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US rugby in despair after World Cup flop but Eagles insist on signs of hope

In Dubai on Friday night, at a frenetic last-minute ruck, the US prop Jack Iscaro conceded the penalty Portugal kicked for a 16-16 draw, enough to secure a place at the Rugby World Cup in France and condemn the Eagles to watch from home.

The Americans were in the final qualification tournament because in Colorado in July they lost a similarly tight game to Chile. Then, a last-minute penalty that might’ve saved the game was reversed, because the prop Chance Wenglewski made an illegal clear-out.

Wenglewski, 25, is a product of Lindenwood University in Missouri who plays for New York, the champions of Major League Rugby. Iscaro, 22, played at California Berkeley and now props for Old Glory DC. Both have come through top college programmes to play for pay at home. Neither is experienced in Test rugby, Wenglewski with 10 caps, Iscaro just two.

Now is perhaps their darkest hour but such misadventures can befall any player and are there to be learned from. Wenglewski and Iscaro could be key members of Eagles squads through to the 2031 World Cup, eight years from now, which will take place on American soil. At 33 and 30, injuries and form allowing, they could be in their propping prime. There isn’t a prop in world rugby who hasn’t experienced his or her fair share of horrible things. It’s the whole point. They like it.

Another Eagles prop, David Ainu’u, spoke to reporters after the Portugal game. Born in American Samoa, he is also just 22 but has seen a bit more of the world, with 20 caps and a contract with Toulouse.

Ainu’u said: “If we were in a situation where I didn’t feel like the boys gave every bit of effort, every bit of grit and blood, sweat and tears on that field, I think I would feel something else. But I think right now, it’s just the game. It came down to a small decision and I can’t blame the boys. Every single one of those guys that stepped on that field gave all they could and we were just the unlucky ones at the end of the day.”

The huge lock Greg Peterson, who plays for Newcastle, rumbled a bit about the penalty against the Eagles at an attacking five-metre scrum, at 16-13, which allowed Portugal to race upfield.

“I think they’ve matched our scrum and our maul really well so credit to them,” he said. “They really made leaps and bounds from their previous games. We were quite good in terms of penalty count except probably the last 20 minutes. And yeah, it just came down to a few things in that last couple of minutes … the ref gave it to the other side at the scrum five but that’s just sport, isn’t it.”

It’s also just sport that the Eagles’ coaching may change. Gary Gold, once a South Africa assistant, later of London Irish, Newcastle and Worcester, oversaw results including a first win over a tier-one team, Scotland in 2018. But since Covid wrecked 2020, nothing has been straightforward. Through qualifying losses to Uruguay and Chile, a 100-point hiding from New Zealand and on to Dubai, there has been a sense of a team unable to escape their fate.

In Dubai, Gold was assisted by Mario Ledesma, once an Argentina hooker and head coach, John Plumtree, recently on the All Blacks staff, and another well-traveled New Zealander, Stephen Brett. Despite all that experience, it wasn’t to be.

Congratulating Portugal on a “well-fought game”, Gold said: “There aren’t many words for how gutted this group feels right now. Both teams played an intense 80 minutes with high emotions. This one just didn’t fall our way.

“I can’t overstate how proud I am of the players and staff, regardless of result. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves and our capabilities over the last year when the qualification journey first began, and these harsh lessons are ones we’ll lean on going forward.

Rafael Simoes of Portugal rides a tackle from Kapeli Pifeleti, the USA hooker.
Rafael Simoes of Portugal rides a tackle from Kapeli Pifeleti, the USA hooker. Photograph: Martin Dokoupil/World Rugby/Getty Images

“This last tour was special as we had a number of new players put their hand up, debut on the world stage and provide some promise for the future. We definitely left some point opportunities on the field tonight, which is always a tough reflection in a close game. However, there was no effort spared and from that we can walk away knowing we gave it our all.”

Teams who have won the Rugby World Cup are of course of an entirely different order to this American squad, who will watch France 2023 on TV. But there is something in common: crushing disappointment often precedes success.

Many of the England players who lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in Sydney in 2003 lost a quarter-final to South Africa four years before. Plenty of New Zealanders who won in Auckland in 2011 (and London four years later) were in Cardiff in 2007 when France ran away with the game. Many of the Springboks who won the final in Tokyo four years ago lost a semi to New Zealand in 2015.

Undoubtedly, American rugby faces dark days. MLR is unsettled, contracts abroad hard to find and tricky to keep. There are no prizes for coming second. The road to 2031 will be brutally tough. But immediately after the deadly draw in Dubai, the Eagles’ captain, the Bristol fly-half AJ MacGinty, suggested all is not necessarily lost.

“It was seconds away from us,” he said. “It’s our second time tasting that sort of defeat. It’s sore, but we gave it our best shot … I’m really proud of the squad, the group, all the coaches for the amount of time that’s gone into putting us in the best position for this. It was almost there.”

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