If the Americans are to avoid missing the finals for the first time since 1995, Bryce Campbell’s team must beat Kenya, Hong Kong and Portugal on successive weekends
Bryce Campbell is not keen to linger on the defeat by Chile which sent the US Eagles to the Rugby World Cup Final Qualification Tournament which starts in Dubai on Sunday. Naturally, the Indianapolis-born centre would rather focus on Kenya, Hong Kong and Portugal, who the US must beat if they are not to miss a World Cup for the first time since 1995.
No American really wants to think too much about the loss to Chile in July, other than as a very harsh lesson indeed.
“The wheels fell off,” Campbell says from the Emirates, fresh from a meeting with the Eagles coaches. “We weren’t able to win momentum back after we had a yellow card 10 minutes before half-time.”
The Eagles won the first leg against Los Cóndores, by one point on a Santiago quagmire. In the second leg, under a scorching Colorado sun, they scored three tries early and seemed set fair for France. Then came that yellow card, to the lock Nick Civetta at a ruck, and a parade of errors ruthlessly exploited by Chile.
“We were just scatterbrained,” Campbell says. “I don’t know if that had to do with our preparation or it was just one of those days. But now the past is the past and we’ve got to go out and win three games here in Dubai. That’s what matters.”
Civetta, once of Newcastle, is one heavyweight now missing thanks to injury. Joe Taufete’e, the Leicester hooker, is another. But Campbell played two years for London Irish and there is further European experience in the squad. Among others, the fly-half AJ MacGinty plays for Bristol, the hooker Kapeli Pifeleti and scrum-half Ruben de Haas for Saracens and the giant centre Paul Lasike was once of Harlequins and before that the Chicago Bears. But the squad still holds eight uncapped players.
“They’re doing great,” Campbell says. “That’s why we had games” – educational defeats – “against the Pumas and Cheetahs in South Africa, and a scrimmage with Western Province. We spent some time together at camp and then we were able to get proper games in and those opportunities showed these guys are ready. When they put the jersey on, people will see they’re the real deal.”
From Jack Iscaro of the DC front row to Mitch Wilson of the New England back three, the head coach, Gary Gold, has picked a team to face Kenya first up that is fully representative of Major League Rugby. And yet in the American game there is always another sock-full of billiard balls to dodge – or to take flush in the face. MLR is heading for its sixth season but last month, after a long stand-off with the Australian owner of Los Angeles and Austin, the league announced that the two teams will not compete next year.
The league has announced a dispersal draft and a new team in Chicago. But the players association has protested the process and Campbell, who played for Austin, is not the only Eagle wondering where he’ll next call home.
“Guys are definitely talking about it,” he says, before insisting the MLR situation is “irrelevant at the moment. We’ve got a job to do in Dubai. We’ll take care of that and the rest of the guys will be looked after. So is it easy? No. But at least we’ve got something to focus on.”
‘It’s up to us to perform’
World Rugby is focused on the US, which will host the 2031 men’s World Cup and the women in 2033. After the Chile game the governing body’s chief executive paid proper tribute to the victors, then considered the Eagles.
“I don’t think the game needs the US in France next year,” Alan Gilpin said. “[But] I think the US plan will benefit significantly from the US being in France.”
As much as anywhere in the oval world, American rugby is a very political place. But after the Eagles women made the last eight last month in New Zealand, there is a belief the men must now qualify for France.
By rankings alone they should do it. The Americans are 19th, Kenya 33rd, Hong Kong 22nd, Portugal 20th.
Furthermore, Gold has acquired some heavyweight assistants. Mario Ledesma, a great Argentina hooker who oversaw the Pumas’ first win over the All Blacks, is with the Eagles in Dubai. So are John Plumtree, a former All Blacks coach, and Steve Brett, once a Crusaders fly-half in New Zealand, now coach of the MLR team in Atlanta.
“We’ve definitely got all the pieces,” Campbell says. “We’re really lucky to have a group of coaches that are so experienced and now it’s up to us to perform.”
Portugal also have an experienced coach, Patrice Lagisquet, once of Biarritz and France, in his international playing days known as the Bayonne Express. They also have the Rugby Europe Super Cup, where Lusitanos XV, who compete against teams from Georgia, Spain, Israel, the Netherlands, Belgium and Romania, are essentially the national side in disguise. This year, Os Lobos – the Wolves – have asked questions of Argentina, Italy and Georgia.
Not to dismiss Kenya and Hong Kong, but USA v Portugal on 18 November does seem likely to decide that precious place in France, in Pool C with the Georgians, Wales, Fiji and Australia.
Campbell still won’t be drawn.
“We’ve been focusing on ourselves for the past six weeks: 80-90% of the game will come down to that. We’ve shifted our focus to Kenya but we’ll take it one week at a time. We’ll tweak a couple of things here and there, based on the opposition.”
Fair enough. Campbell does agree that for American rugby, the next three weeks are incomparably important.
“It’s about the whole trajectory of our game. This sport in the States. There is a lot riding on this. We’re accepting that responsibility, to take care of business.”