Tour of Wales Diary
News and feature stories provide a glimpse of the team's January 1997 Tour of Wales, its first overseas venture since traveling to Ireland in 1994, and first visit to Wales since 1987.
(Houston, Texas) 26 December 1996 -- Not even one of the toughest traveling days of the year stopped the US National Team from arriving in Houston on schedule today.
Mustering from cities all over the country, more than two-thirds of the squad wished one other "happy holidays" and got right to business of preparing for the team's four-game tour of Wales. (The rest of the players, including flanker and captain Dan Lyle, are currently playing in Great Britain and will meet the team upon its Saturday morning landing in London.) The excitement was obvious.
Following a light meal, the US trained hard for about 90 minutes at the floodlight football field of St. Pius X, a local high school that's won ten Texas state championships. After chatting briefly with local supporters, the players returned to the Hyatt Regency, where they received Land's End tour gear, from winter parkas to dress clothes. Reebok training and match gear will be individually sized and issued tomorrow.
Following another practice on Friday morning, the team will depart Houston for London Gatwick, landing on Saturday morning and heading by coach directly to Cardiff. The first match, against Wales 'A' in Newport, will be less than 72 hours away.
"Our US-based players are all here, and we made a good start on all fronts," US Tour Manager Michael de Jong commented following training and a subsequent staff meeting. "But I won't be happy until I see the rest of the boys in London, and we're all safely in Cardiff."
(Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean) 27 December 1996 -- From ruck and maul drills and defensive work to negotiating crowded Houston Intercontinental Airport, it's been a long day. But now the tour is fully underway.
Right after breakfast, players drew Reebok training and match gear, before heading back to St. Pius X for another practice session. Assistant coaches George Betzler and Dan Porter made sure not a moment was wasted.
Training in fact ran long, squeezing lunchtime up against the 3pm checkout.
Dressed in number 2s (khakis, polos, and parkas -- in preparation for landing in cool weather), the team boarded vans and headed for the airport. Jerseys, balls and bags, medical supplies, and gear to be issued to the boys assembling in London piled up alongside players' luggage at the check-in counter. Christmas travelers were bemused, and offered best wishes for the trip.
Sometime soon the plane will land. Then it's onto a bus, down to Cardiff, and straight onto the practice field. Jet lag be damned, there's work to be done.
(Cardiff, Wales) 28-29 December 1996 -- Finally, down to business.
Safely landing in London on Saturday morning, the tour party met teammates who have been living in Britain (flanker and captain Dan Lyle and seven others) and immediately boarded a coach for Cardiff. Arriving in the Welsh capital early that afternoon, the troops headed right back out for a sunny but wintry training session.
The rest of the day was given over to fighting off jet-lag.
Though Sunday proved a touch warmer, the National Institute of Sport's practice field remained frozen, forcing the squad to don sneakers at its morning workout. (On Saturday, the December freeze had forced postponement of most Heineken League [Division I] games.) By the afternoon session, however, the ground has improved enough for the forwards to hit the Rhino scrummaging machine.
Back at the hotel, the boys settled into center city's stately Park Hotel, located close by Queen Street, a popular pedestrians-only shopping center. News of the NFL playoffs trickled in, but BBC rugby highlights dominated the tv screens. Meanwhile, prop Bill LeClerc, the tour treasurer, began raking in fines for such offenses as failing to wear a collared shirt to dinner.
The Americans had come to look, and play, the part of an international rugby team.
(Cardiff, Wales) -- Culminating in an official reception hosted by the Wales Rugby Union at the National Stadium in Cardiff, the team's day built ever more steadily toward the Wales 'A' match in two days' time.
Duty boys Mark Williams and Vaea Anitoni rose early to wake their mates with a cup of coffee or tea, stylishly offered (in coat and tie) to each room. Following breakfast, the US squad returned to the National Institute of Sport for a muddy but productive training session that included the first serious treatment of match strategy. Practice ended just before a lunchtime snow flurry.
Management picked the team for Wales 'A' around 1:30, learning in the meantime that the venue had been changed to the National Stadium from Newport. Intended to offset a frost that forced cancellation of most the Welsh Heineken League games last weekend, the switch means that the USA's first game has now been scheduled for three different venues: Swansea, Newport, and Cardiff. It also means the team will get a look at the national ground before the January 11 test.
In the evening, WRU President Sir Tasker Watkins officially welcomed the United States to Wales with a complimentary speech that nonetheless bemused listeners who know America is a "multicultural" society, and caused players (dressed in number ones) to long for their postponed dinner. Clark followed with thanks for a gracious welcome, reminding the hosts that 1 of every 11 Americans (25 millions worth) is foreign-born.
Prop Ray Lehner sustained the day's biggest fine, a hefty charge leveled for a prohibited trade. "The story's grown since it got started," he said in passing, distracted by the first match, now less than 40 hours away.
(Cardiff, Wales) 31 December 1996 -- Replicating the match day schedule, December 31 brought a morning off from training, as players turned their attention to mental preparation. Cardiff's preoccupation with New Year's Eve was lost on the US team.
The 2:30 walk-thru was actually held "next door" on Cardiff RFC's frozen ground, since the National Stadium's meticulous staff famously discourages all but game-day use of the field. Only the US kickers got onto the pitch, which is warmed from below.
As game time crept nearer, Welsh fans began stopping players on the street to offer greetings and sometimes ask for autographs. The entire team signed a ball for a charity auction to benefit a leukemia foundation.
After dinner, captain Dan Lyle handed out game jerseys, presenting center Boydy Wikeepa, wing Brian Hightower, reserve flyhalf Ian Stevens and reserve fullback Chris Morrow their first Eagle jumpers. You could see the stoke.
"Enjoy these last few hours before the game," Lyle told his teammates. "We know what we have to do."