London – For many a year the rugby world has described the USA Eagles as the sleeping giants of world rugby, a description that occasionally has been ironically ascribed to the Springboks in the professional era.
But the fact remains that the sport is yet to turn professional in North America and if the well-paid Boks cannot beat part-timers, they do not belong in the play-offs of the World Cup.
There have been just three matches between the teams, starting with one of the most bizarre matches in Test history. In 1981, after the Boks had lost an enthralling series to the All Blacks in New Zealand, they stopped off in the US and in a highly secretive match (to avoid protesters) in New York, they played in front of the lowest ever recorded attendance for a Test match – 30. And that comprised the substitutes and officials from both unions, the ball boys and a few security guards. The Boks won 38-7.
The next match was in Houston, Texas, on December 1, 2011, just weeks after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and a week after Harry Viljoen’s Boks had played arguably the most unimaginative rugby the Boks have ever played in losing 29-9 to England.
The Eagles soared that day and there was nothing in at half-time before a forgotten centre by the name of Adrian Jacobs ignited the Boks into winning 43-20.
The third encounter between the sides was in the 2007 World Cup in Montpellier and the Eagles were again valiant in the first half before getting thrashed in the second half to the eventual tune of 64-15.
So much has been expected of the Americans in both the 2011 and 2015 events but the problem is that the game just cannot make the breakthrough to being a professional sport. Finance cannot be attracted away from the big American sports, and playing rugby for the Eagles is still a luxury for most of their players, who have taken leave from day jobs to be at the World Cup.
And among the Eagles’ number is the usual products of families that come from rugby backgrounds now living in the States – Samoans, Tongans, Englishmen, Irishmen and a South African by the name of Kruger. Niku Kruger went to Pretoria Boys’ High and is the son of Afrikaans actor Ben Kruger, who is still performing in South Africa.
Fielding their best possible team at this World Cup, the US could make a decent fist of competing with the Boks for 60 minutes or so but for this match they have picked an unquestionable B team. The same accusation was made against Scotland last week but most of their players coming in for the game were acknowledged to be only arguably worse than the first-choice starters.
But for a second-tier nation such as the US, when the best players are left out of the starting line-up and in many cases out of the match 23, it is obvious, because they have only half a dozen players at European clubs and none of them are starting tonight.
Clearly the US have looked at the fact that in the space of four days they are playing the Boks and then Japan (Sunday) and they have targeted the game they feel will most likely get them their first win of the tournament.
In the history of the World Cup, the US have only won three games but as Americans do, they are talking up their chances of beating the Boks.
Assistant coach Chris O’Brien said: “We have a huge challenge on our hands but we’ve been together for a long time. All the guys playing tomorrow have played for the USA before. We’re going to lace up our boots the same way they do. It’s sport. We’ll go out and give it our best shot.” - The Star