Blacks embarked on a tour of California and British Columbia.

Many expected the New Zealand union to name a development side, but in typically hard-nosed Kiwi fashion their strongest available selection was sent across the Pacific.

Arwel Thomas in action against the Eagles
Arwel Thomas has been a regular thorn in the side of the USA Eagles

It was too much for the fledgling Yanks and their mainly student teams who lost all 16 games, conceding 610 points and scoring just six.

Some have blamed these hammerings for stunting the growth of the game in the States, but the USA bounced back to win the Olympics in 1920 and 1924.

More significant was the International Olympic Committee's decision to remove rugby as an Olympic sport, leading to a decline in interest in the game in the USA that lasted at least half a century.

Signs of life emerged from the 1960s, and in 1975 a meeting in Chicago led to the formation of the United States of America Rugby Football Union (now known as USA Rugby).

The organisation now has over 50,000 members, divided between seven territorial unions and 37 local area unions.

The national team, known as the Eagles, played their first match of the modern era in 1976, a 24-12 loss to Australia in Los Angeles.

Their first clash with Wales did not come until 1987 at Cardiff Arms Park.

Bleddyn Bowen scored two tries in his first game as Wales captain, and 19-year-old replacement Tony Clement added another brace in a 46-0 win.

Kort Schubert in action for the Eagles
USA Eagles captain Kort Schubert found employment in Wales

The Eagles' recent development has been hindered by the dispersement of its best players seeking professional contracts across the globe, with the likes of Dave Hodges and Kort Schubert performing worthy service in Welsh domestic rugby.

The USA team that faced Wales at the Arms Park in January 1997 contained 11 players basing themselves in Britain.

They could not hold a Wales side boosted by the return of ex-rugby league stars Allan Bateman, Scott Quinnell, Jonathan Davies, Dai Young and captain Scott Gibbs, and the home side cruised to a 34-14 win.

That summer, with their Lions stars on duty in South Africa, Wales embarked on their first tour of the USA.

Gwyn Jones took over the captaincy and led his side to a 20-30 win in Wilmington, North Carolina, fly-half Arwel Thomas contributing 20 points.

Wayne Proctor scored a hat-trick in the second Test in Balboa Park, San Francisco, but the scores were tied at 23-23 until a late Thomas try sealed Wales' narrow win.

A non-cap Wales XV defeated the USA 53-24 at the Millennium Stadium in a World Cup warm-up match in 1999, with Stephen Jones starring.

Scott Gibbs in action against the Eagles
Scott Gibbs captained Wales to victory over the USA in 1997

It was Arwel Thomas who tormented the Eagles again at the Millennium Stadium the following year.

The mercurial fly-half lighted up a dour 42-11 home win with a dazzling try as he sought to steal a march on Neil Jenkins in the continuing battle for the Wales number 10 jersey.

With their playing resources scattered the USA have continued to struggle on the world stage.

Wales' tour in 2005 was as Grand Slam champions and - even with most of their stars on Lions duty - Mike Ruddock's side cruised to a record 11-try victory.

Colin Charvis recorded a brace in a 77-3 win at Rentschler Field, Hartford, Connecticut, while Ceri Sweeney added 27 points.

see also
Wales v USA: Full record
29 Sep 06 |  Rugby Union
Star Spangled Banner - USA anthem
29 Sep 06 |  Rugby Union
Scrum V's rugby history
11 Aug 07 |  Welsh
Country profile: United States of America
18 Oct 11 |  Country profiles

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