The season began with a strong showing against Ireland in Marietta, Georgia. In a dramatic contest that saw five lead changes, the US battled to an 18-16 second-half advantage over the Five Nations side, before exceptional Irish goalkicking down the stretch closed out hopes for an unthinkable upset, 25-18. Outscoring the opponent by two tries to one, the Eagles quite impressed the visitors. "Let it be stated that the United States team has improved considerably in many respects, not least technically, from the side which played in Dublin 14 months ago," wrote the dean of Irish rugby reporters, Edmund Van Esbeck, speaking of Ireland's 26-15 victory there.
Next up, the Pacific Rim tournament. Competing for the first time ever in a league of national teams (a league it helped create), the US tallied a 3-3 record in home-and-home matches with Canada, Hong Kong, and Japan in May, June, and early July. Two of the US wins were lopsided -- the total and 69-point spread of July 6's 74-5 win over Japan bested the previous American records set in 1994 -- while all three losses came by less than a try. The US led the Pacific Rim in most tries scored and fewest tries allowed. Either defeating both Hong Kong and Japan on the road or downing Canada in Vancouver (an injury-time loss) would have given the US the Pacific Rim title, but in rebounding from two narrow Asian setbacks to post two blowout wins, the team showed its true standard is improving remarkably fast.
Then came September's the Pan American Championship. More than one-third of July's starting lineup (including flanker and captain Dan Lyle) couldn't play, but the US rallied from a 19-6 deficit before falling to eventual champion Argentina 29-26 in injury time. Host Canada then stunned the Eagles with a late try to claim 23-18 victory (leveling the North America rivalry since 1995 at two wins apiece), but stand-in captain Chris Lippert's troops convincingly downed stubborn Uruguay 27-13 despite playing their third match in eight days. Notwithstanding some uncharacteristic shortcomings, the team wound up just nine points away being the unbeaten champion of the Americas. The defense surrendered the fewest total points, while flyhalf Matt Alexander headed the individual scoring.
The US National Team scored 26 tries and 281 points in 1996, while giving up just 16 tries and 200 points. Alexander wound up with a seasonal total of 133 points from nine games, an American record. Wing Vaea Anitoni set two US marks, totaling 11 tries on the year and notching four in one outing (versus Japan in San Francisco). Hooker Tom Billups and halfback Andre Bachelet, each with 17 caps, set American standards for most international appearances by a player at that position. With 25 caps, Chris Lippert set the record for props and moved into a fourth-place tie on the all-time list.
Meanwhile, 15 rookies (including two collegians) from 10 different clubs debuted at the test level. Locks Luke Gross (Cincinnati Wolfhounds and Harlequins of London) and Alec Parker (Gentlemen of Aspen) looked the pick of the crop. In all, a total of 52 players trained the national team during the course of five assemblies. Thirty-six earned caps.
Looking back on the whole of 1996, Head Coach Jack Clark's third full year brought more exciting steps toward becoming an established power. "We're generally pleased with our progress," Clark noted. "The team has has consistently improved in all facets of play.
"That said, we've set high standards for ourselves, so obviously narrow losses leave us unsatisfied.
"The next step in our development will not be easy, but it will be the step that turns narrow defeats into victories," Clark continued. "There's no mystery to this: It might be as simple as each man on the field eliminating one mistake, while finding one additional positive moment. It's not a matter of if, but when."
The US will next undertake a four-game, one-test tour of Wales in January 1997. Comprising Wales A, Neath, Pontypridd, and Wales, the fixture list is a formidable challenge. The coming year also holds the second Pacific Rim Rugby Championship, in June and July.
In the interim, taking advantage of rugby's new professional era, several US national team players are testing their skills in Great Britain. Recent signings include flanker Dan Lyle (Bath), lock Luke Gross (Harlequins), front rowers Ray Lehner and Tom Billups (Blackheath), and halfback Andre Bachelet (Reading). Front-rowers Chris Lippert and Sean Allen, lock Cliff Vogl, number eight Rob Lumkong, and center Mark Scharrenberg are expected to join the second wave of Americans headed overseas.
Back to the 1997 Schedule...